Mario Merz stands with his arms crossed, his body thrown slightly back, his white tousled hair swept down his neck. A monumental man, he resembles Rodin’s rough-hewn statue of Balzac, an ironic contradiction that Merz would appreciate, since the Italian artist has spent much of his life opposing just such statuary.
The work, whose progress he now directs, is his signature solution to commemorative sculpture: a 13-foot-high steel dome onto which glass panes are being hoisted by a crew working with a mechanical lift. Under the large dome a smaller dome is being fitted with sheets of molded wax.
Scattered around the galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Art are granite rocks, Juniper bushes, palm fronds and a stuffed alligator that will assume a perch atop the dome. Looking like the favorite things a child might have dragged in from the back yard, these are the quirkily modest materials that Merz, 64, uses in his arte povera (poor art). Working spontaneously, collecting the natural stuff of the region (the granite comes from near the San Fernando Valley, Juniper grows in the West as well as in Italy), Merz thumbs his nose at classic notions of statue-making in bronze, stone and marble.
“I start with nothing,” he says. Just a week before the show, which opened Sunday and runs through June 18, he wasn’t sure how it would all come out.
There are the big double igloo and two smaller igloos, though Merz says that igloo , commonly used to describe his domes, is not the proper word. He chose the round shape “because the earth is round,” he says. “It’s the simplest form.”
And there is his hallmark spiral table, an altar-like sculpture based on an esoteric medieval mathematical system, the Fibonacci series in neon numbers.
In juxtapositions of neon and altar, steel and beeswax, Merz tries to strike a balance between technological and natural elements of modern existence. “I make art to show life’s contradictions,” says the artist.
Those contradictions begin with Merz, who stands in the midst of the littered gallery majestically dressed in a suit. “I’d rather be different from other artists who all wear jeans,” he declares.
Taking a break from installing his art, he sits on a temporary work table, speaking in French (his English is poor, he explains) and gesturing vigorously as he talks. The sternness with which he oversees his work turns to sociableness as he switches from irksome details (he has run out of clamps for the dome and grumbles, “It takes a half-day to get anything in this city”) to his views on art.
The most innocent of questions sets him off on his soap box: During his stay, has he seen anything much of Los Angeles? “Tourism! Me! No, no!” he exclaims. “That is my real problem.”
“Artists can’t work without a public,” he elaborates. No art-for-art’s sake advocate, Merz believes his work should have an impact on the world, and that means the public, which in turn means the same tourists who, he says, call his domes igloos (though he admits some sort of word must be employed).
“I can’t stay in my village making art. I have to have a rapport with the masses,” he says, “but with the same ideological depth that I would have working in my village. It’s hard. But that’s what contemporary artists have to do. Otherwise we’re nothing.
“I know friends who’ve stayed home doing their art, and year after year they begin to lose the will to survive because they haven’t gotten any recognition.”
Merz, to the contrary, has been widely recognized in Europe as a founder of arte povera and has had one-man shows in major European museums. MOCA’s chief curator, Mary Jane Jacobs, calls Merz “one of the half-dozen artists in Europe in the 1960s who reshaped the direction of contemporary art.”
During the postwar hiatus in the United States when homegrown art flourished and European art was largely ignored in the marketplace, Merz and other artists received little public attention here. “It’s taken this long for the American art world and the public to come around to focusing on what’s happening (in Europe),” says Jacobs, who sees Merz’s absence on the big-league museum circuit here as “a major gap in our knowledge of contemporary art history.”
In reaction to the political unrest that was erupting in Europe, notably the Soviet invasion of Prague and student demonstrations in Paris, Merz began making his earth-like domes in 1968, the year after the term arte povera was coined.
“The problem was to create art that was far from both painting and sculpture and closely associated with politics and society,” says Merz, who with other European and American artists was creating unsaleable abstract installations that defied the concept of art as a bourgeois commodity and freed sculpture from its place on a pedestal.
“The people who demonstrated in ’68 were right, of course,” Merz says, “but we can’t keep living ’68. There’s nothing left. We don’t have ’68 and we don’t have a counter-force to ’68. Instead, we have a technological dynamic that we can’t stop.”
Technology has created a homogenous world where everything, from ideas to monetary systems, is becoming standardized. Africans who used to make the kind of imaginative masks that inspired Picasso now come to New York to work as doormen; the rich world is destroying the poor world.
“That’s why there’s still a place for the artist,” Merz says. “At least the artist takes the trouble to say ‘I like this’ or ‘I hate that,’ while most people are dazed by what happens around them and think everything is just fine.”
But life also makes fools of artists. Even Merz’s venerated countryman Leonardo da Vinci, who, he recounts, spent five years making an equestrian statue for a patron, until the French invaded Italy and the patron had the monument melted down to make cannon balls. “That’s typical of an artist’s life,” says Merz with a supplicating palms-up gesture.
So Merz, the artist, wears serious suits. And, wearing a suit, he races around like a tourist trying to keep up with himself. “Our lives go so fast we don’t have time to live them,” he sighs.
Sharing a studio-home in Milan with his wife, artist Marisa Merz, he often thinks of moving to the country, but, he says, “I don’t have time to think about where to live.”
He wants to visit California’s vineyards. “Wine makers still have a good life; they love their plants and each season for them has value and meaning.” But he has no time.
Merz, the nature-lover, is confined to the four walls of the gallery with his neon numbers and dried palm fronds and the contradictions that cause him anguish.
“The artist who works with only one material is happier than I am,” he says. “He’s like a man who sings.” And in Italy singers are taken seriously. Not like artists. “Artists are portrayed as stupid men,” Merz says and laughs, rising from the table and straightening his suit as he prepares to go back to work.