People often look at artist Jackson Pollock paintings with their abstract drips and blotches and say “that’s worth millions of dollars? A baby could do that!” A new study by Harvard mathematician and physicist L. Mahadevan and Boston College professors (including an art historian) suggests that there was quite a bit more method to Pollock’s seeming “randomness.”
“My own interest 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.
Here’s a video showing Pollock at work:
Pollock, says the study, handed over “a certain amount of control to physics in order to create new aesthetic effects”:
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 colleagues aren’t saying that Pollock knew about fluid dynamics (which is not to say he didn’t) and sought to apply such principles to his painting, but that via a process of trial and error with his materials, he discovered a technique that is a far cry from just dripping and dropping paint here and there. Mahadevan and his colleagues carefully studied the black and red painting Untitled 1948-49 and then, through mathematics, sought to show 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.
Pollock’s work can be said to “blur the line between art and science,” as he (again, consciously or not) drew on the laws of nature to paint.
If you’d like to express your inner Pollock, you might check out JacksonPollock.org (which I learned about from the music teacher at my son’s autism school — he’s someone who certainly knows a thing or two about the hard work of being creative).
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Photo Jackson Pollock, Painting (Silver over Black, White, Yellow and Red), 1948, by *clairity*