Museum  August 12, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Remembering the Alchemy of Marisa Merz

courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019

Marisa Merz, Fontana (Fountain), 2007. Lead, motor, stone, water and copper wire, 7 1/16 × 31 1/2 × 21 5/8 inches. Courtesy the Collection of Leo Katz.

Last month, the art world mourned the loss of Marisa Merz, the only female artist associated with the Arte Povera movement. Merz, who died in her native Turin at 93, was known for her unconventional use of materials and processes. Through her transformative touch and uncanny ability to turn the mundane into unexpected works of evocative beauty.

courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019

Marisa Merz, Senza titolo (Untitled), c. 1985. Wood, lead, and wax, 33 7/16 × 9 13/16 × 3 1/2 inches. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York & Brussels. Purchased with the Contemporary Art Revolving Fund, 2015.

Born in 1926, she met her match in fellow artist Mario Merz (1925-2003), who she married in 1960. Together they were major figures in a movement that elevated everyday objects, experiences and materials to the realm of art. 

Coined in 1967 by Italian art critic Germano Celant, Arte Povera was considered a radical attack on the institutionalized art world. For the Merz’s and their Italian contemporaries, merging art and life was essential, and they applied this ethos to all areas of their work, philosophies, and relationships. Emphasizing process over product, almost any event or action could be considered a potential artistic process. In this way, Arte Povera helped usher in a deeply personal era of post-War art, where art was part of and not elevated above daily life.

Merz used her art to document her everyday experiences as a wife and mother, a topic that was groundbreaking at the time. She also made use of craft techniques, like weaving and knitting, methods that were typically relegated to ‘women’s work.’ Combined with her use of more industrial materials, like aluminum, copper wire, and unfired clay, her works navigate the space between private and public, delicate and indestructible, feminine and masculine.

flickr/Billie Grace Ward

Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space installed at the Met Breuer in 2017

Her practice was large and varied, creating drawings, paintings, and collages in addition to sculpture, and later exploring written texts, installations, and performance art. Despite the fact that she rarely titled or dated her works, the one thing present throughout her diverse works is her unmistakable voice.

In the current installation of her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, opening this week, her unique language forged in symbols and materials is easily heard. Subtle and delicate but unwavering, she returned to the female figure, musical instruments, and fountains throughout her career. The objects intrigue us, drawing us in to examine their delicate details. We wonder at the new life she gives to materials we recognize from the ordinary world. Likewise, her references to daily life imbue common experiences with a new mystery.

wikimedia commons/Liechtensteinische Post AG

2010 Stamp commemorating the Liechtenstein Museum of Art, featuring Marisa Merz 's Testa (1987/88)

Through her unique vision, Merz turned common materials and forms into evocative, magical objects, and her talent and voice will be missed.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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