Marisa Merz, whose intimate art defies category but consistently challenges ideas of femininity in its fragile evocations of the body, has died at age ninety-three. The sculptor was the only woman artist associated with what critic-curator Germano Celant dubbed Arte Povera, or “poor art”a radical association of avant-gardists in postwar Italy who made meaning from mundane materials and questioned the role of art itself. “Merz condenses forms and meanings and at the same time makes them seem to float free and evaporate,” wrote Ida Panicelli in a review for Artforum’s summer 2007 issue.
Born in Turin in 1926, Merz began making art at age forty, stapling together aluminum strips in her kitchen to fashion mobiles she called “Living Sculptures.” These hangings were created for her daughter, Beatrice, whose father was Mario Merz, another key poveristi whom Marisa married in the 1950s. She continued making art with common materials such as copper wire, tin, lead, clay, glass, and wood. Merz usually left her work untitled and undated, as if to make explicit her distrust in the conventions of art history. “I do not respect Johnson, I do not respect the masters,” she wrote in “Come una dichiarazione,” a small declaration published in Italy’s Bit magazine in 1968. “I’m not available anymore because I want to start from scratch. I could still be available to a child, but not to a man, no. If a man asks me to do something, I do it the way I want to.” Around that time, she appeared in multiple landmark exhibitions organized by Celant that introduced viewers to the conceptualists’ retort to American Pop.
Merz’s versatility with materials and forms associated with domestic labor set her apart from her male Arte Povera affiliates, who often embraced a masculine brutalism. She made swings, slippers, and bowls; a few knitted works spell out “BEA,” in reference to her daughter. Merz continued to work in later life, taking on immersive,…
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