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Contemporary Artist Profile - Mario Merz
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Profile: Mario Merz

Mario Merz (January 1, 1925 – 9 November 2003) was an Italian artist. Born in Milan, Merz started drawing during World War II, when he was imprisoned for his activities with the Giustizia e Libertà antifascist group. He experimented with a continuous graphic stroke–not removing his pencil point from the paper. He explored the relationship between nature and the subject, until he had his first exhibitions in the intellectually incendiary context of Turin in the 1950s, a cultural climate fed by such writers as Pavese, Vittorini, and Ezra Pound.

Merz discarded abstract expressionism’s subjectivity in favor of opening art to exterior space: a seed or a leaf in the wind becomes a universe on his canvas. At the turn of the decade, these paintings echoed his desire to explore the transmission of energy from the organic to the inorganic, a curiosity that lead him to create works in which neon lights pierced everyday object, such as an umbrella, a glass, a bottle or his own raincoat. Without ever using ready-made objects as "things" (at least to the extent that the Nouveau Realistes in France did), Merz and his companions drew the guiding lines of a renewed life for Italian art in the global context.

Merz became fascinated by architecture: he admired the skyscraper-builders of New York City; his father was an architect; and his art thereby conveys a sensitivity for the unity of space and the human residing therein. He made big spaces feel human, intimate and natural. He was intrigued by the powerful (Wagner, D’annunzio) as well as the small (a seed that will generate a tree or the shape of a leaf) and applied both to his drawing.

In the 1960s, Merz’s work with energy, light and matter placed him in the movement that Germano Celant named Arte Povera, which, together with Futurism, remains one of the most influential movements of Italian art in the 20th century. In 1968 Merz began work on his famous igloos, revealing the prehistoric and tribal features hidden within the present time and space. The neon words on his igloos are hallmark Italian phraseology: like "rock ‘n’ roll," they have the power of being the more than catch phrases or slogans, but the voice of his time in history.

Merz said: "Space is curved, the earth is curved, everything on earth is curved" and subsequently produced large curvilinear installations like the one at the Guggenheim in New York. These last works are formally transcendent and unusually light. His site-specific works in archaeological sites redeem spaces from touristy tedium with a single neon line, which serves as source of aesthetic inspiration. He had the wild, immediate perceptiveness of a child. His works encapsulate this nature together with an uncanny universality and versatility.