Painting by Numbers

Jackson Pollock's squiggly paintings can fetch millions on the auction block, yet some people think kindergartners are equally adept at this kind of abstract art. Now a study in this week's Nature by physicist Richard Taylor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, has found a quantifiable method in Pollock's apparent madness.

In the late 1940s, Pollock made a radical departure from brush techniques by dribbling paint while dashing around giant canvasses strewn on the floor of his barn. His goal in this pioneering abstract expressionism was to move away from merely representing the world, to tapping its unspoken language. "My rhythms are concerned with nature," he wrote.

Taylor, who is interested in art theory, and his colleagues analyzed the patterns by scanning reproductions then superimposing a grid. A computer calculated the percentage of each box filled by paint. After repeating the measurements with smaller and smaller boxes in the grid, Taylor's team found the same space-filling pattern at each magnification. In other words, the compositions are fractal, like a coastline that has the same sweeping outline when viewed at many scales.

Pollock apparently refined his fractal technique. When the team analyzed early paintings such as "Composition with Pouring 11," 1943, they measured a fractal dimension of close to 1, amounting to little fractal character. Later paintings had a higher fractal dimension, such as 1.72 for the 1952 "Blue Poles." Not only did his fractal patterns improve with time, they also became more space-filling, or, in artspeak, bolder and more complex. Because Pollock's paintings show a steady increase in fractal dimension over his career, the authors say this parameter could validate and date the drip paintings.

The findings should put to rest the notion that Pollock's techniques were random. "This adds premeditation to the reading of Pollock," says University of New South Wales art historian Alan Krell. "He was not this impetuous painter working with gay abandon."

Posted in Physics