Italian sculptor Mario Merz, a founder of the Arte Povera, or "poor art," movement whose signature works are igloo-like structures and systematic arrangements of neon letters and numbers, died Sunday at his home in Milan. He was 78. The cause of death was not announced.
During the five decades of Merz's artistic career, his work evolved from relatively traditional painting to highly inventive conceptual sculpture.
Using unorthodox materials that ranged from palm fronds and fresh vegetables to stuffed alligators, he became known for large domed constructions, sometimes trimmed with glass panels and ladders of neon numerals.
"I start with nothing," he told a Times writer, describing his working methods for a 1989 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
In that show, he ended up with a three-gallery environment that former Times art critic William Wilson interpreted as a metaphor for ecology, anthropology and culture.
"Merz's metaphysic is surely complex and open-ended but clearly interested in large questions," Wilson wrote in his review. "Its key probably lies in the artist's interest in transformation. Everything is more than one thing. Glass is also ice. Lead is cloth. Pipe is bamboo, and dead twigs are living blossoms."
Merz was born in Milan and grew up in Turin. He studied medicine for two years, but his formal education ended in 1945, when he was jailed for a year as an anti-Fascist activist. He began drawing in prison and took up painting in 1950. His first show, at a Turin gallery in 1954, consisted of paintings with organic images that represented ecological systems.
In the mid-1960s, Merz began to pierce his canvases with ordinary objects, creating unruly sculptural wall pieces.
In 1967, he joined a group of like-minded Italian artists who coalesced in the movement dubbed Arte Povera by Italian critic and curator Germano Celant. Sharing an anti-elitist aesthetic, the artists replaced marketable artistic commodities with ephemeral or disposable constructions, fashioning their works of humble industrial materials, found objects and consumable foodstuffs.
Always better known in Europe than in the United States, Merz compiled an extensive exhibition record in Italy and began showing his work regularly in New York galleries about 1970. His first solo exhibition in Southern California was in 1983 at Flow Ace Gallery in Venice.
His work hit its peak of American visibility in 1989, when MOCA presented its Merz show, and New York's Guggenheim Museum staged a sprawling retrospective.
Calling Merz "the grand old man of contemporary Italian art," New York Times critic Roberta Smith judged the Guggenheim exhibition "an irresistibly beautiful show that, in keeping with Mr. Merz's sensibility, is alternately carnival-like and contemplative, manic and serene."
Los Angeles' art audience got another look at his work last year at MOCA in "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera, 1962-1972." The critically acclaimed survey of Italian conceptual sculpture included a neon work by Merz based on a medieval numerical system that revealed natural patterns of growth.
Merz is survived by his wife, artist Marisa Merz, and their daughter, Beatrice.