Jackson Pollock: Physicist?

The instantly recognizable works of painter Jackson Pollock can inspire a divergent response. There are those who look at the ragged mix of drips and splashes and see nothing more than an impatient artist, one whose style is no more thoughtful than an average preschooler. Then there are those who read more into his works, seeing them as a literal flow of ideas onto canvas.

And then, of course, there are those who think really, really deeply about Pollock, to the point where they conceive of him as an artist-cum-physicist. Andrzej Herczyński, a physicist at Boston College, Claude Cernuschi, an art historian at Boston College, and L. Mahadevan, a mathematician at Harvard University, just published a study in Physics Today arguing that Pollock manipulated the viscosity of the paint on his trowel to vary the swirls and loops that splash across his paintings. A summary from the Science Now blog at the journal Science sums up their findings:

By measuring the thickness of the lines and the radius of the coils in the painting, Herczyński and Mahadevan were able to estimate the flow rate of Pollock’s paint as he moved his hand across the canvas. As Pollock increased his lateral speed, the lines he created progressed from loops to cusps to undulating sinusoids.

See? Your kid hasn’t taken physics yet and probably has no idea what a undulating sinusoid is. But chances are, Pollock didn’t have a clue, either. That fact doesn’t bother the study’s authors, who say their goal was to illustrate that genius can be demonstrated by using both sides of the brain — that art and science coexist. Regardless of whether Pollock was able to explain the physics of his process, he fiddled with the theory of gravity to his advantage. And that’s a big dripping deal.

Janelle Nanos
Janelle Nanos Janelle Nanos, Contributor jnanos@bostonmagazine.com