Marisa Merz was the only woman in Italy’s Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s. Her sculptures and paintings were among the most significant work of this movement. Like the other Arte Povera artists, she used humble, raw materials of everyday life and heavy industry to make sculptures and assemblages. Unfired clay, tin, lead, stone, wire, fabric, and thread were put into her rough-hewn, complicated art.
Born in Turin Italy. Her father worked for the local Fiat plant. Much of her early life and educational life is unknown because she rarely spoke about herself. She married leading Arte Povera artist Mario Merz in 1960. He was one of the leading exponents of this machismo-heavy movement, and for decades she was less celebrated than he. The couple had a daughter, Beatrice, who founded the Fondazione Merz, a contemporary arts center in Turin.
In 1966, Merz cut up aluminum sheeting, stapled the ribbons together, painted some, and hung them from the ceiling in her kitchen. These “Living Sculptures” became some of her most famous works, recalling underwater creatures or sculptures that look as if they are flying. One work from this series in 1968 referred to her daughter Beatrice. She spelled out the letters “Bea,” short for her daughter’s name with nylon thread in earthen tones. The forms suggested plants or some kind of living creature. From 1968 to the mid-1970s she used thin nylon thread to make little shoes, “Scarpette.”
She made ceramic heads whose features were fractured, broken, or even melting. Yet her heads never looked grotesque. Instead they were calm, tranquil, even beatific because of her use of gold leaf and bright color. There was a spiritual quality in her drawings and paintings where the heads could be compared to religious icons floating in space.
In 2013, she won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 55th Venice Biennale. In 2017, she had a retrospective that began at the Met Breur in New York, traveled to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and then to museums in Porto, Portugal and Salzburg, Austria.