Merz at The Met… Breuer

Earlier this week, The Met Breuer opened “Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space,” the first major retrospective in the United States devoted to the Italian painter, sculptor and installation artist and her five decades of work.

Merz, born in Turin in 1926, is introduced through early experiments with nontraditional materials – her bold “Untitled (Living Sculptures),” massive works fashioned out of sheet metal, give visitors quite the dramatic introduction at the exhibition’s start. The show goes on to explore her ever-evolving work in its many facets.

The exhibition was detailed in press materials in the following way:

“Merz gained international prominence as part of the circle of artists associated with Arte Povera in the 1960s. An avant-garde movement that rejected Italy’s postwar material wealth in favor of ‘poor’ materials, Arte Povera was identified with the radicalism of the student movement but proclaimed no stylistic or ideological credo except the negation of existing codes and art world limitations. As the sole female protagonist of the movement and one of the few Italian women at the time to present her work in major international venues, she showed a practice that was inflected by gender and cultural differences. Merz’s challenging and evocative body of work was deeply personal and decidedly anti-careerist. Its consequence and scope also exceeded its occasionally diminutive scale. Ultimately, Merz’s work was as much a response to her own experience as it was to the art of her contemporaries, and her pioneering practice exists in the interstices between art and life that has become so central to contemporary art making.”

The exhibition, organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, is curated by Connie Butler, chief curator of the Hammer Museum, and Ian Alteveer, associate curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On Monday, Thomas P. Campbell, the director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, opened the remarks program and said, in part, that the Merz exhibition continues the museum’s vision to “shed light on new artists as well as those who deserve greater recognition.” Sheena Wagstaff, the Leonard A. Lauder Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, spoke of the connection between the venue – designed by Marcel Breuer and opened in 1966 – and Merz, as both “shared a preoccupation with materiality.”

She also touched on how Merz’s work shows a clear awareness of history but that “She’s also an artist whose work is emphatically important to our present.”

After the program, curators Alteveer and Butler led an informal gallery walk through the show, sharing stories of their years working with Merz – travels to see her in Turin – to learn more about both the enigmatic artist and her work and to work with her to select pieces for the show.

As Butler said, “You’re privileged to be working with history.”

The show gets under way with Merz’s noted sheet-metal installations, progresses to work that appears knit out of copper and takes visitors all the way through her paintings, installations and sculptures over a 50-year span.

Walking the show, it’s observed that most of Merz’s work is untitled and often also undated. The curators said it was perhaps a deliberate move by Merz to avoid being placed into constraining categories, but the most casual walk through this show proves that was really never an issue.

Not to be missed is a handful of photographs that bring the exhibition even further to life. Tucked into a hallway off the main space, a collection of images depicts Merz, alone and with her family, along with her studio and home.

“Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space” continues through May 7 at The Met Breuer, at 945 Madison Ave. Related programs will include exhibition tours, family tours, a “drop-in” drawing course and a MetSpeaks panel discussion.

For more, visit metmuseum.org/MarisaMerz. And for more on The Met Breuer, look for WAG’s March “Exploring the Design of Living” issue.

– Mary Shustack

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