Los Angeles

Gerhard Merz

Gerhard Merz has built a reputation in recent years with a series of site-specific installations that attempt to realize the utopian Modernist dream of a formalism that fuses art and architecture in a seamless, nonutilitarian whole. While this seems at first glance to be a hopelessly nostalgic yearning for the “total” art epitomized by the art-for-art’s-sake movements of the early 20th century, Merz introduces enough contradictory elements to create a visually provocative, if theoretically futile work.

Archipittura, 1992, Merz’s recent installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was a logical step in this development, combining the dual elements of architecture (architettura, in Italian) and painting (pittura). A large room was split into unequal “halves” by an open-ended dividing wall, which allowed the viewer to walk around it but never to view all of the walls of the room at once. Each face of the divider featured an identical black mural with a surrounding white border. Approximately one-third of the way in from the left edge, a vertical, stainless steel bar suggested a three-dimensional Barnett Newman stripe or a Mies van der Rohe structural reference to an I-beam. This architectural grid was further reinforced by the overhead lighting (neon tubes arranged in parallel pairs at 90-degree angles to the wall) and concrete floor (interlocking rectangles).

Merz’s debt to the International Style was underlined by a large inscription, on one of the facing perimeter walls, which stated: “FOR LUDWIG MIES VAN DER ROHE LESS IS MORE MCMXCII.” The opposite wall, which featured a square glass panel suspended away from the surface in stainless steel mounts, opened onto a smaller anteroom which Merz calls a “studiolo” or study. This housed a smaller, dark-ocher canvas that not only suggested an equivalent to the mural in the form of an easel painting, but also replaced the vertical bar with an oversize, stainless steel T-square. The interior and exterior rooms thus established a complementary formal interplay of painterly and architectural vocabularies, so that any initial binary relationships were blurred if not dissolved.

By encouraging the viewer to interact bodily with the space-as-painting and painting-as-space, Merz seemed to be referencing El Lissitzky’s “Proun” installations of the mid ’20s, in which painterly surface and sculptural volume metamorphosed according to the viewer’s changing position. However, Lissitzky’s program was rooted in a practical, utilitarian, constructivist ideology in which painting and architecture were inseparable from a program of revolutionary socialism. Anchoring his work in the reifying, esthetic sphere of the museum, Merz appears to be deliberately eschewing any wider social agenda. This resorting to a purist estheticism thus aligns Merz with a Kantian/Greenbergian formalism, rooted in Platonic ideals of transcendental form. Ironically, it also allies Merz with the retardataire Neo-Classicism of Carlo Maria Mariani, whose retrospective coincidentally occupied the galleries next door. Strange, but appropriate bedfellows indeed.

Colin Gardner