Mario Merz is born in Milan, in 1925. He first studies medicine, and during World War II he becomes a member of the anti-fascist resistance organization »Giustizia e Libertà.« He is arrested in 1945, and during his time in prison he does his first drawings. Between 1946 and 1949 Merz travels to Rome and Paris, and in 1950 he starts with oil paintings. His first exhibition at the Galleria La Bussola in Turin presents pictures whose organic metaphors manifest themselves in abstract arrangements that recall Art Informel (Semen nel vento, 1953, Albero, 1953). These works are followed by a series entitled Spiral Pictures, created between 1960 and 1965.
After 1966 Merz expands the realistic allusions in his pictures: Objects and their everyday appearance are considered carriers of culture as well as possible symbols of nature and become a focus of his work. Especially neon tubes and neon letters – also used by U.S. artist Dan Flavin, starting in 1963 – turn into visible signs of energy-laden processes. The neon tubes pierce canvases, bottles, umbrellas, and rain coats. At the same time, Merz also turns towards simple, natural materials, such as brushwood, soil, and stones, whose substance-derived forms and storage qualities he expresses with his layerings, with bundling, weaving, and setting. Merz reproduces these elementary activities as artistic work processes that create a basic connection between nature and culture. Starting in 1967, Merz appears together with a group of artists, among them Giovanni Anselmo, Jannis Kounellis, and Guiseppe Penone, whose work is named »Arte Povera« by Germano Celant. The rejection of established artistic genres as well as a specific sensitivity for materials and their plain, quite often crafts-oriented design are of special importance for these works.
The critique of industrialization and capitalism, both representing interests that are alienated from nature as well as from humans, becomes especially evident in Merz’ igloos that turn into major motifs after 1968. As simple kinds of housing, they are built around encased metal frames. In his igloos Merz finds a prototype, seemingly reduced from civilization, which manifests the opposition of natural and cultural processes of creation. Among the materials Merz uses to cover his igloos are clay, wax, mud, and twigs. Often they carry political messages or are inscribed with literary quotations in neon. By now Merz participates in numerous exhibitions of Arte Povera and Minimal Art, for instance in the exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Bern, curated by Harald Szeemann and entitled »When Attitude Becomes Form« (1968).
Merz applies the mathematical sequences of the Fibonacci numbers in numerical and spiral arrangements as metaphors of order in his works. This symbolic investment aims at the revelation of mathematical patters in »natural« structures. In 1972 Merz participates in the Documenta 5 where he keeps exhibiting in the following years. Towards the end of the 1970s he returns to painting. Complex assemblages with an expressive-gestural and figural repertoire of forms emerge, for example, with Ninfee (1978).
Mario Merz dies in Turin in 2003. He lived and worked in Turin almost all of his life.
Ducros, Françoise: Mario Merz, Paris 1999
Glas, Anke: »Ikonographie des Bewusststeins«. Zu den Motiven Natur und Kultur bei Mario Merz, Diss. München 1998
Mario Merz: Ausst.-Kat., Galleria Civica d’Arte Contemporanea Trient, hg. v. Danilo Eccher, Turin 1995
Mario Merz: Ausst.-Kat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, hg. v. Germano Celant, New York 1989
Mario Merz: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthaus Zürich, 2 Bde., hg. v. Harald Szeemann u.a., Zürich 1985
Mario Merz: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Folkwang Essen u.a. hg. v. Zdenek Felix u. Germano Celant, Essen 1979