Collections> Browse Mario Merz

Collections> Browse Mario Merz

Mario Merz
Holdings (13)
1 edition prints/proof, 2 sculptures, 7 drawings, 3 books

Wikipedia About Mario Merz

Mario Merz (1 January 1925 – 9 November 2003) was an Italian artist, and husband of Marisa Merz. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Mario Merz, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

At the height of the student uprisings and social protests taking place across Europe in the spring of 1968, French philosopher Henri Lefebvre published his book Everyday Life in the Modern World, a critical study of capitalist urbanism that warned against the stultifying effects of what he termed “the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.” It was in the context of this widespread call to arms against the standardization of our lives according to the dictates of consumer culture that a new generation of Italian artists would emerge in the industrial centers of the postwar Italian economic miracle, loosely brought together in 1967 under the banner of Arte Povera by curator and critic Germano Celant. Among these artists was Mario Merz, who championed the infinite possibilities of human freedom by exploring the revolutionary social and material possibilities of sculpture.

Born in 1925, Merz was nearly ten years older than his Arte Povera cohorts, such as Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, and Giulio Paolini. Like his colleagues, he opposed the prevailing economic and cultural systematization of everyday urban life not by adopting an overt political stance, but by choosing to work with nontraditional art materials that often had an ephemeral or precarious nature, such as wax, cloth, wire mesh, glass, and earth. The contingent character of these media can be seen as providing an antiheroic and consciously humanist antidote to the oppressive uniformity of a world ruled by industrial mass production.

This emphasis on the positive value of contingency can be seen quite early in Merz’s work in his iconic series of igloo structures, begun in 1968, which he fashioned out of such materials as metal, broken glass, and bags of dirt. He was attracted to the simplicity of this structure because of the organic connection of this architectonic form to the natural environment as well as its relationship to humanity through its function as a primitive shelter. Igloo (1971), for example, is made up of a series of simple metal tubes that define the hemisphere of a structure that is partially enclosed by two almost gossamer pieces of wire mesh. The entire work is held together rather precariously with carpenter’s clamps, suggesting a delicate structural equilibrium that could collapse at any moment. In this work, spatial distinctions between interior and exterior break down as this object becomes simultaneously private and public, a closed shelter and an object open to the endless possibilities of the world. Its existence as an organic, habitable form stands in stark, poetic contrast to the harsh geometries of the modern industrial city, opening it up as a site of oneiric reverie that asks us to contemplate the infinite.

Merz’s obsession with the infinite can be seen most clearly in his conceptual adaptation to his work of the Fibonacci series, a theoretical progression of numbers discovered by the Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano Fibonacci in 1202. Each number is the sum of the two preceding it, beginning with 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and theoretically continuing on into infinity. Based on observations of the quantity of seeds in fruit, petals on a flower, or offspring of an animal, the series describes a sequence of exponential natural growth whose mathematical progressions spoke to Merz of the unlimited potentiality of life in the face of the closed, systemic effects of modern society. In Igloo, he has affixed the beginning of the Fibonacci series to its surface with neon light fixtures that spell out the equation 1 + 1 = 2. For Merz, Fibonacci is not simply an abstract mathematical system, but a method for creating relationships in the sculptural object between the physical materiality of the world and the possibilities offered by the immateriality of natural systems. As the artist has suggested, “Man loves trees because he feels that trees are part of the vital series of life. When man has this relationship with nature he understands that he is part of a biological series. The Fibonacci series is natural. If you put a series of trees in the exhibition, you have dead entities. But if you put Fibonacci numbers in an exhibition they are alive because men are like numbers in a series. People know that numbers are vital because numbers can go into infinity while objects are finite. Numbers are the vitality of the world.”1

Merz’s use of the Fibonacci series and his igloo sculptures were the centerpieces of the first solo museum exhibition of the artist’s career, which took place at the Walker Art Center in 1972. Some twenty years later, the Walker commissioned and acquired its first major work by Merz, the untitled neon sculpture that resides on top of the Cowles Conservatory in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Beaming out across the Garden in red light in the artist’s handwriting are the words città irreale (unreal city), a phrase Merz has used repeatedly in his sculpture since the 1960s. His Igloo might also be seen as the physical embodiment of our own unreal city, an ephemeral and nomadic structure that migrates across a landscape caught in the liminal space between rationality and dreaming that is characterized by the infinite possibilities of human energy.

  1. Quoted in Richard Koshalek, “Interview with Mario Merz,” in Richard Koshalek, Mario Merz, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1972), unpaginated.

Fogle, Douglas. “Mario Merz.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center