The Physics of Pollock

Detail of Jackson Pollock's "One: Number 31" (1950) at MoMA (photograph by Divya Thakur, via Flickr)
Detail of Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31” (1950) at MoMA (photograph by Divya Thakur, via Flickr)

The laws of physics were greater collaborators with Jackson Pollock than most painters. Leaning over unstretched canvas laid flat on the ground, the American artist experimented with the movement, speed, density, and height of paint in his drip technique. Recent research has explored how fluid dynamics in particular were an essential aspect of his Abstract Expressionist approach.

As reported, researchers from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City led by mechanical engineering professor Roberto Zenit with undergraduate Bernardo Palacios attempted to reproduce his painting style. Zenit with his colleagues previously examined the work of muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in 2012, a major influence on Pollock, to see how densities of different paint colors impacted the work (here’s their video explaining the reproduction of his technique). As Zenit told “In our lab we have the inability to say ‘no’ to an interesting fluid mechanics problem, and fluid mechanics can be used to understand painting, since it is essentially a flow problem.”

Detail of Jackson Pollock's "Number 1A" (1948) at MoMA (photograph by Sergio Calleja, via Flickr)
Detail of Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1A” (1948) at MoMA (photograph by Sergio Calleja, via Flickr) (click to enlarge)

The 2014 research continues this look at how the characteristics of the paint influence the work, which in turn can tell something about fluid dynamics in a broader way. In particular, the new study, which Zenit and members of the research team presented last month at the American Physical Society in San Francisco, centers on how the viscosity of the paint changes when stress is applied. Paint is a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning it’s a little elastic in its properties (think about the movement of blood versus the Newtonian water). So the movement of the wet paint and how it appears on the canvas is all about how it can resist flow, and Pollock with all his layers of warped lines caused by playing with just these properties is a perfect artist for studying fluid dynamics. As the researchers concluded: “We also found that the non-Newtonian properties of the paints are of great importance to create these patterns.”

Pollock isn’t the only artist to have gravity involved in his work, of course — here’s a TED-Ed video using Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” to examine the basics of fluid dynamics by educator Natalya St. Clair with animator Avi Ofer. But he has long been a popular artist for scientists as his canvases are basically physics experiments. The artist wasn’t creating the work for its fluid dynamics, but the study reveals the incredible control behind what seems like chaos. In 2011, researchers with Boston College and Harvard including physicist Andrzej Herczynski, art historian Claude Cernuschi, and mathematician L. Mahadeva published a quantitative portrait in Physics Today on how fluid dynamics and Pollock’s play with the thickness of paint influenced his art through experimentation. As Herczynski told Wired upon the publication, the “degree that he lets physics take a role in the painting process, he is inviting physics to be a coauthor of his pieces.”

The Mexico City team is anticipating expanding their research to other artists. Below, you can watch Pollock in action through a video from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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