Marisa Merz

Once again Marisa Merz has managed to astonish. Her solo exhibitions are not only rare but so full of unexpected formal and intellectual turns that when a new show comes along her admirers rush to see what she’s come up with. On this occasion, as usual, a surprise was in store for those who had anticipated a grouping of small sculptures similar to those the artist recently exhibited in Paris. Merz has often turned to portraiture to animate her three-dimensional pieces, but here her interest in the theme led back to painting, that is, two-dimensional images meant to be contemplated from a single viewpoint.

But Merz’s return to the specificity of pictorial language is paved with transgressive intentions. Thus a series of untitled “canvases,” 2001, were in reality squares of iron installed on the wall at a height well above eye level, so that viewers had to crane their necks to look at them. The process involved in making these portraits was equally unconventional. First the artist applied blotches of gold spray paint on the metal surface. These golden stains indicate, with extremely concise gestures, the oval of the face and the general area of the eyes and mouth. Their color naturally and immediately calls to mind Byzantine icons, the dignity of a tradition in which depiction was the springboard for meditation on the divine, and the transcendence that gold symbolizes. Merz’s gold is related instead to our human horizon yet still bears a luster that evokes a nobility somehow greater than that of the common iron support. Then the artist carved definite, if barely perceptible irregular hes and curves into the metal, adumbrating eyes and lips and the outlines of the face. To these cuts she added other lines, made with either blue or black grease pencil, thereby superimposing on something perdurable—the carved lines—an element that is more spontaneous, almost aleatory, and that is barely hinted at with a lightly drawn stroke. What is most surprising is the artist’s ability to submit these meager signs to a strongly expressive function. Yet there was also something alienating about the expressiveness of these portraits, because, in the end, we had to look up to view them so high on the wall. Bathed in the aura of their own golden light, they seemed more like hieratic masks than faces, totemic apparitions rather than actual people.

The choice of a primitivist language, or in any case of an idiom that recalls the archaic, has long been a distinctive feature of Merz’s art. Her work went through a period of militant activism, within the context of arte povera, when she became known for her innovative commingling of clearly contemporary elements with others that seemed sedimented in the collective cultural memory. Merz continues to invent new forms and reinvent those left by tradition, as she has done here with the idea of the portrait.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.