This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mario Merz's "igloos" sculptures meant to evoke dwellings of early humans as well as arcs of electrical energy. These pieces by the Milanese sculptor and painter came to stand for Arte Povera, the movement of the '60s and '70s devoted to creating from humble materials. Such art ranked among the most important from Italy in the 20th Century.
Merz was the oldest of the nine artists who worked in diverse styles, exhibiting together under the banner of Arte Povera. And at his death at 78 in 2003, he was called the grand old man of contemporary art in Italy. But unlike his colleague Jannis Kounellis, Merz was not exhibited in great depth in our city, a fact that now gives his small solo exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago something of the character of an introduction.
Merz began as a painter in the 1950s, and the exhibition shows that, 30 years later, it was to painting he returned, creating images of animals as rough and bold as those found in prehistoric caves. But the painted works here are clearly part of his repertory after the mid-1960s, as eight are components of what looks to be a temporary nomadic dwelling and two more refer to a numerical progression found in nature that became a significant basis for his work.
Several of the sculptures on view use wax, which to Merz suggested both the product of a natural process and a material long used artistically in casting. He liked such conjunctions but didn't just leave them at that. In "Lingotto," the purest of the sculptures on show, a thick slab of beeswax is meant to evoke both a bar of gold and the famous yellow Fiat factory in Turin, Italy, at which his father worked. In "Four tables in the shape of magnolia leaves," the large wax-covered pieces are intended to be mundane objects put into a "high" artistic environment as well as works based on an organic form that developed according to the numerical progression Merz observed.
One of the clearest and earliest examples of his work with the progression is an untitled wall piece from 1971 that presents the sequence each number being the sum of its two preceding numbers in neon. Here, again, is a grand conjunction: an ancient formula, which can be extended to infinity, spelled out in a modern material. Elsewhere, he alludes to the sequence (named after the 13th Century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci) through leaves and spirals, a pine cone and seashell.
Unlike in the art of many of his contemporaries, neither personal connections nor formal considerations overshadow the work's concern with the universal. Simple in form and rooted in the everyday, this is nonetheless an art that achieves conceptual largeness, a goal rarely aimed for or attained in work of today.
- Alan G. Artner