The physics of Jackson Pollock

June 30, 2011 by Amara D. Angelica

Jackson Pollock's Untitled 1948-49

Can you tell the difference between a painting by an elephant and Jackson Pollack? (Take this test before reading further.)

A mathematician at Harvard University and a physicist-art historian at Boston College think they can. Pollock was an “intuitive master” of laws that govern the flow of liquids under gravity, they believe.

The researchers 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 co-author his art. These drizzles, drips, and splashes reveal the workings of physical phenomena known as jets, drops, and sheets, they say. Each is governed by the laws of fluid dynamics, which Pollock exploited through careful technique and manipulating the thickness of his pigments and paints with water and solvents.

Personally, I prefer the elephant paintings. Which would explain why I flunked out of art class.

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