New York

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 2010, mixed media on paper, 98 1/2 x 59 1/8".

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 2010, mixed media on paper, 98 1/2 x 59 1/8".

Marisa Merz

Marisa Merz, Untitled, 2010, mixed media on paper, 98 1/2 x 59 1/8".

Marisa Merz’s name is better known than her work is, at least in the United States. A founding figure of Arte Povera and its only woman artist, she began to exhibit in Italy in the late 1960s, but her first solo show in New York—or anywhere in this country, for that matter—didn’t come until 1994 and was followed by a bare handful of repeats. Her last show in this city, in 2010, contained all of two pieces, and the one before that was back in 2006, so many in New York will have had little direct exposure to her. This may be in part her own doing: She has a reputation as an artist whose way of dealing with the division between art and life—famously an issue in Arte Povera—has been to work at home and stay there. She’s now in her early eighties, and a winner of the 2013 Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement. We are very late in catching up with her.

Merz’s sensibility is apparently light and playful, her techniques apparently casual—a couple of works here involved paper clips—but her art’s relaxed elegance is not accidental. Among her strengths is her facility across media, and this show had the virtue of including a range of her work: drawings, objects on both pedestals and floor, and paintings both large and small. Most of the paintings were in the smaller-size group, among them a series of heads from 2012 and 2013 on wood panels all less than a foot square, but the largest included a pair of figures, from 2010, both works over eight feet tall. Even here, though, Merz seemed to avoid the grand statement by working not on canvas but on paper. Similarly, one of the floor pieces, Fontana (Fountain), 2007, is an uneven rectangular sheet of thin lead, folded up at the sides, crimped at the corners, and filled with water; simply accoutred, less than three feet long, and suggesting something like a paper boat with the water inside instead of out, this was a wittily low-key addition to the grand and ancient tradition of the fountain.

That puncturing of aesthetic tradition through a deliberately unassuming object is deceptively modest, of course, for it amounts to a redefinition of what is aesthetic—a redefinition commonly claimed for the Arte Povera artists, who moved away from the traditional media of fine art to focus on the “poor” stuff of everyday life. Merz’s materials aren’t always so poor—those here included gold leaf and copper—but her treatment of them is delicate and unshowy. Even when the work forgoes overt signs of the hand’s touch, it seems sensuous and tactile, and one piece—the show’s earliest, from 1970, a triangle of needlelike iron filaments bearing a fuzzy coil of nylon thread—specifically indexes the hand, and in particular the female hand, in evoking knitting or crocheting. The personal and domestic displace the modes of “high” art.

The show moved around in time, including good-size drawings from 1996 and a selection of small pottery heads from the 1990s and from 2009. One bare, the others touched with paint and gold leaf, these clay objects had smooth, seal-like shapes, the necks almost as wide as the skulls, that reappeared in the recent paintings, which sometimes showed neck and head as little more differentiated than a length of finger. This almost-abstract form, made figural by rudimentary eyes and a mouth, spoke of an impulse to represent through the simplest means possible, but Merz is also capable of the paired eight-foot-tall paintings, rich in transparencies and pentimenti and nothing if not graceful. They seemed to be a male and female couple, and were set together, leaning informally against the wall. Among the clay heads, too, was a pair set in a kiss on the same iron tripod. In these works, the sense of intimacy and tenderness implicit throughout the show came clearly into view.

David Frankel