Marisa Merz at Hammer

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The past twenty years have seen a great surge of attention by curators and historians towards the understudied, undervalued, underrecognized work of women. Not all deserve the renewed attention but a new exhibition at the Hammer is devoted to an artist who certainly does. Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space, organized by Connie Butler, is the first U.S. retrospective of the Italian artist’s wide ranging sculpture, drawings and ceramics from the 1960s to the present.

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Marisa Merz, Living Sculpture, 1966. Aluminum. Overall displayed dimensions variable. Tate, London. Purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor 2009. Image ©Tate London, 2015.

Marisa Merz (b. 1926) and her better known husband MarioMerz were among a group of Italian artists working with a range of materials so distinctly without intrinsic value that the artist critic Germano Celant called it arte povera, impoverished art. Like other artists of the 1960s Post-Minimal era, they departed from hard edged rectilinearity while also embracing the systems and ideas of the first Conceptual artists.

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Marisa Merz, Living Sculpture, 1966. Aluminum and paint. 138 1/4 × 104 × 71 in. (351.2 × 264.2 × 180.3 cm). Art Institute Chicago; Acquisition purchased through prior gifts of Adeline Yates and Fowler McCormick; Wilson L. Mead fund.

Merz was a part of this group as her husband’s partner on some projects and on her own, though it took longer for her own work to be recognized. In 1960, they had a daughter, Beatrice, and much of Marisa Merz’s earliest work was made with a domestic orientation. In the Turin apartment where she still lives, she subversively employed the techniques and materials of traditional women’s work in poetic yet powerful works of art. A telling example is in the first gallery of the show. The first three letters of her daughter’s name BEA are knitted in nylon and needles remain embedded in them. The poignant 1968 piece is mounted on the wall.

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Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1997. Paraffin, lead, copper wire, water, motor. 3 1/2 × 33 1/16 × 34 5/8 in. (9 × 84 × 88 cm). Fondazione per l’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea CRT,on loan to Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Torino. Photo: Paolo Pellion.

The greatest impact of the exhibition, however, is in the skeins of loosely coiled aluminum strips that are are suspended from the ceiling like chandeliers. Called Living Sculpture, they reflect light with a panache at odds with their humble materials. Informal yet dramatic, they anchor the show, which includes a great number of delightfully enigmatic drawings, often of stylized female faces, and small models of unfired clay, mostly in the rough shape of a head, or testa. Some are painted with a metallic gold paint that she also used in paintings and drawings.

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Marisa Merz, Untitled, n.d. Graphite, metallic paint, watercolor, ink, tempera, and pencil on paper. 11 5/8 ×  8 1/8 in. (29.5 × 20.5 cm). Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Archivio Merz. Photo: Renato Ghiazza.

One group of the little heads is mounted on a lustrous square of wax, poured for this specific installation at the Hammer, that practically fills the gallery. Wax, with its malleable, organic and metaphorical qualities is also used by Merz in a series of small fountains placed around the exhibition and burbling away as they might in the courtyard of an Italian palazzo. Merz embraced the elements of chance and opportunity in her mode of creation and installation. She didn’t like to date her work to fight against the notion of linear progression and influence. Motifs are repeated along with the use of certain materials. Flexibility is the leitmotif, a quality that women historically and traditionally have had to embrace.

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Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space, Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 4–August 20, 2017. Photo: Brian Forrest.

It is an exhibition of exceptional quality organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hammer, whose curator Connie Butler has made such shows something of a specialty. Just when you think that the history of modern art is exhausted, that there are no new discoveries, Marissa Merz ’s art is a corrective, altering our views of past and future. It is on view through August. 20.