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The Case of Pollock’s Fractals Focuses on Physics

Published: December 2, 2006

In an article published this week in the prestigious science journal Nature, two physicists contend that a method intended to identify complex geometric patterns in the seemingly chaotic drip paintings of Jackson Pollock is flawed and may be useless in the increasingly convoluted world of authenticating Pollock’s work.

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Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Alex Matter and three of the works he believes are by Jackson Pollock. He found them in a storage locker.

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Katherine Jones-Smith

“Untitled 5,” the drawing used by Katherine Jones-Smith and Richard P. Taylor for the fractal study.

The article, written by a physics professor and a physics doctoral student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, provides a new twist in the mystery surrounding a group of small drip paintings discovered several years ago in a storage locker in Wainscott, N.Y. They were found by Alex Matter, whose father, Herbert, and mother, Mercedes, were artists and friends of Pollock’s. Mr. Matter believes the paintings are authentic Pollocks, and if he is proved right, they will not only be worth millions of dollars but will also add an important new chapter to Pollock’s work.

But the paintings have incited a lively and sometimes bitter debate among Pollock scholars. And as a result, greater attention has been focused on the role science is now playing alongside connoisseurship in the business of art authentication.

Last winter the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which represents the artist’s estate, commissioned Richard P. Taylor, an associate professor of physics at the University of Oregon, to examine some of the disputed paintings. He used a technique he pioneered, which he said identified consistent patterns known as fractals — regularities that recur on finer and finer magnification, like those in snowflakes — in several authentic Pollocks.

Using the same computer analysis on transparencies of 6 of the 24 paintings discovered by Mr. Matter, Dr. Taylor found “significant differences” between their patterns and those of the known Pollocks he had examined.

Dr. Taylor, who said he was not paid for his research, though the foundation reimbursed the university for its equipment and time, emphasized at the time that his work was only one among many pieces of evidence that should be used to make conclusions about the paintings. But he said his finding put the onus on Mr. Matter to provide a plausible explanation of why the patterns didn’t match up.

In 2004, before the examination of the disputed paintings, a physics doctoral student at Case Western, Katherine Jones-Smith, became interested in Dr. Taylor’s published reports about Pollock and fractals and made the research the subject of a presentation. But while preparing it, she said, she found that simple, childlike drawings she made using Adobe Photoshop exhibited the same fractal characteristics that Dr. Taylor said were exhibited in Pollock masterpieces.

“I entirely expected them not to be fractal,” Ms. Jones-Smith said of her drawings, one of which is composed of hastily scrawled stars. “So I was really startled when they turned out to be.”

She enlisted the help of Harsh Mathur, an associate professor of physics at Case Western, and the two focused on the method of identifying fractals. This involves dividing a painting into boxes of varying sizes, from the dimensions of the entire painting down to the smallest paint speck.

In the article published this week, the two researchers conclude that Dr. Taylor’s analysis of Pollock paintings is flawed because it did not use a great enough range of box sizes to establish fractal characteristics reliably. Using only the range he did, a childlike drawing like the one made by Ms. Smith-Jones turned out to be, mathematically at least, the equal of a Pollock — a notion that would undoubtedly amuse critics who still dismiss his work as child’s play.

Dr. Taylor, in a reply in the same issue of Nature, says he stands by his work. If Dr. Mathur and Ms. Jones-Smith are right, he argues, their findings “would also dismiss half the published investigations of fractals.” He adds that in his examination, Ms. Jones-Smith’s star scribbles do not show fractal patterns.

Dr. Mathur, who firmly believes they do, said he welcomed more scholars to weigh in on the debate.

“Either our drawing is worth $40 million or his criteria is wrong,” Dr. Mathur said in a telephone interview yesterday. He added, laughing, “I guess I’d accept either outcome.”



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