Mario Merz was born January 1, 1925, in Milan. He grew up in Turin and attended medical school for two years at the Università degli Studi di Torino. During World War II he joined the anti-Fascist group Giustizia e Libertà and was arrested in 1945 and confined to jail. In 1950, he began to paint with oil on canvas. His first solo exhibition, held at Galleria La Bussola, Turin, in 1954, included paintings with organic imagery. By 1966, he began to pierce canvases and objects with neon tubes, altering the materials by symbolically infusing them with energy.
In 1967, he embarked on an association with several artists, including Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Giulio Paolini, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio, which became the art movement labeled Arte Povera. This movement was marked by an anti-elitist aesthetic, incorporating humble materials drawn from everyday life and the organic world in protest of the dehumanizing nature of industrialization and consumer capitalism. Iin 1968, Merz adopted one of his signature motifs, the igloo. It was constructed with a metal skeleton and covered with fragments of clay, wax, mud, glass, burlap, and bundles of branches, and often political or literary phrases in neon tubing.
He participated in significant international exhibitions of Conceptual, Process, and Minimalist Art, such as Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1968, that traveled to Krefeld, Germany, and to London. In 1970, Merz began to utilize the Fibonacci formula of mathematical progression within his works, transmitting the concept visually through the use of the numerals and the figure of a spiral. By the time of his first solo museum exhibition in the United States, at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1972, he had also added stacked newspapers, archetypal animals, and motorcycles to his iconography, to be joined later by the table, symbolic as a locus of the human need for fulfillment and interaction. His first solo European museum exhibition took place at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1975, and a major retrospective was organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1989. Merz died at his home in Milan on November 9, 2003.