Números de la Suerte

Nancy Princenthal

Karen Shaw first began running the numbers of words in the early 1970s. By 1975, she had recognized that simply numbering the alphabet in sequence (a=1, b=2, and so on), and substituting these tabulated numbers for the words of existing texts (beginning with the poe-try of Blake, Keats, Shelley, and Mallarme) was an activity that produced what could be called drawings. At first, she worked only in one direction, words to numbers. This process, which Shaw labeled «summation», resulted in meticulous arrangements of pencilled digits on graph paper, looking like verse but spoken like math.

It was an especially heroic feat of summation undertaken between 1974 and 1975, in which Shaw added up the numerical value of every letter in the King James version of the Gospel According to St. Matthew (final tally: 1,116, 071), that led her to see how many words share mathematical identities. Assembling like-numbered words in a numerically ordered vocabulary collection (it now contains over 20,000 words, and is still occasionally augmented), she was able to reverse the words-to-numbers process. With «summantics» (numbers to words), she could turn unprepossessing bits of daily math -cash register receipts, the numbers on athletes' jerseys- into a species of discovered poetry. Since then, Shaw has worked omnidirectionally, going from poetry to numbers and back and using an increasingly wide range of material, from the proper names of famous artists to Bingo cards and lotto tickets. Shaw calls the semiotic reverberations of these transubstantiated letters and digits «additional meanings».

One pivotal series began in 1979 with the book-length conversion of Rainer Maria Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo. Doing the summations on the original German poem and on three different English renditions, Shaw was able to demonstrate precisely what is lost in translation (surprisingly, the German text produced a bigger number than almost all of the English versions). At the conclusion of the elegant hand-bound, folio-sized volume, Shaw contributes her own summantic transliteration of Rilke's verse, a poem that may not be identical to the original in meaning but is, incontestably, equal to it in number.

Early on, the wordplay turned visual, as when Shaw took artists in summationally equivalent pairs and found (numerically) shared traits. Masaccio and Flavin are thus linked in a 1980 collage featuring a reproduction of the Renaissance painter's Tribute Money, its principles haloed with circular white fluorescent tubes, and captioned summantically: bright, relit, true, arty, doux. In other collages, Ingres and Samaras are found equal to «unfold» and «emerges»; Smith (both Tony and David come into this example) are equivalent to Stella and Riley, and also to stark, ordered, and dramatic. Renoir adds up to the same thing as Rubens, Warhol as Hogarth.

And less, in a great majority of the dozen languages Shaw counted it out in, is more -in fact, less is generally more than more (the difference in English is 4). Spelling out, and thereby unraveling, such seemingly self-evident truths goes to the heart of Shaw's work: relentlessly ordered but fundamentally serendipitous, provocative but playful, it makes statements that are perfectly sustainable on the simplest, declarative level, but pry open unanswerable questions of considerable magnitude. As for instance, where does meaning come from -is there a system of signification more basic than, or somehow prior to, verbal language? Is an insatiable hunger for quantification the telltale habit of an irredeemably materialistic society, or the hallmark of mysticism? Or is it, simply, an urge toward understanding the way things work at the most fundamental level, as many physicists, and most mathematicians, believe? What exactly do numbers name -operations, or things? Is summantics a bold leap across disciplines and cultures, an experiment in esthetic ecumenicism akin to Esperanto, or a form of artistic inwardness on the order of autism? Has Shaw been a deconstructionist avant la lettre?

«Counting and naming have been twinned as far back as you care to look. ... Even our words for these two acts of mind are parallel: we tell stories as well as beads, tally our accounts and recount our tales,» writes mathmetician Robert Kaplan, (p.36) in his «natural history» of zero.(1) This shifty character of characters has been at the basis of the many religious systems that have attributed significance to numbers, from Buddhism's I Ching to Christianity's holy trinity and antichrist (666). Many cultures have revered written language, verbal and numerical, as aspects of divinity. The Greek's logos, the Tantric mantra, and of course the biblical Genesis story all give priority, and a species of divinity, to the Word. But it is to cabbalistic Judaism's Gematria, in which the Hebrew alphabet's numerical identities are used to examine religious texts for hidden significance, that Shaw's work is most often compared. Shaw makes the reference herself in explaining her system, but she is not - and this is a point about which she is adamant --a believing mystic. In opposing this label, she reveals that the momentum of her work arises, to a significant degree, in deflection, in turning away, often with laughter (a well-established form of resistance, not least for women)(2), from the authority of conventional forms of expression. On the other hand, her commitment to art -arguably a belief system as elaborate, demanding and rewar-ding as any other -is plain, and self-avowed. Though fed by many influences, her work was most marked at the outset by its affinity with systems-oriented Conceptualism (a somewhat belated relationship, as Shaw -hardly alone in this- discovered parallels with other artists as she progressed, rather than assembling a set of mentors and jumping into their wake). Along with its link to Conceptualism, Shaw's work was at first seen, by some, as a covert critique of rampant consumerism, a critique specifically aimed at the new, computer assis-ted, bean-counting («content analysis») approach to culture. Alan Sondheim, for instance, wrote «This primitive reductive system is, in miniature, a characterization and caricature of contemporary society, in which almost everything is reduced to quantity».(3) Along with Sol LeWitt, Channa Horwitz, Joyce Lightbody, and Peter Fend, Shaw was included in a 1978 show called The Poetry of Systems at Cal Tech's Baxter Art Gallery, which drew the comment from reviewer Suzanne Muchnic that «the very idea of imposing systems on art is odious...even Orwellian»(4). But Muchnic, who linked Shaw and the others in the show to Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, and Donald Judd, also approvingly cited curator Susan Larsen's belief that «art is always involved with order».

Shaw herself has mentioned On Kawara, Douglas Huebler, and Joseph Kosuth as artists whose Conceptualist experiments in the 1970s were relevant to her own. Even more pertinent, she says, were the interdisciplinary adventures of John Cage, and of the original Dadaists, work in which the privileges of authorship were ceded to chance not as an incriminatory exercise, but as an open-ended invitation. On the other hand, Shaw describes herself as relatively uninvolved with Fluxus (though when she recently corrected an interviewer on this point, claiming little social or ideological affiliation with the group, she inevitably also honored the spirit of a movement whose only professed goal was to produce no tenets, no adherents, no followers). Whatever the influences that helped shape Shaw's work -and despite a generosity of spirit that ties her as firmly to her colleagues as to her audience- one of its strongest impulses derives from aversion to orthodoxy of any kind, whether of religion, of art theory, or practice.

As it happened, Shaw's first summantic drawings emerged not only against the background of emerging Conceptualism, but also from personal experience. In the early 1970s, she worked as a data analyst for NBC, reading narrative poll results concerning the effects on children of violent television programming, and reducing them to two-digit data for computer analysis. The respondents were all boys. The poll-readers were all women -suburban housewives, in Shaw's jokingly self- deprecating description, and also, many of them, burgeoning feminists. Newly self-aware, angry and skeptical, they questioned their assignment because it ignored girls, and because it involved gross simplification of complex issues. In 1980, Shaw told Andrea Miller-Keller, «Soon I was able to code the entire universe and converse with colleagues in two-digit numbers. We could register attitudes and information with the utmost economy while completely eliminating feeling and personality».(5 )

More recently, she spoke of their coded conversations as subversive and sarcastic. But if the data entry was frustrating in many ways, it proved felicitous for Shaw, not only because it suggested a way to play complicated meaning against simple numbers, but also, perhaps above all, for alerting her to the importance of chance itself. Coincidence, of a great variety, has gover-ned her career and her work -or, put another way, she has shown unusual delight, and candor, in articulating its manifestations. In 1976, she submitted the winning entry for a New York Times-sponsored contest (it drew 3,000 applicants) to complete a short story began by Donald Barthelme. Barthelme's fragment introduces a drunk who falls and breaks a leg, and finds himself at the mercy of a particularly unsympathetic brother. Shaw's conclusion elaborates on this brother's personality, making him a compulsive sum-speller, an adept of her own cult. The short story ends with its main character reviewing the 100 days spent «hurting and healing. All things being equal 100 equals USELESS, and so it was.» (Although she didn't say so in this context, it also equals Karen Shaw). What she couldn't have known is that Barthelme's brothers, in real life, were (or would become, as described in an acclaimed recent account in the New Yorker) compulsive gamblers, driven (ruinously) by betting they could beat the numbers. This could be called coincidence of the highest order, though a fraternal gift for fatalism might be the only explanation necessary. Similarly open to question is the precise balance of luck and inclination governing the connection between Shaw's maiden name (Tobias) and the last name of the teacher, in graduate school, who first recognized her doodling summantics as art (the painter Julias Tobias).

Of course, coincidence, fundamentally untamable, is no more often honored than domesticated, as by gamblers. And by writers, since constructing metaphor and assembling coherent narrative (including but not limited to fiction) depends so thoroughly on revealing connections lurking in the real world that the entire enterprise has been convincingly compared, by one great scribe of the 1970s, to paranoia (Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity's Rainbow). Vladimir Nabokov, whom Shaw celebrated in a recent installa-tion, was a peerless master at cracking words to find meanings hidden inside, rearranging letters and reassigning sense in ways that might be dismissed as simple anagrams or puns, but which he knew revealed deeper, stranger, more beguiling kinds of truth.(6)

From the early 1980s until just a few years ago, Shaw's work got little attention in the United States, though she showed substantially in Europe. During this time, her attention turned to maps and constellations, redrawn to reflect alternative organizing principles (celestial bodies as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, for instance, rather than the gods of Greece and Rome). When, in the middle 1990s, Shaw returned to summantics, the American cultural context was more favorable to her work's perceived mysticism, and less conducive to analyses that assume its basis in opposition to consumerism and digital technology. A quasi-mystical faith in numbers may be seen, for example, in the recently unstoppable ascent of stock prices, which rise and rise without reference to the performance of the companies they represent. The speculative inclination is reflected more expli-citly, perhaps, in the current fad for numerology, which has focused new attention on the Cabbala, and on Gematria; Janet Goleas, writing about Shaw in the magazine Zing, says she found over 600 websites for Gematria, and that for $24.95 you can install your own «Gematralator» software.(7)

Shaw's recent work includes, in addition to collages and assemblages that draw found poetry from lo-ttery tickets and bingo cards, a number of sculptures based on the mannequin-like models that guide acupuncture practitioners. The painted wooden feet, hands, and ears are shown with acupuncture needles stuck into the numbered pressure points, each needle also skewering a summantically equivalent word, lettered on a tiny rectangle of clear acetate. In «Entomological/Ethymological Specimens of the World», the homage to Nabokov, Shaw filled a series of cloth-lined, multi-tiered boxes, of the kind used by insect collectors (the novelist was an avid lepidopterist) with numerically equivalent words, lettered on acetate and pinned like specimen bu-tterflies. Among Shaw's newest work is a series that makes use of player piano rolls, the perforated scrolls fed into mechanical precursors of electronic sound synethsizers. Shaw has assembled dozens of such rolls (which were manufactured from around 1918 through the 1960s), and uses them as stencils, brushing ink through the holes onto a variety of papers. Some of the dotted patterns that result are fairly punctual and precise; on more absorbent paper, the ink bleeds into swooning, Romantic cadences, the ink separating into halated puddles of iridescent blues and blacks. Shaw carefully hand-letters the words to the songs these scrolls accompany alongside the dots; as on the originals, they read from top to bottom. When stored, rolled around pairs of dowels, the original rolls and the resulting drawings alike suggest nothing so much as Torah scrolls.

When open (fully extended, they are 17' long), they are virtual feast of visual and verbal orchestration, of translation from sound to image, practical instrument to abstract expression, in which the product is faultlessly faithful to the generating program, and absolutely unpredictable. Connections between numbers and music, between music and art, and indeed between the numerical order underlying music and the physical organization of the universe, are as old as critical thought -and as new as the latest quantum-mechanical speculations. «With the discovery of superstring theory», writes physicist Brian Greene in the best-selling The Elegant Universe. «musical metaphors take on a startling reality, for the theory suggests that the microscopic landscape is suffused with tiny strings whose vibrational patterns orchestrate the evolution of the cosmos».(8) But of course order of the most apparently fundamental kind may ultimately conceal intractable chaos, rather than the reverse. One of religion's primary purposes is (or, was) keeping its followers alive to mystery (even if in practice it has mostly done so in order to prescribe ways of fending it off). To the fundamental unknowns, to a form of vigilantly skeptical credence fueled by curiosity and tempered by humor, that Shaw's work is dedicated.


1 Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 36.
2 See Joanna Isaak, The Revolutionary Power of Women¹s Laughter (New York: Routledge, 1996).
3 Alan Sondheim, «Karen Shaw», Arts, October 1976, p. X. Sondheim went on to note the «great number of computer studies of traditional texts, texts which had been assumed impervious to numerical analysis.»
4 Suzanne Muchnic, «Poetry of Systems¹ at Caltech».
5 In Matrix 53 (Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, January 1980), unpaginated pamplet.
6 Of particular relevance to Shaw is Nabokov¹s sport with coded messages, as when the two lovers who are the protagonists of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (New York: Vintage International, 1990), carry on an encrypted correspondence based on counting places in the alphabet.
7 Janet Goleas, «Karen Shaw; A Mini Survey - 25 Years of Additional Meanings: Art Resource Transfer, New York, New York», Zing, vol. 2 (winter 1999), p. 162.
8 Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 135.


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