New York

Mario Merz

The first thing that strikes me about this exhibition is that it is one of the best uses of the Guggenheim space that has ever been made by an artist. Over and over again the works reflect the museum’s spiral, which at its base implies a macrocosmic infinity and at its apex a microcosmic one, its movement linking the two. Merz frequently employs a similar spiral in, among other places, the microcosmic, two-dimensional igloos. The key difference is that in Frank Lloyd Wright’s structure, the romantic sublime still lives, existing in all its difficult, idiosyncratic glory; in Merz, it has become a matter-of-fact code. Indeed, the Fibonacci series, used repeatedly by Merz, is, in effect, a mathematical quantification of spiral movement, a theoretical way of articulating it that forecloses on the experience of it as an opening to the infinite. Merz’s igloo stabilizes what exists unstably in Wright’s building.

Materially, Merz’s works are a mix of prehistoric (natural) and historic (manufactured) materials, ranging from fruits, vegetables, hay, stone, and wood to neon tubes, glass, Plexiglas, and metal. These opposites are typically combined in one hybrid structure, as though only their reconciliation can solve the ecological problem that confronts us all, and that Merz’s art engages as its main interest. Indeed, some of the works look like neoindustrial altars on which part of the abundant harvest of organic life is being offered, in a gesture at once of thanksgiving and sacrifice—a gesture made after the apocalypse, in gratitude for the fact that it has not completely ruined nature and society. What makes Merz’s work seem post-apocalyptic (rather than pre-apocalyptic, like much current end-of-the-millenium art) is the way it is built from the relics of both nature and the modern industrial world in an urgent resurrection.

Carrying the ecological interpretation further, one could argue that Merz’s obsession with the igloo represents an effort to return to and rearticulate what D.W. Winnicott has called the “good enough environment”—the caring maternal world. Is it too bizarre to say that the igloo is the primitive good breast, reconceived in a mix of modern and natural materials and reimagined out of the great, infantile neediness and helplessness to which modernity has unexpectedly reduced us? In this reading, the igloo is all that is left of the Madonna in the modern world, and Merz may be seen as a traditional Italian artist in modern dress. His works share a utopian tendency, evident even in their material. The igloo is a hortus conclusus—an embodiment of the mythical paradise—which we may not be able to enter, an issue articulated in the title of Do We Walk Around Houses or Do Houses Walk Around Us?, 1985. We do not know if we are on the outside or the inside any longer, so confused have nature and society become: we do not know where paradise might be located.

Merz’s art, with its profoundly moral character, seems parallel to Joseph Beuys’. In certain works, Merz uses wax in a way that recalls Beuys’ use of fat; elsewhere he employs piles of newspapers in a way that directly suggests Beuys. In general, Merz has a Beuyslike flair with and respect for the magical connotations of materials, both raw and found. His work does not have quite the same alchemical pretension as Beuys’, but it exhibits the same sense of the inherently enigmatic character of physical matter. Merz can also be compared to Robert Smithson, who posed another important solution to the problem of the relationship between nature and society. He had a similar obsession with the prehistoric, an interest in making each work a universal statement, and a determination to transcend modern fragmentation. Merz integrates fragments in a gestalt structure—he acts as though he is laboriously reconstructing, even reinventing, the gestalt, testing its durability, reality, universality, and unity in the very process of manipulating it—whereas Smithson tried to rise above fragmentation through a more self-evidently fixed, axiomatic, predetermined gestalt structure.

One can, I think, safely ignore many of the witty, kibbitzing social commentary works, such as Untitled, 1988, in which a telephone is placed on a pillow, the receiver left dangling, and the whole is elevated on a high iron pedestal. Similarly, a piece letting us know Christ has left the cross is cleverly pointed but oddly self-defeating, without resonance, after its quicky/quirky statement. Merz makes his mark through his poetic structures and extraordinary paintings, rather than through such prosaic, pop-shot editorializing. At its best, his work is a truly grand statement of civilization and its discontents and of nature and its delights—a world in which reality and pleasure principles seem ingeniously balanced.

Donald Kuspit