07/09/2011 01:37 am ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

Jackson Pollock's Paintings Investigated In Scientific Paper On Physics

Can we learn about physics from Jackson Pollock? What about the other way around? A recent paper in the scientific journal Physics Today by Andrzej Herczyński, Claude Cernuschi, and L. Mahadevan makes the case for both.

The authors use Pollock's paintings as the data for their inquiry into fluid motion, noting in particular the spiral patterns in "Untitled 1948-49" that were produced not by the painter's hand, but by a particular property of his viscous paint.

"Coiling is familiar to anyone who's ever squeezed honey on toast, but it's only recently grabbed the attention of physicists. Recent studies have shown that the patterns fluids form as they fall depends on their viscosity and their speed. Viscous liquids fall in straight lines when moving quickly, but form loops, squiggles and figure eights when poured slowly, as seen in this video of honey falling on a conveyor belt."

Pollock still gets most of the credit for recognizing and exploiting these and other such properties of his paints, but the authors of the paper contend that the effects of gravity and fluid dynamics on some of the pieces have been underestimated.

On this point, Scientific Computing quotes co-author and Harvard professor Mahadevan, who said: "My own interest is in the tension between the medium -- the dynamics of the fluid, and the way it is applied (written, brushed, poured...) -- and the message. While the latter will eventually transcend the former, the medium can be sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating."

The authors scrutinize the effects of various different painting techniques, noting an interesting relation among drips that break off from a central jet of paint in Robert Motherwell's "Beside the Sea" (1962).

Having probed into these techniques, the authors may even have come up with a novel method for gravity-aided painting, presented as a sort of "suggestion for further research":

"If drops and jets generate a rich variety of artistic effects, can the same be said of gravitationally driven thin films of paint?...Such a film of viscous liquid could, for sufficiently large drop height, exhibit a quasi-2D folding instability, but the visual effects obtainable by manipulating films of paint, and their aesthetic appeal, remain to be explored."

It may be only a matter of time, in other words, before we start seeing such sheet paintings move from blackboard equations into galleries.