Created for the 1979 one-man exhibition at Galleria Toselli in Milan, Gambe (Legs) exhibits many of the dominant visual elements and concerns of Mario Merz’s prolific practice. Clearly aware of the site of exhibition, Merz renders disembodied human legs in charcoal to balance on the curved edge of a gallery archway. Two arms, lightly rendered, protrude from the top of the canvas, the fingers touching the lower curve, highlighting the physical dimensions of the canvas. Bisecting the legs is Merz’s signature neon tube. The impaled, distorted human form may suggest ideas of violence and constriction, but when analyzed in the context of Merz’s oeuvre, it shows how art has the power to speak beyond theconcerns of aesthetics and art history to relate to the reality of human life.
Chief among Merz’s ideas was the monumental importance of the Fibonacci sequence—a series of numbers, each the sum of the two proceeding digits, that was originally devised by the eponymous Italian mathematician in the 13th century to determine how many offspring a pair of rabbits would have in a year. The sequence begins: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. This integer series serves as the numerical basis for many organic phenomena from the sprouting of certain fruits and flowers to the circular construction of nautilus shells. It is closely related to the golden ration and has been used in architecture and art to achieve perfection. Merz explains: “[my work]… corresponds with the proliferations of the natural and corporal elements; for instance, we have a nose, two eyes, five fingers, etc. This series is biologically conceivable; hence, the work has a direction and real roots. This series is not a mere fantasy; it is used in computers, by mathematicians and architects; so I thought it would be possible to create relationships with it; I made continuously transportable signs that contain it and assume it” (M. Merz qtd. in G. Celant, “The Organic Flow of Art”, Mario Merz, exh. cat., New York, 1989, p.28). While there are no numbers depicted on the canvas, the arms, legs, and digits of the hands can be read as tallies. As the artist explains, the numbers come from nature and directly relate to the structure of organic beings, so a single tally mark is the equivalent of holding up one finger since they both signify the same concept. In this way, Merz utilizes the human figure to reference the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence. Merz did not limit himself to depictions of the human body, he created performances incorporating living individuals to showcase the connection between the body and the Fibonacci sequence. One such example is the performance A Real Sum Is A Sum of People, first conceived in 1972, in which the artist acted out the Fibonacci sequence by inviting guests to eat at a restaurant in a timed order—first no guests, followed by one, followed by a second, then two at a time, then three at a time, and so on, until there was no longer room in the restaurant to seat any others.
The Fibonacci sequence gains momentum, size and energy as it hurtles towards infinity. Merz believed that his paintings could harness this sense of perpetual movement and acceleration by making this sequence the basis of much of his work. In this way, the artist placed himself in a legacy of other Italian artists fascinated with ideas of emulating modern speed. “Mario Merz is a child of Futurism. He follows a tradition that links Boccioni to Fontana; he feels that the object is in perpetual motion, seeking a different space, exploding light or crossing a threshold into a new dimension”(Ibid., p.39). As Germano Celant explains in his essay accompanying Merz’s 1989 Guggenheim Retrospective, Merz’s use of the repeated leg may be a nod to Futurist Giacomo Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony of 1912. Balla’s work captures the essence of movement and acceleration in the Modern age. As opposed to appearing as a solid mass moving through space, the girl is a collection of colorful strokes, particles of light hurtling forward. The body disintegrates into its environment, erasing divisions between subject and surroundings. This work showcases the Futurist concept of Dynamism—the idea that all objects in the world have kinetic energy and do not exist as separate entities, but constantly exchange this energy through colliding and combining with one another. As described in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting: “The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten four three; they are motionless and they change places.(...)The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.” In a similar fashion, Merz does not see a distinction between different objects, instead all things are linked and in constant motion, orbiting and colliding with one another, destroying traditional boundaries; “…the numbers, like animals or shrubs, creep anywhere…the circularity of languages and artistic media, of culture and painting, has become total; all frontiers and limits have fallen, so that objects and images, paintings and materials can follow all possible and imaginable trajectories” (M.Merz qtd. in G. Celant, p.32).
One of the major ways in which Merz spoke about the unity of forces was through his use of neon. “Neon, for Merz, represents union, the passages between materials, filling the gaps between them. Its illuminating presences in the body of the canvas…not only lacerates them, but also reveals their secret underground centers; it makes them transparent and brings them up to the surface” (Ibid., p.36). Like Fontana’s use of neon and his famous slashes, these lacerating lances of neon pierce the canvas not to foreground violence, but to break through the constraints of the picture plane and to expand it. Merz is indebted to Fontana’s idea of Spatialism, the belief that since painting a physical object it must be concerned with physical as opposed to illusory space. “My paintings should not necessarily be hung on the wall, they can be placed on the floor or attached to the ceiling…It’s good for paintings to start occupying a position in space, just like a chair or a table, which are useful in everyday life” (Ibid., 17).
In Gambe, Merz directly links his painting to the surrounding architecture by abutting the canvas’s lower edge with the upper curve of an arch in the gallery. The painting seems in many ways to have crawled or scaled the side of the wall. “Beyond tying them to the ground, I see my paintings crawl up the wall. They promptly turn into a creeping crocodile or lizard. I very much want the canvas to creep rather than being on the wall in a decorative sense” (Ibid., p.37). By placing the work in this specific corner, the artist calls attention to the arch itself. A Roman invention, an arch provided a novel load bearing solution to an advancing civilization, providing the basis for aqueducts, which would hydrate an empire, as well as the Colosseum and other important buildings. As a load bearing element, constantly under stress, distributing the weight of the building on either side—silent, still, but kinetic and dynamic—itself a reserved architectural testament to Dynamism.
Gambe not only displays Merz’s idea of the inherent dynamism of art objects as typified by the Fibonacci sequence, but also links him to a grand tradition of Italian thinkers from the ancient Romans to Fibonacci, the Futurists, and Fontana.