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The Physics of Jackson Pollock’s Painting (VIDEO)

The Physics of Jackson Pollock’s Painting (VIDEO)


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.”

In particular, the Physics Today study argues that Pollock worked slowly and deliberately to produce his paintings. Says Mahadevan in Science Daily:

“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 (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*

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11:29PM PST on Nov 24, 2014

I got this blog site through my friends and when I searched this really there were informative articles at the place. certapro

4:55PM PST on Dec 13, 2011

Leave it to 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.”
You can come to the same conclusion with a pile of garbage and that nothing is random, which would be true considering the different articles with various weight, size, and shape in which this unique pile of garbage came together. One more thing, I left out one very important factor, the height at which it would be dropped. At various heights from which it fell, the pattern and size of this unique pile would have its own individual composition. A random act, or was there a method to it?

1:58PM PDT on Jul 1, 2011

As an "armchair artist"myself, I find this sort of post-mortem analysis of an artist's so-called "genuis" pedantic and frankly "crap." It's like the art critics who commented on paintings made by chimpansees (but disguised as human works of art) as being of "marvelous depth and truly remarkable sense of multi-dimensionality." Next, these so-called art crtitics will be conferring a posthumous PhD in physics to Pollack. Come on, get serious. The guy was ahead of his time and splattered paint on a canvas. The art market took it from there. You might as well confer on Andy Warhol a posthumous honorary degree in photography.

2:48PM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

I see each painting as a representation of the "dance" that created it. It is a visual record that describes the inherent movement of the body in space during the act of creation.

2:14PM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

One of my classes was taught by the brother of Pollack at MSU. He said that his brother started out as a conventional artist but didn't have any reponse from his early work. He began to expirament. His brother said that sometimes he flung paint from a ladder. The canvas was long and he would cut it into two or three works. He commited suicide.

10:47AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

It's nice to know that someone found the pattern or the order in what seems to be random painting. Now I appreciate Pollock more.

10:44AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

It's nice to know that someone found the pattern or the order in what seems to be random painting. Now I appreciate Pollock more. Thanks for sharing this.

10:07AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

If it gives you enjoyment, then it is a success.

Tamera, I know some art is complicated.

6:58AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

thanks, enjoyed that

6:47AM PDT on Jun 30, 2011

So if I give it lots of thought while I splash paint on a wall (or canvas on the floor) I can call it "art"? Well art is in the eye of the beholder, along with beauty. And IMHO, Pollacks work and others of that ilk, fail the test.

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