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Was Jackson Pollock More Than An Artist?

June 30, 2011

According to a multidisciplinary team of researchers, American artist Jackson Pollock’s paintings do not defy the laws of physics.

The researchers from Boston College and Harvard believe Pollock was an intuitive master of laws that govern the flow of liquids under gravity.

“In order to understand what is taking place with Pollock, it’s essential to understand the laws of physics and the dynamics at play under the laws of gravity,” Claude Cernuschi, a professor of art history at Boston College, said in a statement.

Pollock was an abstract expressionist in the 1940s and 50s who adopted the method of pouring paint onto canvas in order to convey his artistic vision.

The researchers analyzed Pollock’s drizzles, drops and splashes to reveal the workings of a physical phenomena known as jets, drops and sheets.  According to the researchers, each is governed by the law of fluid dynamics, which Pollock exploited by manipulating the thickness of his pigments and paints with water solvents.

“When Pollock is creating his pieces, he is enlisting gravity as a participant ““ as a co-conspirator,” Cernuschi said in a statement.

“He has to understand how pigment is going to behave under the laws of gravity. He has to anticipate what is going to happen and work accordingly. There is both spontaneity and control, just as there is in the improvisation of a jazz musician.”

The team said there has long been speculation about the role of fluid dynamics in Pollock’s work, but never before an explicit quantitive exploration of Pollocks’ primary methodology and his less frequent use of drops and sheets.

The researchers looked at Pollock’s techniques and the physical aspects of paint on canvas in order to understand the forces at play.  Their calculations describe Pollock’s lifting and dispensing of paint in terms of paint load volume, viscosity, flow rates, gravity, and other factors.

Pollock worked by loading a stick or towel with a greater amount of paint than a brush holds during conventional easel painting.  He released a jet of liquid to the canvas placed on the floor.

According to the researchers, his physical technique reflects his efforts to control liquid-jet dynamics such as fluid instability called coiling, which is the circular motion of a thinning paint jet.

The team said that while Pollock may have instinctively understood how to control these forces, it would be years later before scientists came to fully understand them in theory and practice.

“By pouring paint in this continuous jet fashion or by dripping it, he incorporated physics into the process of painting itself,” Andrzej Herczynski, a physicists at Boston College, said in statement. “To the degree that he did and to the degree he varied his materials ““ by density or viscosity ““ he was experimenting in fluid dynamics, although his aim was not to describe the physics, but to produce a certain aesthetic effect.”

The findings are reported in Physics Today.

Image Caption: Jackson Pollock at work, photographed by Martha Holmes. Photo (c) Time Inc, Getty Images.

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