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Jackson Pollock Physics

Untitled, ca. 1948-49 by Jackson Pollock. Credit: Provided by Harvard University.

When Jackson Pollock made his art, he’d lie a canvas on the floor. Then he’d use a stick or trowel to drip, splatter or coil the paint on the canvas.

Some critics thought Pollock’s quirky, controversial style made the paintings look like a mop of tangled hair. Others have dropped millions of dollars to buy Pollock’s work, calling him the best American artist of the 20th century. Perhaps it was Pollock’s reliance on gravity and paint viscosity, but his style has also drawn the attention of physicists, whose theories about his work have ignited some controversy of their own. More on that in a moment.

But first, the newest scientific take on Pollock: Physics Today recently described research by Harvard physicist L. Mahadevan and colleagues who used fluid physics to study Pollock’s style. The researchers wanted to understand how Pollock employed gravity and paint of varying viscosities to make coils, splashes and spots on the canvas.

Among other things, Mahadevan’s team “demonstrated mathematically that the only way Pollock could create such tiny looping, meandering oscillations was to hold his brush or trowel high up off the canvas and let out a flow of paint that narrowed and sped up as it fell. To create tiny loops rather than waves, he likely moved his hand slowly, allowing physics to coauthor his art.”

What’s interesting to me is that the fluid physics used to study Pollock’s art was only developed after Pollock was already finished making his masterpieces. Pollock started doing his trademark paintings in the 1940s. Physicists started working out fluid dynamics in the 1950s and 60s. In other words, Pollock’s use of fluid dynamics to make art predates the ability of physicists to mathematically model the same processes.

Pollock was ahead of his time in more ways than one.

Pollock in action. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Here’s another case: Just over a decade ago, art historian and physicist Richard Taylor reported that there are fractals in Pollock’s work. The term fractal was coined in 1975 by Benoît Mandelbrot–long after Pollock died in an alcohol-related car crash in 1956. And it’s Taylor’s work on Pollock fractals that has triggered some controversy of its own.

Back in 1999, Nature magazine published an article by Taylor reporting how he had applied the rules of fractal geometry to Pollock paintings and found that his artwork had fractal dimensions similar to that of natural contours such as those found in trees, clouds or a coastline. In other words, the aesthetic appeal of Pollock’s paintings is that they make you feel like you are on a beach. Lots of media outlets such as Discover and Scientific American hopped on the story.

With hundreds of Pollock fakes circulating around the US, Taylor told me that conservators approached him about the possibility of using the fractal method to authenticate paintings. In February of 2006, Nature reported that Taylor’s technique was being used to authenticate Pollock paintings. This article sparked Case University physicists Katherine Jones-Smith and Harsh Mathur to also publish a criticism of the Pollock fractal research in Nature magazine.

They argued that there are no fractals in Pollock’s paintings: “We find that the paintings exhibit fractal characteristics over too small a range to be usefully considered as fractal… Several problems must therefore be addressed before fractal analysis can be used to authenticate paintings.” To prove their point the Case scientists made a drawing in Photoshop in just a few minutes that met the same fractal criteria as had been used to authenticate a Pollock. “Either Taylor is wrong or Kate’s drawings are worth $40 million,” Mathur told Science News. “We’d be happy either way.”

Lavender Mist by Jackson Pollock. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Taylor did not stand down. “Our use of the term ‘fractal’ is consistent with that by the research community. In dismissing Pollock’s fractals because of their limited magnification range, Jones-Smith and Mathur would also dismiss half the published investigations of physical fractals,” he replied, also in Nature. Fractal founder Mandelbrot gave his support for Taylor in the Science News article, saying “I do believe Pollocks are fractal.”

Since then the Case Western University dissenters have published another criticism in Physical Review E arguing that “fractal criteria provide no information about artistic authenticity.”

Meanwhile Taylor continues to find validity in using fractal geometry to authenticate Pollock paintings, although he says that it is “just one key to authentication, and should be used with other methods. It’s not a red light-green light method.” He’s written a book called “Chaos, Nature, Fractals: A new look at Jackson Pollock,” which you can download here. Taylor’s also been looking at the connection between neurobiology and fractals, using MRI, EEG’s and skin conductance to investigate why looking at fractals reduces human stress levels, sometimes up to 50%, Taylor says.

I find it fascinating that Pollock’s artwork succeeds in simultaneously rousing debate at the same time as it soothes us–initially in the art world and then in the land of physics.

As a final aside: Besides being an amazing artist, Pollock was sometimes entirely impossible. Watch this feature film staring Ed Harris to learn more about his life.

Or if you want to watch Pollock in action, check out this cool old video of him painting. You’ll hear him assert that “I can control the flow of paint. There is no accident.”

There’s also a great line in that video where Pollock recounts being asked: “How do you know you’re finished with a painting?” His reply: “How do you know you’re finished making love?”

7 Comments

  • Jul 4th 201116:07
    by e

    Reply

    Thanks Sarah for your great post. I remember an article in the NYorker about a potential forger living in Toronto. Sorry I don’t remember more (maybe someone does?), but if I am correct they resorted to analysis of the chemicals to try to make sense of the claims. It would be interesting how the fractal method compares…

  • Jul 4th 201116:07
    by Sarah Everts

    Reply

    Sounds like a great article. I just searched the New Yorker site and came up with this piece about looking for artist fingerprints on masterpieces… http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/07/12/100712fa_fact_grann

  • Jul 4th 201121:07
    by e

    Reply

    yep. That is exactly that I had in mind.

  • Jul 4th 201121:07
    by e

    Reply

    *what I had

  • Jul 4th 201121:07
    by Vivian M

    Reply

    Watching the old video I was left wondering if evidence of cigarette ash could help confirm a Pollock painting?
    Another great post, Sarah. I learn something new every time.

  • Jul 5th 201110:07
    by Sarah Everts

    Reply

    Thanks Vivian. Your suggestion that the cigarette ash be a smoking gun gives me a great opportunity to make a terrible pun. :) But seriously, if cigarette ash were to be used in authentication, I’m guessing there would have be some analytical way of connecting the ash back to Pollock, or the geographical location where he worked. Perhaps isotopes of carbon in the ash could be used as a forensic fingerprint: http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/89/8926sci1.html

  • Jul 26th 201118:07
    by Chrys Riviere-Blalock

    Reply

    Chemistry instructor colleague sent this article to me. I look for ways to try to explain to my art history students that Pollock’s work “carries” a kind of energy when you stand in front of one of his paintings and view it. It’s an odd and unexplainable thing (for me) but something that is very real- and something a photo in their text book or online can not replicate. This article may touch at an explanation of that phenomenon (the relationship to nature via fractals) which is so real to those who give his work the time and sensitivity to become aware of that effect on the viewer. I’ll be sharing your article with my art history students!

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