Jackson Pollock Physics
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.
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.”
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?”