ART REVIEW: Marisa Merz Takes the Spotlight at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum

Marisa Merz's The Sky is a Great Space at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is a thoughtful and in-depth look at an artist who, as the exhibition rightfully argues, has yet to receive her proper due. One of the leaders of the Arte Povera movement in Italy, she never received the same attention as her colleagues Michelangelo Pistoletto and Enrico Castellani. The Sky is a Great Space, then, has the tricky task of presenting Merz's work to the mostly-fresh eyes of the viewing public in a compelling way, while also not drowning said public in too much new information and material, while at the same time still creating an exhibition that works on its own terms in a curatorial and thematic way. Fortunately, The Sky is a Great Space manages to walk this tightrope quite well.
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.
When doing a retrospective of an artist with a multi-decade career like Marisa Merz, the question of presentation quickly arises: is it better to present works chronologically to show the artist's development and growth in the macro sense, or to group works by medium to show a more micro look at how the artist evolved their use of each medium? The Sky is a Great Space largely goes the former route, though, luckily for the curators, Merz seems to have made works of a similar enough type within the same time frame often enough that there is still a general visual coherence. 

The first room of The Sky is a Great Space is downright playful, taken in the show's larger context, because it almost buries the lede in terms of what to expect for those viewers unfamiliar with Merz (like myself). The first room is populated solely with sculptures both big and small, made of metal and household materials in a limited color palette of silver, beige, black, ocher, tan, and white. The rest of Merz's output as displayed, then, becomes a pleasant surprise, and very nearly a shock, with its bolder use of brighter colors, as well as its general disregard for the boundaries of two-dimensional versus three-dimensional media. 
Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1975. Copper thread. Two parts: 1 9/16 × 9 1/16 × 3 9/16 in. (4 × 23 × 9 cm) each. Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Merz. Photo: Renato Ghiazza.
The first room, however, is no mere prelude, as it contains several works that reveal an uncanny facility in making materials like fabric, metal scraps, and copper wire look suspiciously lifelike. Coperta (1968), a rolled-up-blanket hanging on the wall, is tied shut and wrapped with nylon thread in such a way that the thread creates what look like rolls of flesh in the beige fabric, an effect reminiscent of Robert Gober's grotesque sculptures of human torsos. Similarly, the massive Living Sculpture pieces (1966), made of aluminum, hang down from the ceiling, their moving parts resembling jellyfish legs, while the color itself suggests a somewhat shiny elephant. The Living Sculpture works also contrast keenly with the majority of the objects in the first room, which comprise tiny knit squares of copper wire so delicate that they require an up-close viewing. The wall sculpture Untitled (Stave) (1993), which extends from the first room to the second, uses the copper wire in a fairly thrilling way by stretching the thin forms into an arrangement that evokes the form of music notation, making me wonder if the piece actually translates to playable music. 

The rest of The Sky is a Great Space consists of Merz's vast mixed-media repertory, as well as a large selection of her drawings on canvas and paper, all of which fortuitously manage to be grouped by medium as well as roughly by decade. The purely two-dimensional works are largely all in black and white and/or grayscale, and are made up of graphite with the occasional flourish of metallic paint. The wispy, stylized human-esque forms in these works, which were suitably eerie and mysterious, echo Picasso or Chagall. I do wish, however, that the wall text had specified whether these works were finished works, preparatory studies, or drawn for their own sake. 
Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1993-1996. Graphite and pastel on paper. 59 1/4 × 59 1/16 in. (150.5 × 150 cm). Courtesy the artist and Fondazione Merz. photo: Renato Ghiazza.
As we come into the last two rooms--and, by extension, the 1990s and 2000s--Merz's palette expands to encompass a glorious blue, as well as a vivid red and the occasional yellow-gold. The works from this period are those that tear up the boundary between painting and sculpture, between two- and three-dimensional media, as some of the works, despite being mounted on the wall, have protruding forms and incorporate strands of wire that hover above the picture surface. As the wall text keenly points out, Merz drew inspiration from the rich artistic traditions of her homeland of Italy, citing Renaissance and Byzantine Art in several of the mixed-media works from this period: blue and red for the clothing of the Virgin Mary, all demarcated before gold-leaf backgrounds with distinct outlines. Similarly, several of the two-dimensional works located nearby take religious cues, with their hazy, indistinct--but vaguely human-shaped--forms almost recalling the Shroud of Turin in subject matter and Paul Klee in technique.
Marisa Merz, Untitled, 1994. Wax, tempera, copper wire, cardboard and bamboo cane on panel. 72 × 58 in. (182.9 × 147.3 cm). Private Collection. Photo: Daniel Jackson.
On the whole, interestingly enough, the arrangement of many of Merz's sculptural works in The Sky is a Great Space resemble altars, creating a more subtle religious iconography when taking the aforementioned pieces into account. Untitled (Staves), for example, has both floor- and wall-based components, as does another work called Untitled (also from 1993), which projects the knit copper wire to connect the wall and floor, combined with three metal forms that resemble steps. 

In the last room of the exhibition, this spiritual feeling is taken to its apotheosis with Untitled (2010), another work indebted to Chagall. Untitled comprises a large canvas leaning in the corner of the room, with a series of rough wooden beams placed on the floor in front of the canvas. The canvas depicts a female figure in silver, gold, and various shades of blue, surrounded by serene swirling forms and straight lines that cut across the composition to keep the eye moving. The wood on the floor serves a very craft art-historical purpose: its placement in front of the canvas also potentially harkens back to the Renaissance. In particular, the beams serve a similar function as the chasm in Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks (1485), keeping the viewer at a very literal distance from the main events of the work. In the case of this large canvas, the beams put us at a remove--also referencing the altar motif in earlier rooms-- and ultimately designating this particularly luminous painting as a sacred work.
Marisa Merz, Untitled, 2010. Mixed media on paper mounted on wood with iron and copper frame, beams, and wax. 100 3/8 × 110 1/4 in. (255 × 280 cm). V-A-C Foundation, Moscow.
The Sky is a Great Space overwhelmingly succeeds at making the case for Marisa Merz as a dynamic, inventive artist who has excelled regardless of medium, and should not be missed by fans of contemporary art.