Mario Merz

Long-term view, Dia Beacon

Overview

Dia Art Foundation presents a long-term exhibition of work by Mario Merz, opening fall 2020, at Dia Beacon in Beacon, New York. Featuring recent acquisitions, the exhibition includes Teatro cavallo (Horse Theater, 1967) and Tavola spirale (Spiral Table, 1982) alongside historical loans from collections in the United States and the Fondazione Merz in Turin. Using recycled organic and industrial materials, the artist developed a highly imaginative iconography and recast timeless forms, such as the igloo and table, in installations that envision the interdependency of individuals, society, and the natural environment. Spanning the late 1950s through the mid-1980s, the exhibition revisits Merz’s key forms and motifs, distinctive use of neon, and deployment of the Fibonacci sequence—where each number equals the sum of the two that precede it—for the structure of his installations. This will be his first solo institutional presentation in the United States in years.

Merz was a central figure in the Arte Povera movement that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s. Formally related to Postminimalism in the United States and Mono-ha (School of Things) in Japan, Arte Povera challenged the traditional values placed on art objects by dissolving sculpture into performance. To this end, Merz pursued installations that are at once autonomous and open-ended, using the Fibonacci sequence as a symbol and structure, and employing widely varying materials like fruits, twigs, wax, tar, wire, and neon tubes, which at times spell out political aphorisms and at other times graft onto the architecture that hosts them.

Mario Merz is made possible by significant support from Cindy and Howard Rachofsky. Additional support provided by Nicolo Cardi, Raymond Learsy, and Martin Z. Margulies. Special thanks to Fondazione Merz and Lite Brite Neon. Fruits and vegetables are a collaboration with Fareground Community Kitchen, Field and Larder Farm, and Obercreek Farm.

Dia Beacon Interactive Floorplan

Using organic and industrial materials, Mario Merz developed a highly imaginative iconography and recast timeless forms, such as the igloo and table, in installations that draw attention to the interdependency of individuals, society, and the natural environment. The works on view revisit Merz’s signature motifs, distinctive use of neon, and deployment of the Fibonacci sequence—where each number equals the sum of the two that precede it—for the structure of his installations.

The slippage between figuration and abstraction as well as between animal, human, and vegetal imagery is evident in Merz’s early paintings. In Senza titolo (Untitled, 1958), a gridded mandorla shape alternately reads as a face, leaf, or turtle shell. Deskilled and intrasubjective, Untitled offers a rebuttal to the lyrical warps of Abstract Expressionism, the dominant style of the period. In the early 1960sMerz further pushed the limits of painting with wall-bound, projecting canvases pier-ced by neon tubes. Vento preistorico dalle montagne gelate (Prehistoric Wind from Frozen Mountains, 1966–79) references this experimental period, with additions from a decade later. The question of how to sustain links with the past while articulating a critique of the present was central to Merz’s practice. The artist employed neon to question narratives of economic progress that present the agrarian and the animal as superseded categories. In Senza titolo (Untitled, 1969) aneon rod pierces four stacked hay bales, reinstating the vast agricultural imaginary in the contemporary gallery space. Teatro cavallo (Horse Theater, 1967) asserts the continued presence of the animal world in advanced industrial societies by keeping the two realities—nature and neon—in perpetual balance.

Taking its name and shape from Inuit dwellings, Merz’s first igloo sculpture was realized in 1968. Unlike Western extractive settler logic, the igloo models decentralization and sustainability, as it is designed to work with nature to preserve energy until it is dismantled and reassembled. Set atop a modular, metal-tube structure, Merz’s sculptures are clad in glass, clay, tar, and twigs, among others. At times the works carry open questions in neon culled from a variety of sources—from political aphorisms and union slogans to anonymous writings on the wall and the artist’s own prose poems. Hypothetical utterances, such as the nineteenth-century anarchist mantra che fare? (what is to be done?) return in different idioms on multiple works. Is space bent or straight? (1973) presents one such question in the form of a glass-shard dome containing a typewriter used by the artist when thework was first exhibited in 1973. While the artist’s earlier igloo sculptures typically stand on their own, by the 1980s the form proliferated. In 8, 5, 3 (1985), three igloos graft into one another, their diameters increased according to the Fibonaccisequence. Neon rods radiating through the glass further dissolve the boundary between inside and outside, private and public space.

Just as the semispherical dome represents the archetypal dwelling, the table is theplace of assembly, sustenance, and work at its most basic. In Tavola spirale (Spiral Table, 1982), the table is recast as an elevated portion of the ground. Set upon a metal-and-glass structure, an arrangement of fruits and vegetables unfolds in a Fibonacci spiral. A beeswax violin by Marisa Merz, senza titolo (untitled, n.d.), completes the work—a material memory of their collaboration.

The Fibonacci sequence—Arabic numerals applied to the study of organicproliferation—offered Merz a way to measure and mediate space. He started to systematically apply it around 1970, at the tail end of Italy’s so-called “economic miracle,” when economic growth was prioritized over workers’ rights, the social fabric, and the environment. A metonym for factory workers, Grembiali = numeri naturali (Aprons = Natural Numbers, 1971) signals both the space occupied by a growing number of individuals as well as their collective sum. For Progressione di Fibonacci (Fibonacci Progression, 1979/2019), a series of numbers rendered in blue neon and grafted onto the gallery’s beams proliferate outward, hinting at the possibility of exceeding the rational architecture of the building. “Luminosity is collective visibility,” Merz once stated. “From the [Fibonacci] series I learnt that there is an enormous mental and political space available to us.”

—Matilde Guidelli-Guidi

1. Funzione di 8 = 21 (Function of 8 = 21), 1971
Wire screen and ink on fabric
Dia Art Foundation; Gift of Paula Cooper

2. Tavola a spirale (Spiral Table), 1982
Aluminum, glass, fruit, vegetables, branches,
steel, tar paper, and beeswax
Dia Art Foundation

3. Senza titolo (Untitled), 1958
Oil on board
The Rachofsky Collection

4. 8, 5, 3, 1985
Metal, glass, twigs, tar paper, neon, and string
The Rachofsky Collection

5. Igloo, 1971
Steel, neon, wire mesh, transformer, and C-clamps
Walker Art Center; T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2001

6. Vento preistorico dalle montagne gelate (Prehistoric Wind from Frozen Mountains), 1966–79
Mixed media on canvas, neon, and brushwood
The Rachofsky Collection

7. Senza titolo (Untitled), 1969
Hay and neon
The Rachofsky Collection

8. Teatro cavallo (Horse Theater), 1967
Neon and plastic
Dia Art Foundation

9. Is space bent or straight?, 1973
Metal, glass, putty, typewriter, and typeset ink
on paper
Collezione Merz, Turin

10. Grembiali = numeri naturali (Aprons = Natural Numbers), 1971
Vinyl, 10 units
The Sonnabend Collection and Antonio Homem

11. Progressione di Fibonacci (Fibonacci Progression), 1979/2019
Neon; exhibition copy
Collezione Merz, Turin

Mario Merz was born in Milan in 1925. A medical student in Turin during World War II, Merz started drawing in 1945 while imprisoned for his participation in the anti-fascist group Giustizia e Libertà. He had his first solo exhibition of paintings at Galleria La Bussola in Turin in 1954. In 1967–68, Merz participated in a series of events that gathered artists across Italy under the title Arte Povera. Soon thereafter, in 1969, the artist participated alongside several other artists in Dia’s collection in the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, and, in 1970, the Tokyo Biennale. Merz’s first solo presentation in the United States was held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1972. Major surveys have since been held internationally, most recently at the Museo NacionalCentro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, in 2019–20. The Fondazione Merz in Turin, Italy, opened to the public in 2005 with a series of retrospectives dedicated to the artist. Merz died in Milan in 2003.

Artist

Matilde Guidelli-Guidi

Mario Merz

Mario Merz was born in Milan in 1925. He died in Milan in 2003.

View profile

Marisa Merz

(1926–2019)

Marisa Merz was born in Turin, Italy in 1926. She died in Turin in 2019.

Get Dia News

Receive Dia News and be the first to hear about events and exhibitions happening at our locations and sites.