The Sky is a Great Space
New York, 945 Madison Avenue
Marisa Merz: The Sky is a Great Space will be the first opening of the new year at the Met Breuer on January 24th, 2017. This will be the first premier retrospective in the United States of the Italian artist. The exhibition will span five decades of work from early experimentation to her mid-career installations, up to her signature Teste [Heads] series from later in her career. Merz gained prominence from being associated with the Arte Povera, translated as “Poor Art,” movement in Italy during the 1960s along with her husband, Mario Merz. Although her husband was also an artist working in the same collective, they maintained separate successful careers, often influencing each other’s work. Through the ideals of Arte Povera, they rejected the postwar wealth of Italy, opting to use “poor” materials and promoted returning to simple objects and messages which make the everyday meaningful.
Marisa Merz once said, “There has never been any division between my life and my work.” Her art had always been in direct conversation with her life experience. This is apparent in her alliance with Arte Povera and her feminist twist on combining influence from her home life with the raw, hard materials she used to create work. She was politically opposed to the affluence of Italy's postwar wealth, and so resolutely bonded with Arte Povera's ideals. The influence of Arte Povera and of her colleagues is evident in her work, as is the perspective only she could bring to the movement as a woman. Marisa was the only female of the collective and one of the only female artists in Italy working in such distinguished international institutions. As a woman, her experience with preconceived gender roles permeated her work. Merz's work addresses gender normative practices such as knitting or weaving, juxtaposing them against industrial materials. She utilized what is perceived as domestic crafts and executed them using raw materials such as metal, clay, or fabric. She was influenced increasingly by feminism as her career forged ahead in a predominately male-dominated circle.
Merz was ahead of her time with her use of installation methods. She would integrate space into her work causing the materials and their environment to interact. Her pieces stood alone individually, but the entire room could be composed into one holistic experience. One of her quintessential pieces, Untitled (Living Sculpture) (1966), has a home at the Tate Modern. In this piece, massive strips of aluminum spiral and coil from the ceiling, as if reaching out to integrate with the space like fingers grasping at air.
During the mid-70s, Merz began her Heads series in which she roughly molded small versions of heads, presented unfired. Their simplicity and abstract nature convey a hue of mystery. Since the Heads debuted in the 80s, they have become emblematic of the artist’s late work.
Although this may be the first substantial exhibition of Merz in the United States, the Met Breuer is keenly adept at retrospectives. The modernist architecture of the building and the vastness of their galleries hold much potential to cater to the variety of media and scale Merz has to offer. The museum holds all the tools to deliver an immersive experience into the life, and thus the work, of Marisa Merz. Marisa Merz will succeed the Diane Arbus: In the Beginning exhibition at the Met Breuer, linking together influential women figures in modern art. Although likely unforeseen by the Met when they commissioned the show, the time to exhibit women artists has become even more urgent as the exhibition's host country careens into a political era that has begun to turn the clock back on women's rights. Presenting a female artist who was influenced by feminism and collided perceived feminine practices with industrial materials delivers a refreshing reminder of barriers broken in the past and the drive to continue that momentum.
On view through May 7, 2017
Jasa McKenzie is a New York-based curator. She is currently a fellow of the MA Curatorial Practice program at the School of Visual Arts. She is also a multimedia artist working with themes of femininity and the human form.