Marisa Merz Finally Getting Her Due With ‘Sky Is a Great Space’

The creators of Italy’s Arte Povera movement took a vow of poverty in their materials. They swore off anything that smacked of the bourgeoisie and created sculptures and installations out of discards, such as copper wire, paraffin and wood scraps. The leading lights of this postwar movement were believed to be men. Until now.

The Met Breuer and Hammer Museum have reached into obscurity and plucked out Marisa Merz – she’s 91 this year, and still working in her Turin studio – with its exhibit “The Sky Is a Great Space.” And she’s finally getting the props she’s long deserved. 

“This exhibition proposes that — with a few notable exceptions — Arte Povera may turn out to dwell largely in Ms. Merz’s shadow,” wrote Roberta Smith in the New York Times.

The show spans five decades of her work, from her first works with the above-mentioned non-traditional materials, to her sometimes puzzling post-1975 portrait heads. Along the way, there are striking installations such as “Living Sculpture,” which is fashioned from twisted aluminum sheeting. The exhibit includes about 100 of her works.

Smith makes an interesting comparison between Merz, the spouse of Arte Povera’s nominal leader Mario Merz, and Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s companion. “They were both marginalized for being women,” she writes. But while Krassner – and all the other abstract expressionists – had to bask in Pollock’s reflected glory, Marisa Merz puts Mario and all the other Arte Povera practitioners in the shade. 

Adding the proverbial insult to the proverbial injury: Marisa devoted much time and energy to Mario’s career, while Smith alleges he did not return the favor. Other accounts, however, note that he carried large blankets into the Attico Gallery at one of her early shows in Rome. The couple had met while Mario was studying in Turin; Marisa was then in her 20s. They had a daughter, Bea, and Marisa notes that she was greatly influenced by the time she spent raising the girl while constructing her sculptures.

She also exhibits a woman’s touch in some of her themes such as knitting or her kitchen – which is where “Living Sculpture” was first mounted on the ceiling. But it was acquired by one of London’s leading exhibition spaces, the Tate Gallery.

Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space is at New York’s Met Breuer Jan. 4 – May 7 and Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum June 4 – Aug. 20.