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Jackson Pollock, Untitled 1948-49
Jackson Pollock, Untitled 1948-49

THE PHYSICS OF JACKSON POLLOCK

July 8, 2011

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Jackson Pollock’s works are universally defined by their rapid streaks of color and effortless drips of paint. But in a new study in the journal Physics Today on the mechanics of Pollock’s painting, Boston College and Harvard professors Andrzej Herczynski, Claude Cernuschi and L. Mahadevan argue that the artist employed a slow, methodical technique of “fluid dynamics.” The process is “particularly intriguing to physicists” because Pollock “ceded some of the responsibility for the appearance of his work to natural phenomena.” As a result, the authors believe Pollock’s work is open to mathematical analysis, and they’ve even devised a formula to replicate Pollock’s painting style.

In contrast to artists who simply splatter paint onto the canvas, Pollock dipped a stick or trowel into the paint and let it drip slowly from above, allowing it to form coils, like honey. According to the Physics Today trio, he was practicing a form of physics that wasn’t written about until the late 1950s. Studying the red and black lines in his Untitled 1948-49, the authors argue that perhaps Pollock intuitively led the eye to follow a stream of lines rather than dart around between discrete dots and dashes. The Pollock esthetic, say the physicists, is appealing because of its quantifiable scientific underpinnings.

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