Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?

Jun 28, 2011
Untitled, ca. 1948-49

At a glance, a painting by Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956) can look deceptively accidental: just a quick flick of color on a canvas.

A of Pollock's streams, drips, and , by Harvard L. Mahadevan and collaborators at Boston College, reveals, however, that the artist had to be slow—he had to be deliberate—to exploit fluid dynamics in the way that he did.

The finding, published in Physics Today, represents a rare collision between mathematics, physics, and art history, providing new insight into the artist's method and techniques—as well as his appreciation for the beauty of natural phenomena.

"Our article is mainly an invitation to think about some aspects of art from a scientific perspective," says Mahadevan, who is the Lola England de Valpine Professor of Applied Mathematics at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and of Physics.

Crossovers between art and science are nothing new; consider, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's botanical sketches, proportional studies, and flying machines (or, for that matter, the culinary artistry of today's molecular gastronomists).

"My own interest," says Mahadevan, "is in the tension between the medium—the dynamics of the fluid, and the way it is applied (written, brushed, poured…)—and the message. While the latter will eventually transcend the former, the medium can be sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating."

Pollock's signature style involved laying a on the floor and pouring paint onto it in continuous, curving streams. Rather than pouring straight from the can, he applied paint from a stick or a trowel, waving his hand back and forth above the canvas and adjusting the height and angle of the trowel to make the stream of paint wider or thinner.

Simultaneously restricted and inspired by the laws of nature, Pollock took on the role of experimentalist, ceding a certain amount of control to physics in order to create new aesthetic effects.

Mahadevan, collaborating with art historian Claude Cernuschi and physicist Andrzej Herczyński, both at nearby Boston College, took an interest in Pollock when his colleagues suggested that the artist may have exploited the same aspects of fluid dynamics that Mahadevan has studied in the past.

Instabilities in a free fluid jet can form in a few different ways: the jet can break into drops, it can splash upon impact with a surface, or it can fold and coil, as when a stream of honey lands on a slice of toast. The artist Robert Motherwell produced drips and splashes by flicking his brush; Pollock's technique, on the other hand, is defined by the way a relatively slow-moving stream of paint falls onto the canvas, producing trails and coils.

In a sense, the authors note, Pollock was learning and using physics, experimenting with coiling fluids quite a bit before the first scientific papers on the subject would appear in the late 1950s and '60s.

Quantitative explanations for what are now termed inertial, gravitational, and viscous coiling regimes are relatively recent findings, elucidated only within the last few decades. Mahadevan himself has studied the coiling of honey, nanofibers, and rope, and the behavior of a dripping faucet, among many other aspects of soft matter physics.

Mahadevan and his coauthors examined the black and red Untitled 1948-49 and 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.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
This video from the University of Toronto demonstrates how coiling motions can be predicted and manipulated when the "canvas" is the object in motion.

The artist, of course, must have discovered the effects he could create through experimentation with various motions and types of paint, and perhaps some intuition and luck. But that, says Mahadevan, is the essence of science:

"We are all students of nature, and so was Pollock. Often, artists and artisans are far ahead, as they push boundaries in ways that are quite similar to, and yet different from, how scientists and engineers do the same."

Pollock's work and physicists' modern understanding of natural phenomena blur the line between art and science.

The authors wonder whether a quantitative understanding of could inspire a new style of art that takes Pollock's medium a step further. Using a can of paint with a thin slit in one end, they suggest, an artist could paint with a film of pigment rather than a jet, creating new aesthetic effects.

"There are interesting quantitative questions everywhere in art," says Mahadevan. "One that currently fascinates me is inspired by the Chihuly exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, not only because of the beauty of the glass blowing forms, but also because it presents analogies to problems in biology and physics that span scales from the cell (in the context of cell shape) to the whole Earth (in the context of magma and lava flows)."

"Of course, another, much harder, problem," he adds, "is the notion of 'beauty' in art or science, which we all can recognize but find hard to quantify."

Explore further: Professor quantifies how 'one thing leads to another'

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Squirrel
2.5 / 5 (6) Jun 28, 2011
Where is the control? Pollock did something but how unique was his skill? I would guess at least 10% of any art college intake given motivation and time could create works that in blind testing would be indistinguishable from Pollock "originals". Why should such works of art be of less value that those created by Pollock? Because they would be indistinguishable they would possess the same aesthetic qualities of Pollock. Could it be that reputation and the label by an art work is more important than the actual visual experience it provides?
J-n
3.3 / 5 (3) Jun 28, 2011
In the world of art it is not always the Art that gives it value.

While the look of art will most definetly garner that artwork sales, it may not command the high prices of "Critically Acclaimed artwork".

An EXACT copy of the Mona Lisa will not be worth nearly as much as the original.

Much artwork is not only purchased for it's aesthetic qualities, but also it's "collectible" qualities. For example there have been small plush toys for decades, but only the TY Beenie Babies had any "collectible" Value.
jamesrm
1 / 5 (1) Jun 28, 2011
The authors wonder whether a quantitative understanding of fluid dynamics could inspire a new style of art that takes Pollock's medium a step further. Using a can of paint with a thin slit in one end, they suggest, an artist could paint with a film of pigment rather than a jet, creating new aesthetic effects.

And using an ink-jet printer I can print what I like? so

Whats the difference between understanding and intuition?
Telekinetic
2.5 / 5 (6) Jun 28, 2011
This is like a sports commentator describing the moves of a pair of lovers locked in a sexual embrace. Pollock painted in an impassioned state of being "in the moment." The work, first and foremost was generated by emotions- impossible, thankfully, to quantify, and his painting style, though
brilliant and inventive, is secondary.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.5 / 5 (8) Jun 28, 2011
This is like a sports commentator describing the moves of a pair of lovers locked in a sexual embrace. Pollock painted in an impassioned state of being "in the moment." The work, first and foremost was generated by emotions- impossible, thankfully, to quantify, and his painting style, though
brilliant and inventive, is secondary.
Yeah. I remember seeing a documentary on tv where pollock said the reason he abandoned regular painting was because he couldn't hold his hands still. He was a drunk you see. One day he got so frustrated he started throwing paint at the canvas and - surprise! - he got popular.

His impassioned state is referred to as DTs. Art is nonsense.

Telekinetic
1.8 / 5 (5) Jun 28, 2011
"Art is nonsense." TheGhostofOtto1923

I rest my case.
George_Rodart
1 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
Stupid article, what a bunch of drips.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Jun 29, 2011
An EXACT copy of the Mona Lisa will not be worth nearly as much as the original.


Yes it would if you don't know it's a copy.

Take your exact duplicate, put it on a turntable with the original, give it a spin and look away for a minute. Then tell me which one is worth more.

Telekinetic
1 / 5 (3) Jun 29, 2011
I'm sure Nat King Cole's daughter, Natalie, could tell the difference.
FrankHerbert
1.4 / 5 (9) Jun 29, 2011
Spin them backwards and hear secret socialist messages.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (9) Jun 29, 2011
"Art is nonsense." TheGhostofOtto1923

I rest my case.
Art says "If you were as bright and clever as the people who can create and afford these fine works of art, then you could fully understand them too. Otherwise, put on your black turtleneck and come to the imposing art museum and pretend." Same with philosophy.

People get a thrill from the pretense not the content, as there is none. Proof - natural things are far more beautiful and content-rich than any imitation of them. Proof - successive gens of artists and philos will tend to reject previous dogmae, even if they strive to preserve the Legitimacy of it, as it legitimizes the current fashion trends they're trying to sell.
The work, first and foremost was generated by emotions- impossible, thankfully, to quantify, and his painting style, though brilliant and inventive, is secondary.
Yabbayabba. You learned this poop in liberal arts school? SO DID I. His pathology created his style. I rest my case.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (9) Jun 29, 2011
Art says "These must be valuable - look at how much people PAY for them! Look at the grand buildings built to display them!" -Which is exactly the same things religions tell you. "They must have substance - look, they're all over the place! They're in the CULTURE section of the Sunday papers!"

More pretense, more meta-reality, more time wasted fantasizing and less accepting Reality. More Propaganda to keep us distracted and compliant. These things all FEEL good, like quaaludes or a fine wine. But alcohol is really just alcohol isn't it? Really, which tastes better, old smelly grape juice or fresh grape juice? Or the grapes themselves??

Wine was the result of the necessity of storing foods and consuming them in their partially spoiled state. Which is a symptom of the pathology of overpopulation. It gave people like pollock and lautrec the disease which configured their 'art'. Can we discern the ongoing theme of pathology here?
Blair_Lawrence
5 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2011
I recall the childhood wonderment of similar experiments of expression with house paints on old discarded fence board! Artful wonder or the hollow exposition of ignorance?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.9 / 5 (7) Jun 29, 2011
I recall the childhood wonderment of similar experiments of expression with house paints on old discarded fence board! Artful wonder or the hollow exposition of ignorance?
That was one thing. This is quite another:

"We are all students of nature, and so was Pollock. Often, artists and artisans are far ahead, as they push boundaries in ways that are quite similar to, and yet different from, how scientists and engineers do the same."

-They are not similar, they are diametrically OPPOSED. Scientists want to learn about physical phenomena so we can employ it in useful ways. Artists want to mimic physical phenomena to give the impression they possess some deeper insight into the nature of it which in fact they do not.

They create fiction. They disguise reality. They offer the same shamanism which religion or philosophy does, that being understanding and control without the WORK needed to effect it.

They produce nothing of use besides social expediency. They retard Progress.
Skultch
5 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2011
Art is nonsense.....They produce nothing of use besides social expediency. They retard Progress.


We are Otto. Resistance is futile.

Until that glorious day where we have everything figured out, (well, ourselves figured out, at least), we find comfort in the acknowledgement and discovery of our emotional connections and similarities, as flawed as they are.

There exists unpretentious art lovers.

Medicine for and vacation from...the journey....
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2011
Well skultch, buddy, once you decide to resist fantasy where do you stop?

Youve at least have to re-examine all the prevailing forms you may be involved in, and decide if theyre still worth pursuing. I think you also might want to look at the prevailing forms of fantasy that influence the world, and decide whether their effects are on the whole deleterious or not.

I must admit that I enjoy perusing art and architecture mags from time to time although - I must reiterate - aesthetics, or the activity of trying to create something beautiful, makes my skin crawl. Whatever the discipline. Natural beauty abounds. Humans who try to mimic it or embellish upon it always come up embarrassingly short, IMO.

And I keep running into art, philo. poetry, music, etc lovers who have very deleterious views on REALITY including scientific endeavor, and this makes me uncomfortable as well. I can only conclude that their ardor for the Ersatz is what causes this.
cont
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (5) Jul 04, 2011
-And so I must also conclude that fantasy itself is anathema to progress, and as such it should disappear altogether as the species matures and we become more comfortable with, and entangled with, REALITY.

The only question for me is, should I speak out against what I believe is fantasy in its most harmful forms, and thus perhaps in some small way hasten its demise, or should I try to keep my opinions to myself and risk headaches and internal injury? What do you think I'll do?

Right. So I start with religionism and its stunted evil dwarf twin, philosophy, because they are obviously the most ruinous. And art because it sucks, mostly.

But hey this stuff is pretty good:
http://www.youtub...TlCkwjnc

-Kind of anti-art art, dont you think? Lyrical commentary on our decrepitude -? This too shall pass I suppose. Like a concretion in a bile duct.
Skultch
not rated yet Jul 06, 2011
If we were talking about fashion, I'd be 1000 percent with you. Talk about an emotional crutch. sheesh

I have to heavily disagree that we can't make more beautiful things AND it's unfair to compare artificial art to nature. Apples and drumsticks. I think you merely feel the need to extend your religion/philo opinion even further, a bit too far, IMO.

I live in a very beautiful place; the high HIGH Rocky Mtns. I wouldn't live here if I didn't appreciate it; 8 month winters are tough. Most who live here are the same; they make sacrifices in order to be here. Ya know what? Most of us are also music lovers. Know why? We are capable of appreciating ALL beauty, and nature falls short in some ways.

The only art I make is love and beer, and they're fuckin awesome! :) Nature can accidentally make beer, but it won't be better than mine and it won't bring as much enjoyment.

As much as I hope I live forever, I probably won't. Why not lean back and enjoy what I can? If I can...
Skultch
not rated yet Jul 06, 2011
Art isn't necessarily fantasy. It can be a lot of other things: nostalgia, party catalyst, harmless add-on to function, and in the case of my beer, self expression and sense discovery.

Look up sensualism. It's all about using art to discover ourselves. It's science.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (4) Jul 10, 2011
I live in a very beautiful place; the high HIGH Rocky Mtns.
Otto has trouble breathing up there.
The only art I make is love and beer
Now, see, this is what I mean. Sex is an inseparable part of procreation, the most important thing we animals can do. As such it is the most compelling. When we try to separate sex from the second part, we find we have to embellish it with all sorts of jellys and feather toys. This is art. It is not as good as the whole thing. IMO.

And beer. Beer is spoiled grass juice? A result of having to store foods for times of want. We have acquired a taste for spoiled food; I just ate a Borders cheese-stuffed pretzel; but it is not natural. Eating pretzels made from grass is not natural.

"Sensualism...is a philosophical doctrine" Sorry I had to stop there. I think the proper scientific analog might be:
http://en.wikiped...oscience

Yours reminds me right away of people dying in sweat lodges, trying to reinvigorate dulled senses.