Like most writing about her work, the press release for Marisa Merz’s solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery highlights associations of domesticity and femininity in her sculpture. One of the only women associated with the Arte Povera movement prominent in Italy during the 1960s, Merz is widely quoted for her distinctive remark, “there has never been any separation between my work and my life.” This statement reflects the sentiment of Arte Povera on the whole, which sought to challenge the distinction between art and the everyday through the use of banal or “impoverished” materials. Between then and now, the problem of the art–life dichotomy has become even more central to the concerns of contemporary art, especially in the fields of relational aesthetics, social practice, and feminist art. However, what is most interesting in Merz’s work is not its rough similarities to the art in these fields, but the ways it differs from them.
Most writing on Merz’s work has an anecdotal quality, which stems in part from the fact that it was largely written by friends and collectors who know her personally. Her character, as perceived by those who know her, is often integrated into the critical reception of the work. At the same time, the haze of identity politics that envelops so much of contemporary art remains the general framework for the reception of Merz’s work. However, the white cube curatorial style of Gladstone Gallery, which recently exhibited two pieces by Merz, tends to neutralize restrictive associations, clearing ground for a different experience of the work.
Merz’s solo exhibition at Gladstone Gallery is comprised of two metal works, both from 1966. The first, Untitled (Living Sculpture), consists of three imposing structures—thin strips of aluminum stapled into curving, cylindrical forms, dangling from the ceiling via exposed straps and ropes. In a wink toward perceived femininity in her work, almost humorous in the context of the gallery today, is a pattern of blue, green, red, and yellow spray painted flowers. The pattern remains a somehow subtle ornament to the giant aluminum globs that sway slowly in the breeze of the gallery’s air conditioning. In the opposite corner of the compact gallery space is sedia, a mass of stapled, curved aluminum over a small wooden chair that serves as the skeletal infrastructure. The sculpture presents a domestic, everyday object while denying it any domestic functionality. In the white space of the gallery, sepia, in a gesture contradictory to its title, becomes explicitly not a chair. In a review of the exhibition in The Brooklyn Rail, Cora Fisher relates a personal anecdote illustrative of the complication of the white cube by contemporary ideology, writing, “The chair invites me to test Merz’s conviction that her objects were wrought by the meshing of art and life, but fear of snagging my skirt keeps me from sitting on it. I wonder how tacky or inappropriate it would be for me to sit on Marisa Merz’s sculpture in the context of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery.”1
Rather than the fear of ruining her skirt, it is, arguably, the chair itself preventing Fisher from sitting on it. Most contemporary art that addresses the art–life problem strives to separate itself from the white cube for the specific purpose of direct audience participation and education, seeking to remove the barrier between the domains of art and the everyday and melting each into an alloy of the two. Merz’s work, in contrast, turns inward, to the manipulation of material and, with the aid of the gallery, the transformation of material into an object of aesthetic reflection through the negation of everyday functionality. Merz’s labor is made visibly apparent in these sculptures through the exposed ropes and staples, the hardware that keeps the structures together. Merz’s other notable materials and methods may take a different shape in light of these methodologies, which is one of simple and banal material, explored in its materiality, and ultimately monumentalized in the context of the white cube, the extreme pole of art cordoned off from life. Here, femininity and domesticity, while still accessible undertones, lose prominence in the overall experience of the work. Upon closer inspection the seemingly smooth pliable curved aluminum contains jagged dents, bearing the unmistakable marks of manual manipulation, either by Merz herself, or by art handlers through the years. This subtle detail brings into tension the fragility and haggardness of the apparently strong, solid material. A lightness is exposed where before there was weight.
For Merz, the significance of the blurring of art and life lies specifically in her relationship to the material. The gesture of positioning her sculptures, made of familiar everyday material, representative of everyday objects, stapled, tied together, and hung, in the gallery brings issues of banal functionality and visual reflection into tension. In this way, Merz’s sculptures illuminate art’s relationship to life in a way that contemporary manifestations of the art–life problem often do not.
One could perceive much of Merz’s work as symbolically feminine. Her use of materials such as fine copper wire, knit and formed into elegant structures, made into booties, or geometric shapes hung delicately on a wall, recalls traditional female labor and even contains a delicateness that could visually reference common conceptions of femininity. Nonetheless, the tendency toward biographical reference in the writing on Merz’s work overemphasizes the feminine and domestic strategies in her sculpture, and ultimately leaves us with a conundrum: Is Merz’s famous statement evidence of the importance of her identity to her artistic practice as a woman, or have the concerns of Merz’s work since been adapted as an essentially feminist problem, so that her oeuvre is retrospectively read within a framework that is not best suited to the material?
The breakdown of the art–life dichotomy has been heralded as a keystone to contemporary feminist art practice. In her introduction to Contemporary Women Artists, a 760-page encyclopedic tome listing the biographies and CVs of 350 women artists (though the dearth of quality images—there are only about 200, all black and white, and some of them photographic portraits of the artists—almost suggests that this book exists merely to prove that contemporary women artists exist, rather than to showcase the quality of their work), Lucy Lippard says of feminist art: “Artists followed the feminist creedo ‘the personal is political’ to its radiating conclusions. Along with its equally important inversion (‘the political is personal’), this became a rallying cry as women made art about their own experiences in defiance of reactionary resistance (‘you can’t make art about that!’) from many critics and even from their own teachers.”2
The distinction between art and life here was critiqued as a hierarchical relationship: one of high and low, of art as a realm that distinctly excluded the feminine everyday. The feminist challenge to this distinction lead to a politicization of personal experience, and the subsequent justification of art as a valid realm for critical expression of lived social frustrations. This marks a remove from the art–life dichotomy as it functioned for Arte Povera. Merz’s work, and Arte Povera in general, did not take lived experience itself as a topical point of departure, but rather utilized the material conditions of the everyday to postulate and examine the tension between the denigration of art through material and the elevation of the banal through art. While Arte Povera claimed ties with 1960s political radicalism, it did so through formal and stylistic consensus, as opposed to the feminist turn expressed by Lippard, which sought to politicize lived experience. In practice, this meant for feminist art a step away from formal and material concerns and toward the political “content” of the work. Reflecting upon Merz’s sculptures in the gallery, nearly 50 years after they were made, the putative personal motivations responsible for their making are allowed to remain in the background. With us in the foreground is the works’ materiality as it reflects both their history as Arte Povera objects, challenging the distinction between art and life, and where this history stands in relation the problem of art and life in the contemporary moment. Merz’s work, today, points to a new challenge for an aesthetics that would confront the distinction between art and life not by simply dissolving it or wishing it away, but by rendering acute the tension implicit in the separation.
1 Fisher, Cora. “Marisa Merz,” The Brooklyn Rail, www.brooklynrail.org, November, 2010.
2 Hillstrom, Laurie Collier. Contemporary Women Artists, St. James Press, 1999. p. vii