Mario Merz

Mario Merz’s large-scale retrospective here was a kind of work of art in its own right—a platform for discussion, seeking not so much affirmation of a career as a farsighted perspective on new dimensions of creativity. The dynamic proliferation, the breaking of boundaries, that so deeply characterize Merz’s work were also the essential quality of the installation as a whole. Consequently, the individual works were squeezed together in such a way that they appeared to want to force themselves on each other and reproduce, independently of the artist’s control. Each individual work did maintain its specific gestalt and presence, but, seen in overview, it merged constantly with its surroundings in a complex web of tensions. Thus the works appeared as discrete elements in an unbounded whole, particles in a vision or idea ordered not in a hierarchical sense but in a progressive, utopian one. Here we were of course dealing with the concept of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” the “total art work,” as promoted and staged by Harald Szeemann, the organizer of the exhibition. In this approach to the Gesamtkunstwerk the vision or idea grows out of the sensual experience of the work rather than dominating the whole as a form-giving intellectual structure.

The powerful fascination of Merz’s works derives in large measure from their grounding in the handicrafts and from the ease with which he combines the simplest of materials into significant constructions. For instance, when he uses clay with glass, one function of the clay may be to protect a sharp corner or edge, but it may also work as a kind of putty. As a building material clay is dense enough to hold things together, but sufficiently pliant to also allow for changes in the construction. Clay and glass in Merz’s work are in themselves and in respect to one another in a state of constant flow, a flow that cannot be perceived with the naked eye but is nonetheless real and tangible. The solid construction begins to move, in a sense to breathe, as we contemplate it. At this point the structure takes on meaning; space and time enter the game, creating “timespaces” Unexpectedly, the “vento preistorico dalle montagne gelate” (prehistoric wind from the icy mountains)—the title of a group of newer works—blows through the room; nature becomes a way of knowing culture, and culture leads us to a deeper understanding of nature. The polarity between then and now, history and the present, here and there, and the painful rupture between nature and culture are acutely examined. But they are not presented as unbridgeable chasms. They appear, rather, as a wide open field for creative discourse, a landscape over which the arc of the Fibonacci series vaults like the heavens: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89. . . . This series, discovered by a medieval Italian mathematician, has become a kind of guide for Merz, because its thrust into infinite finitude is so clearly and firmly rooted: each number is the sum of the preceding two numbers, each calls out to be wedded to its predecessor. No matter to what unimaginable heights, depths, or breadths the progression is pursued, it always remains anchored in the easily comprehensible, trivial equation, 1+1=2. Sameness is repeated in evernew forms, which, despite their similarity, are constantly invested with new meaning, a meaning that carries its entire development in itself by virtue of the underlying principle of the series. Expressions in nature of this mathematical principle—such as the spiral shell of the snail, or the distribution of seeds in a pine cone, both of which Merz treats in a visual, associative manner—make the idea perceptible, and turn perception into flights of imagination. Here intuition and intelligence join together in a concrete act: Que fare?—what to do?—is not a rhetorical question for Merz, but an occasion for committed action.

In this exhibition intuition and intelligence united in numerous igloos, a progression of tables, and Ur-animals of heaped and bundled brushwood perforated by neon lights, all alongside Merz’s earlier paintings and objects. In short, the entire Merzian universe was exhibited in an unbelievably concentrated form, which could no longer be viewed as just an esthetic phenomenon. His work here became a powerful energy field, a true field of thought from which varied paths led off into unexplored terrain.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.