New York

Mario Merz

Sperone Westwater Fischer

Mario Merz’s most recent exhibition in New York suggested concept fatigue and a certain loss of faith. Since he became known in Europe during the mid-’60s along with others associated with Arte Povera, Merz has constructed his art from a belief whose deities are a concrete materiality and an abstract, ethics-imbued organizing principle. This principle has developed in an additive way according to an expansive blueprint for which Kurt Schwitters’ never-completed Merzbau provides a structural paradigm, and whose “rooms” are filled with Jungian echoes, Fibonacci’s 13th-century mathematical model of organic growth patterns, and a modern philosophy of humanism somewhat similar to Buckminster Fuller’s. Spirals and geodesic “igloo” structures, separate and combined, have dominated most of Merz’s installations since the early ’70s, usually juxtaposed with various other found or concocted elements which have included neon conduits and numbers, paintings and drawings, old raincoats, stuffed alligators, shards of glass, heaps of newspapers, and spoiling foodstuffs—universal and atavistic signifiers of shelter and biological survival zapped with postindustrial conductors of cool energy, amid the organic, warm detritus of life.

Merz’s visible philosophy and the nearly palpable deliberation with which he juxtaposes ingredients have lent his installations a deeply reverberant chemistry wherein the concrete assumes a spirituality and the ephemeral, the theoretical, is pinned down to a time and place and is revealed. The Double Igloo, for instance, shown here in 1979, had a rich ambient presence. Though structurally ascetic, its materials (including glass, clay, and neon) were earthly and sensuous, and the experience of the whole was both and equally a sensory pleasure and a call to contemplation. This chemical balance also denoted a fusion of Classicism and Naturalism; Merz, in fact, is a Caravaggisto of sorts. His “awkward” juxtapositions and their formal rigor are analagous to Caravaggio’s use of pictorial “vulgarisms” in a painting like St. Matthew and the Angel, whose weary saint with dirty feet once provoked a furor. Merz’s use of light, theatrical and artificial, also echoes Caravaggio’s pattern of chiaroscuro and lends an aura of grandeur to that which is commonly perceived as mundane.

This installation, whose centerpiece was an enormous glass spiral table laden with produce, disappointed. Merz’s usual devices and signifiers (spiral, comestibles, dried branches with beeswax) were present but looked as though made according to formula and therefore neutered, even vestigial. The installation as a whole made the impression of a demonstration, didactic as always, but a bit defensive and, one suspects, without Merz’s direct attentiveness.

The paintings on canvas and paper that made up the rest of the exhibition also lacked resonance. In a stylish, graffiti-ish hand, these sketchy paintings of vegetables and animals (some with neon lances) strain to establish correspondences, such as that between atavistic notation (cave drawings) and contemporary calligraphic modes (Cy Twombly and urban graffiti). Only one painting, a spiral, had the earthbound composure that so often has characterized Merz’s work. Whimsically titled “Prehistoric Wind from Icy Mountains,” this exhibition offered much prettiness to the eye, little of real beauty to the mind.

Lisa Liebmann