Saturday, November 15, 2003

Mario Merz died last Sunday – to those of us who have used the Fibonacci series in our art, this is not minor or distant news. While every one of the artists I’ve come across who have explored & exploited this series – 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 etc. – each number always the sum of the two previous numbers – seems to have arrived at it by him or herself independently (William Duckworth to his compositions for piano,  saxophone or web, Inger Christensen to her poetry, Merz to his igloos often composed of found objects or otherwise anti-aesthetic materials), there seems no question that Merz got there first.

What you can do with number in art is pretty damn near anything, if you simply think about for a while. None of these artists are much like one another, though each is representative of the more avant (or post-avant) tendencies in their forms. I don’t think Inger Christensen’s poetry is at all like my own, even though her booklength poem based on Fibonacci is entitled Alphabet!! Merz’ use of the series is all about ratio, an argument for scale & livability. There is an air of precision in Duckworth’s music that seems a far cry from Merz’ ragged edges, or those of my own poetry as well.

Yet I do think there is a deeper shared sensibility at work here. It’s no accident, for example, that Duckworth’s influences can be traced back to the work of John Cage, or that Christensen has been consistently the most formally innovative of Danish poets.  

Arte Povera, a visual arts tendency from 1960s Italy – the work dates from the beginning of the decade, the critics finally “named” the school around ’67 – was both formally innovative & made a point of using materials from the world itself, rather than merely what might be purchased from an arts supplies vendor. Its closest kin in the United States is Pop Art, I suppose, although Arte Povera always strikes me as being implicitly political, or at the very least social, in ways that most Pop – Warhol would be the exception* – does not. Merz was a medical student jailed for anti-fascist activity when he first began to draw.

There is a 21-year range between the four of us. Merz began using Fibonacci in 1971 & within a decade all four of us had produced at least one work of some size using the form. Looking at the work of the others & how different they seem, not only from my own poetry, but from each other, what strikes me most is a sense of all the other ways in which Fibonacci has yet to be explored. But I wonder if, a century hence, somebody won’t come along with a theory as to why four diverse artists from one generation broadly defined (“too young to fight in WW2, yet touched by it in some fashion”) would turn to number as a way to open up the world.

Why Fibonacci is that key series I have no doubt. Its ratios are distinct enough to both convey a sense of shape, movement, development. Much of poetry is expressed historically in terms of prime numbers – iambic pentameter rather than the ten-syllable line, or the construction of a haiku out of 3, 5 & 7 – yet primes very quickly dissolve in terms of such ratios. There is no way for a reader, viewer, listener, whatever to get any sense of shape or direction from 191, 193, 197 & 199, for example. And it gets worse the higher one goes. The 12th number in the Fibonacci series happens to be 12², yet it comes equidistant between the 34th & 35th prime numbers. When taken as a ratio, Fibonacci is literally the Golden Mean: 1.6180339887499…. Φ.

Knowing how Fibonacci functions & knowing how one might use it in any given medium are two very different things. Here’s to Mario Merz, who saw it first.

* And would deny it! Yet consider that Guston’s turn back toward a more overtly political content was precisely what drove him to the iconography of comics.

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