Marisa Merz: the woman in Arte Povera
Marisa Merz working with Mario Merz at the Galleria L’Attico in 1969
Marisa Merz in her home kitchen with “Living Sculpture” installed
Marisa Merz “Bea” (1968)
Very little is known about Marisa’s personal life prior to her marriage to Mario Merz. Her father worked as a factory worker for Fiat in Turin, where she grew up and studied classical ballet. Working as a model for the figurative painter Felice Casorati, she started to socialise in the city’s artistic circles when she met Mario Merz. Within a year they married, and Marisa became pregnant with their daughter Beatrice Merz, who was born in Switzerland where the family lived for three years. Upon their return to Italy they decided to commit to becoming practising artists in the Turin art scene.
Marisa Merz “Untitled” (1966)
Marisa Merz “Living Sculpture (part.)” (1966)
Much of the spirit of Germano Celant’s Arte Povera is directly connected to the Merz family. Celant’s fundamental writing “Arte Povera: Notes for a Guerrilla War” was conceived and written in their small kitchen in their Turin apartment. The prominent art critic once described Marisa’s oeuvre as a portrait which stands in constant reflection of her personal life, deeply intimate stories that are told through works such as “Bea” (1968) , titled after her daughter. Following Arte Povera’s conceptual principles, the gap between life and art was closed through the utilisation of everyday material and in Merz’s case intensified by her marginalised position within the movement itself. Works such as “Living sculpture”, which originated from her kitchen, subtly navigated a domestic standpoint through a sea of hyper male-dominated studio work. Despite this contemporary contextualisation Merz, like many other female artists of the time, rejected the term feminist or
any different ideological definition of their individual struggle. While the feminine, or feminist rhetoric that many associated with Merz’s practice mainly referred to the materiality of her work in which she often employed traditional craft, this utilisation of “poor” material and the favouring of simplistic resources and processes remain highly evocative of the Arte Povera activities of the time.
For her first participation at Documenta in Kassel Merz had to wait until 1982. Decades later in 2013, she was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Although exhibited regularly and honoured amongst the connoisseurs of the Arte Povera, Merz’s first big solo exhibition would only inaugurate in 2017 when the Met Breuer dedicated a large-scale retrospective to her life’s work. In light of this event, art critic Peter Schjeldahl proclaimed her to be the superior Arte Povera artist to contrast her male counterparts’ often intellectually overloaded works with a lightness and unique magic. Her legacy reminds the art world in its various entities that many marginalised perspectives within art history remain to be told and accounted for.
“I’m not interested in power or in career; only myself and the world interest me. I can do little, very little. I am battling against malice and competition. I cannot escape the reality I see.”
“There has never been a separation between my life and my work”
Marisa Merz with Mario Merz at Galleria Francois Lambert, 1971
Beatrice, Mario and Marisa at the 37th Biennale di Venezia 1976