Marisa Merz, the artist whose mystifying paintings and sculptures became a benchmark for the Arte Povera movement, has died at age 93. Merz, who was born in Turin, Italy, where she was living at the time of her death, was the only woman artist among the Italian Arte Povera artists. The group was named by critic-curator Germano Celant in the late 1960s, and dubbed as such for its members’ use of “poor” materials, which often included household objects like coffee beans, clothing, copper wire, tin, and other found items. Merz’s husband, Mario Merz, was also a key figure in the movement.
Merz was born in Turin in 1926 and didn’t begin making art until she was in her forties. She referred to these first works as “Living Sculptures,” and they were made in her home for her daughter Beatrice. Many of these early works were mobile-like structures that would hang from her ceiling and were made from intricately sliced aluminum sheeting. One famous work from this series spells out “Bea,” short for her daughter’s name, in nylon thread. Merz was known for anti-market tendencies that, in addition to often not dating or titling her work, included sending Beatrice to speak to press in her stead.
[Marisa and Mario] allow[ed] me to experience every moment of their artistic path, taking me with them everywhere they went. They introduced me to many representatives of the art scene of their time, and this somehow implied that I had to soak in everything that happened around me. Looking back, I can describe those years as intense, but it was simply my life next to two parents who were vibrantly contributing to the events of the time.
Commenting on her mother’s practice, she added:
I recently asked her how some of her works came about, what was the thought, inspiration or approach behind them [. . .] She answered that she always and only did what she liked, and that every work originated from the pleasure of making it, from a spontaneous gesture or finding of a particular object or material.
Merz’s mature style was full of mystery and reinvention. The work remained intimate in scale and continued through the years to recall the body and its many vulnerabilities. She won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2013 Venice Biennale. In 2017, Merz’s retrospective, “The Sky is a Great Space,” opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The show traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal, and the Museum der Moderne Salzburg in Austria.
[Merz] has been shifting established ideologies concerning material and process since the mid-20 century, using everyday and organic materials to subvert prescribed mores. Merz’s contributions to the history of art are manifold, and her absence will be powerfully felt.