Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?

Date:
June 29, 2011
Source:
Harvard University
Summary:
A quantitative analysis of Pollock's streams, drips, and coils, by a mathematician reveals that the artist Jackson Pollock had to be slow -- he had to be deliberate -- to exploit fluid dynamics in the way that he did.

At a glance, a painting by Jackson Pollock (1912-56) can look deceptively accidental: just a quick flick of color on a canvas.

A quantitative analysis of Pollock's streams, drips, and coils, by Harvard mathematician 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 canvas 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 painting 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.

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 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.

"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."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Andrzej Herczyński, Claude Cernuschi, L. Mahadevan. Painting with drops, jets, and sheets. Physics Today, 2011; 64 (6): 31 DOI: 10.1063/1.3603916

Cite This Page:

Harvard University. "Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 June 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110628151637.htm>.
Harvard University. (2011, June 29). Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110628151637.htm
Harvard University. "Jackson Pollock, artist and physicist?." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/06/110628151637.htm (accessed August 1, 2014).

Share This




More Matter & Energy News

Friday, August 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways

Britain Testing Driverless Cars on Roadways

AP (July 30, 2014) British officials said on Wednesday that driverless cars will be tested on roads in as many as three cities in a trial program set to begin in January. Officials said the tests will last up to three years. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
7 Ways to Use Toothpaste: Howdini Hacks

7 Ways to Use Toothpaste: Howdini Hacks

Howdini (July 30, 2014) Fresh breath and clean teeth are great, but have you ever thought, "my toothpaste could be doing more". Well, it can! Lots of things! Howdini has 7 new uses for this household staple. Video provided by Howdini
Powered by NewsLook.com
Amid Drought, UCLA Sees Only Water

Amid Drought, UCLA Sees Only Water

AP (July 30, 2014) A ruptured 93-year-old water main left the UCLA campus awash in 8 million gallons of water in the middle of California's worst drought in decades. (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow

Smartphone Powered Paper Plane Debuts at Airshow

AP (July 30, 2014) Smartphone powered paper airplane that was popular on crowdfunding website KickStarter makes its debut at Wisconsin airshow (July 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins