Several years ago, I wrote a feature article for Discover on the work of physicist Richard Taylor, who used the same analysis techniques he applied in his laboratory to study several paintings by splatter master Jackson Pollock (affectionately known to Jen-Luc Piquant as "Jack the Dripper"). He found very clear fractal patterns in the seemingly random drip patterns Pollock splayed across his giant canvases.
Thanks to the enormous popularity of Jurassic Park, many people now realize that "chaos" — a word that typically denotes utter randomness — has a different meaning in the context of math and science. It applies to systems that only appear to be random on the surface; underneath is a hidden order. The stock market is a chaotic system, for example: a slight blip can be amplified many times over until the system "goes critical" and the market crashes. It’s known as the "butterfly effect" (not to be confused with the 2004 Ashton Kutcher film by the same name, although the movie certainly plays with the implications of the concept): a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and the air disturbance amplifies over time and distance, eventually causing a tornado in Texas.
Fractal patterns are the mathematical offspring of chaos theory, the remnant of chaotic motion — wreckage strewn in the wake of a hurricane, for example. Something might appear to be haphazard on the surface, but look closer and one might realize that there is, in fact, a single geometric pattern repeated thousands of times over at different size scales, just like those nested Russian dolls.
I’ve always liked the concept of chaos; it made perfect sense to me, in a way that quantum mechanics never could. (In my lexicon, "quantum" = "inexplicable weirdness." The fact that it appears to be true, at least at subatomic scales, doesn’t make it any less bizarre.) So I was chuffed to learn that fractal patterns pop up not just in art, but in music and literature as well. I love it when two widely divergent disciplines — science and art, in this instance — somehow manage to find common ground. Taylor’s work particularly fascinated me because he explored not just whether such patterns occurred in Pollock’s paintings, but why they might be there in the first place. When he analyzed archival film footage of Pollock in
the act of creating those canvases — shot in 1950 by Hans Namuth —
Taylor found that Pollock actually moved around the canvases in chaotic
motions. So there was nothing random about Pollock’s work at all, at least
to Taylor’s way of thinking.
Nearly five years later, Taylor (now a physics professor at the University of Oregon) is back in the news, having been asked to analyze several small paintings that were recently discovered, and appear to be original Pollocks. His findings, published in the British journal Nature on February 9, indicate that they might not be authentic after all. They don’t exhibit those telltale fractal patterns that Taylor has found to typify Pollock’s greatest work. In fact, there were "significant differences" in the drip patterns — so significant that Taylor concluded the new paintings were either due to one artist whose style was extremely varied, or to several different artists. Naturally, the owner of the paintings, one Alex Matter, is less than thrilled with this news. Pollock’s work typically fetches millions of dollars at auctions, so Matter’s cache of canvases, collectively, would be equivalent to winning the lottery — if they’re genuine.
There was heated dispute among art scholars on that front even before Taylor got into the act, but the physicist has added fuel to the flames. Some still contend that the paintings are more likely to be a pale imitation of Pollock’s signature technique on the part of Matter’s mother, Mercedes, an artist in her own right, as well as an art teacher, and also an "F.O.J." ("friend of Jack"). These naysayers point to Taylor’s analysis as hard, empirical evidence that the foundling canvases can’t be genuine. That argument carries some weight, especially since Taylor wasn’t paid to do the analysis (although his lab was reimbursed for expenses), and hence has no financial stake in the controversy.
Matter’s supporters insist that fractal analysis is far from a proven commodity when applied to the field of art authentication, which by its nature is fairly subjective, and usually comes down to a consensus judgment call. After all, they argue, how could a mere computer program possibly be capable of analyzing all the complexities of the human creative process? But in this case, there is no consensus among the usual experts.
Taylor himself is careful to insist that his analysis shouldn’t be the final word on the subject, telling the New York Times that his findings "should be integrated with all the known facts — including provenance, visual inspection, and materials analysis." In other words, any objective, scientific data should be considered in light of the traditional, more subjective criteria typically employed by art historians. And he never said outright that the paintings weren’t done by Pollock, just that the drip patterns aren’t consistent with the artist’s known authentic works. This places the burden of proof on Matter et al to explain why the drip patterns are so different.
I tend to favor Taylor’s findings, and not just because it’s a more
scientific approach. A little skepticism is perfectly justified:
stumbling upon 24 potentially
priceless paintings so many decades after Pollock’s demise seems just a
little too convenient. On the other hand, coincidences do happen,
especially in a random world. That’s because within the context of
science and math, "random" doesn’t quite mean what we think it does —
just like "chaos." If something is truly random, odd convergences and
coincidences should happen on occasion.
I recall reading a commentary last year by the owner of a newly
purchased iPod, who complained that the music player’s "random"
shuffling feature wasn’t truly random after all. His evidence:
sometimes the iPod would play two or three songs in a row by the same
artist, or repeat the same song more often than others. He wasn’t the
only one to complain, and Apple eventually had to incorporate a second,
non-randomness algorithm into the programming to ensure that the
illusion of randomness — as it is more commonly understood — was
As of now Matter and his cohorts are going ahead with plans for a major exhibition of the controversial canvases later this year. They still stand to make a tidy profit from the venture, but the paintings’ questionable provenance means they won’t profit quite as much as they’d originally hoped. Were there not so much money at stake, it could all be chalked up to a tempest in a teapot, of no interest to anyone outside the fine art community — except to science-minded people like me, who are keen on seeing how the drama plays out. Will Taylor’s method one day be accepted in art authentication circles, or will art historians continue to view the encroachment of scientific analysis on evaluation in their discipline as a threat to human critical judgment?
Only time will tell.