NEW YORK — TODAY'S art is often very puzzling. Just when we've learned to accept one strange thing or another, something even more unusual pops up - and we have to start trying to understand all over again. That, I'm certain, is the way many visitors to the Guggenheim Museum here feel when they are confronted by Mario Merz's huge, igloo-like structure, made of metal tubes, and glass. It dominates the museum's main floor.
And they'll feel that way when when they look up and see a real motorcycle, jutting out from, and appearing to run along the outside of, a ramp half way up the museum interior.
Some, I suspect, will turn right around and leave. Those who stay, however, will probably be glad they did - for the challenge Merz's work presents and for what it suggests.
The entire museum has been given over to the first comprehensive American retrospective of Merz, the Italian painter/sculptor. ``Mario Merz'' consists of 88 large two- and three-dimensional pieces (including several installations created specifically for this show) and 22 smaller works on paper dating from the 1950s to the present. It was organized by the Guggenheim's new curator of contemporary art, Germano Celant, a longtime acquaintance of the Italian artist.
For an artist, Merz has a rather unusual background. He was born in 1925, grew up in the hills outside Turin, and studied medicine. His heart wasn't entirely in that profession, however. In 1945 he spent a short term in prison for political activities, and while there he began to draw on whatever materials he could find, including bread and cheese wrappers. Upon his release, he went to Paris for a few months, where he worked as a truck driver while teaching himself about art at the Louvre.
Merz began to paint in the early 1950s, using industrial materials such as enamel and spray paint. With them, he produced thickly impastoed figurative paintings. Dissatisfied, he began to search for ways to ``get beyond painting,'' a search that ended roughly a decade later when he began to pierce his monochromatic ``shaped'' canvases and a variety of other objects with neon tubing.
It was during this period that he and a group of other artists living in Turin formed Arte Povera, an anti-elitist movement that celebrated art fashioned from humble materials and the products of nature. This led, in the late 1960s and '70s, to the development of several motifs he continues to use. The first was the igloo, which in his hands became a metaphor for the transitory and ever-changing nature of art. The various igloos in the exhibition - especially the one on the museum's main floor - attest to the importance he places on this motif.
Most of his work, however, is divided between large, freely executed paintings of wild animals and other living things - paintings that are almost primal in their impact - and three-dimensional constructions. The latter include tables, raincoats, fruit, old newspapers, a dripping faucet, and a zebra head stuffed with neon tubes, clumps of straw.
Running throughout the show are series of numerals representing the Fibonacci formula of mathematical progression, conceived by the monk Leonardo da Pisa in the 13th century. The sequence is built by taking the sum of the two numbers that precede it: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on. To Merz, this formula corresponds to the proliferation and growth of forms, and so he uses it frequently and often wittily. The motorcycle, for instance, appears to zoom along such a series of numbers attached to the ramp, and the water from the dripping faucet begins falling just above a ``1'' and strikes an object at ``55.''
Walking through the exhibition, one cannot help being impressed by Merz's energy and seriousness. Many of his paintings, especially ``Nine Vegetables,'' ``Bison,'' ``Giant Woodsmen'' and ``Seed in the Wind,'' are powerful and original. They indicate that he is an excellent draftsmen and a provocative colorist. He also has a rich imagination and a committed philosophical approach to art not unlike that of his German contemporary Joseph Beuys.
There is a problem, however. It hinges on Merz's occasional ineffectiveness in translating idea into symbol and metaphor. One gets the impression that the idea itself is often sufficient for him and that he finds any serious attempt to communicate that idea to others not worth the effort.
There's a kind of arrogance in that, a kind of, ``I know what I mean and if they can't get it, well ...'' Such an attitude is not only unattractive but at odds with the stated anti-elitist position of ``Arte Povera.''
Except for that, however, ``Mario Merz'' is a fascinating and rewarding show. It continues through Nov. 26 at the Guggenheim Museum.