Mario Merz (1925-2003)
Mario Merz (1925-2003)

Teatro Cavallo

Mario Merz (1925-2003)
Teatro Cavallo
neon tubes and plastic tubes
98 7/8 x 118 1/8 x 19 5/8 in. (251.1 x 300 x 49.8 cm.)
Executed in 1967.
The Estate of Ileana Sonnabend, New York
By descent to the present owner
Mario Merz, exh. cat., San Marino, Palazzo Congressi ed Esposizioni, 1983, p. 58, fig. 44 (installation view illustrated).
"Collaboration Mario Merz," Parkett, no. 15, February 1988, inside cover (illustrated in color).
Arte Povera: Selections from the Sonnabend Collection, exh. cat., New York, Columbia University, Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, 2001, fig. 23 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Mario Merz, April 1969.
Bordeaux, CAPC musée d'art contemporain; Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof; Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna; Tokyo, Sezon Museum of Art; Sendai, Miyagi Museum of Art; Hiroshima, Fukuyama Museum of Art and Kyoto, National Museum of Modern Art, Collection Sonnabend: 25 Années de Choix et d'Activités d'Ileana et Michael Sonnabend, October 1987-February 1991, p. 232 (illustrated in color).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Mario Merz, September-November 1989, pp. 21 and 67, no. 21 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

This work is registered with the Archivio Mario Merz under no. 88/1967/NN.

Mario Merz’s Teatro Cavallo is an important early example of Arte Povera, one of the most significant and important avant-garde art movements of the postwar period. Comprised of neon and plastic tubing, in this enigmatic work Merz seeks to disrupt the traditional conventions of high art and champion a new form of artistic expression. Simultaneously non-figurative and non-abstract, the iconography is designed to interrupt conventional thinking, a move which would establish Merz as one of the central figures within this burgeoning movement. With its reductive form, Teatro Cavallo encompasses many of the artist’s signature tropes—his use of unconventional media, disruption of conventional artistic iconography and unusual combination of forms—to produce a work which would lay the groundwork for much of his later career. The work’s title, Teatro Cavallo, loosely translates as ‘’Horse Theater” which lends the piece a performative aspect too, an aspect of his work which became more important throughout his career. Having belonged the legendary Ileanna Sonnabend—the leading champion of Arte Povera in the United States—this work has been included in several of the artist’s seminal exhibitions in both Europe and Asia and as such, Teatro Cavallo stands as a work of great intellectual rigor as well as an object of beauty and art historical richness.

Carefully balanced upon a plastic trestle, the arc of Merz’s utilitarian neon tubes evokes the gently arching back of the horse referred to in the work’s title. To its side, attached to the wall, a serpentine curve of neon suggests the elegant contours of the animal’s neck, proudly held aloft. Yet these three simple elements and the elicitations they invoke are not meant to be literal. The artist’s use of neon is symbolically associated with the animal’s power—the energy emitted in the form of light. According to Merz light acts as the direct representation of energy from one element to the next, tracing the trajectory of the organic to the inorganic through a juxtaposition of elemental materials. Both formally and symbolically, Teatro Cavallo makes connections between disparate objects, thereby upsetting the usual rules of reading art that have been employed for millennia.

Teatro Cavallo marks a watershed within the artist’s oeuvre as it is one of the first examples of his work in which he incorporated neon. Defining the silhouette of the equine form, the light evokes the spirit of a horse with its reductive forms. A fabled creature that has been the subject of the artist’s attention for millennia, here Merz renders the form of the horse in a completely new way, transmogrifying industrial materials into the essence of the beast in a manner that would come to embody the spirit of what would become known as Arte Povera. The light emitted from Teatro Cavallo’s glowing elements makes a stark break with the accepted tradition of high art. “Teatro Cavallo thus unlocks the work from the wall,” notes Germano Celant, “and defines an independent space that has removed the canvas; hence the genre of painting, from the jutting structure, and that tries to put greater emphasis on the encounter of figures of neon light” (G. Celant, “The Organic Flow of Art, quoted in G. Celant, Mario Merz, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1989, p. 22). Unlike artists like Dan Flavin, who also incorporated florescent light into his work, here Merz harnesses its effect for a completely different effect. “It releases a true gaze by revealing the resources of the materials and their performances, notes Celant. “It strikes the surfaces and activates them, qualifying their essentiality, giving them life, naming them, and thereby turning them into writing” (G. Celant, ibid., p. 21).

Executed in 1967, Teatro Cavallo marks the emergence of Arte Povera in Europe. Defined as “a search for continuous metamorphoses of languages, accompanied by a transmutation and proliferation that are different from any forms,” the movement was born out of a reaction to the prevailing Pop and Minimalism of the day and sought to end the celebration of a universal and monolithic culture. Instead artists sought to adopt a new reasoning in which ambiguity, confusion, deconstruction and irresponsibility were all to be championed. (G. Celant, ibid., p. 21). In this context, the work becomes an early example of this new school of thought. The luminosity made available by neon would become one of the most important devices for Merz as it generated what he once described as ‘the visibility of the whole.’ Using the ubiquitous nature of his materials, Merz evokes the natural form, spirit and beauty of the horse and produces a work which resonates with a sense of purpose and visual poetry.

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