Another interesting way art and science meet in University Circle ....

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Tue, 12/12/2006 - 16:02.

I have been following this fascinating debate in the pages of the New York Times, the PD and on CASE Daily (CASE's online newsletter). About 2 months ago I also attended a CASE physics department symposium where Kate Jones-Smith and Ellen Landau were the guest speakers on this subject. That afternoon Jone-Smith and Landau captivated a large audience of scientists and art historians -- a group that does not often come together on this campus! On this debate I side with Jones-Smith and Landau. I think the Pollocks are real and I hope I get to see them in person someday. Fractal or not, seeing Pollock's drip paintings is an experience like no other.

read on ...

Case Western Reserve University physicists refute analysis of Jackson Pollock's paintings


Courtesy of Alex Matter

Can mathematics explain the art of Jackson Pollock? Can it be used to authenticate paintings of uncertain provenance? Case Western Reserve University physicists address these questions in next week's edition of Nature.

Case physics doctoral student Kate Jones-Smith first encountered these questions in December 2004 when preparing for a weekly astrophysics seminar . Jones-Smith performed a Google search that linked her to research by University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor and collaborators, who claim that Jackson Pollock's famous drip paintings, are fractals. Fractals are complex geometric shapes that have been studied by mathematicians since the 1970s.

In articles that appeared in scientific journals and news magazines including Nature, Physics World and Scientific American, Taylor and coworkers also claim that fractal analysis can be used to distinguish Pollock's drip paintings from imitations.



Intrigued, Jones-Smith began to examine Taylor's articles, but quickly found that the work was seriously flawed She showed that doodles that she could make in minutes using Adobe Photoshop were as fractal as any Pollock drip painting, vividly refuting Taylor's claim that Pollock was able to generate fractals by hand only because he had attained a mastery of chaotic motion.

Jones-Smith presented a pointed critique of Taylor's work to Case astrophysicists and was encouraged to write up her critique for publication. But since Taylor's original work had appeared in Nature five years earlier, she thought interest in the topic had waned.

That changed this February when Taylor was invited by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation to determine the authenticity of paintings recently found by Alex Matter, son of the late photographer Herbert Matter. According to Matter, a close personal friend of Pollock's, the paintings are the work of Pollock, but Taylor used fractal analysis to pronounce them inauthentic.

Convinced now that her work might still be of interest, Jones-Smith developed her critique into the article, Revisiting Pollock's Drip Paintings, co-authored with Harsh Mathur, Case professor of physics.

A key element of the paper is a painting called Untitled 5 that Jones-Smith created in a matter of minutes in Photoshop. Untitled 5 depicts a field of stars and looks like the kind of drawing the proud mother of a three-year old might stick on a refrigerator door, says Jones-Smith. But, according to the fractal authentication criteria that Taylor has made public, it is an authentic Pollock.

Jones-Smith adds, "I found I can make paintings at will in Photoshop that meet all the criteria he has made public."

A defining feature of fractals is their self-similarity: They look the same if magnified. Sometimes the self-similarity is visible to the eye, as in the famous Koch snowflake, which is composed of a hierarchy of ever smaller equilateral triangles. More often the self-similarity is statistical and can be detected only by computer analysis using a technique called box-counting.

In their Nature article, Jones-Smith and Mathur show that Pollock's works lack the range of scales needed to be considered fractal in the sense of box-counting analysis. This is because typically the smallest marks of paint are only a thousand times smaller than the entire canvas.

The researchers show that considering Pollock's paintings to be fractal actually leads to mathematical contradictions and inconsistencies. "Not only does Taylor state Pollock's paintings are fractal," said Jones-Smith, "but he goes further and says such things as this is why Pollock is such a master—that he had mastered the language of nature."

The Case researchers' findings, particularly their painting Untitled 5, do not support this contention. Jones-Smith and Mathur also note that Taylor has analyzed only 17 out of more than 180 drip paintings made by Pollock. Aside from the other problems with his analysis, the Case physicists contend that 17 paintings are too small a sample to provide an adequate basis for some of Taylor's inferences.

Adding to the unfolding drama of this research is that while Jones-Smith was preparing for her December 2004 seminar, on the other side of campus- unbeknownst to the physicists- Ellen Landau, Case professor of art history, and one of the world's foremost experts on Pollock, was studying the paintings discovered by Alex Matter. Jones-Smith and Mathur learnt about Landau's work only this February by reading about it in a newspaper article. Immediately they contacted her to tell her about their research.

"Once Harsh contacted me, I collaborated with him and Kate, providing them with in-depth information on Jackson Pollock and his working methods useful to their project," said Landau. "I am pleased they have successfully refuted Richard Taylor's thesis and that it will be published in Nature. Irrespective of whatever determination is ultimately made on the authenticity of the recently found Matter paintings, fractal analysis should not be considered a foolproof technique for authenticating works by Pollock. The fact that Taylor has refused to fully share his testing criteria casts further doubt on the credibility of his claims."

Jones-Smith concurs, noting that the main implication of her work for the Matter paintings is that fractal analysis should not be part of the debate regarding their authenticity.


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Fascinating cat fight among physicists

I've been following this and it is amazing. Two Case experts are in the center of a global arts mystery, with a major foundation and other major university scientists... we're on one side and the outsiders are on another side, the subject is the work of one of America's greatest artists ever - or is it his work. It is worth linking through the the Nature article referenced above to see how scientists fight things out - our team has questioned the quality of work of the away team, and they are fighting back, and while a non-mathematician couldn't understand exactly what they are saying, you can feel the anger and ferocity of the debate. Wow - I can't wait to see what comes next with all this!

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Excellent update on Pollock Fractals in PD

The Plain Dealer today has in-depth follow-up on the Pollock fractal controversy, including a useful graphic, news coverage by John Mangels and arts analysis by Steven Litt, with some great interview comments. Seems there will not be any major developments in this war of mathematicians and physicists until Harvard announces results of scientific analyses of the materials used in the paintings in question, next Spring. The PD coverage gives a much stringer impression of the core scientific issue, which is the willingness of an entire field of study to accept the word of a "respected" professional, and the disruption that can be caused by just one young, bright, questioning mind. That is an important lesson for life and for Cleveland, where we seem to accept the word of so many "respected" professionals who so often are found to be wrong (proof usually surfaced not by smart young minds, who rarely speak out here, but in things like the entire city being the most impoversihed in America, and the PD exposing scam Brownfields developments bought at inflated prices by the CMHD, etc.).

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