As I See It: Fractal Expressionism
January 24, 2011 Victor Rozek
If, like most of us, you have only a passing familiarity with the art world, and if someone were to ask you which artist’s work sold for a record amount of money, you might go with one of the Impressionists, perhaps Renoir or Monet, or the troubled Vincent van Gogh, or perhaps Picasso, or maybe one of the old masters like Rembrandt or Vermeer. Any one of those would be a good guess, but everyone would be wrong.
The highest price ever paid for a single canvas was $140 million, which purchased a piece that falls into the abstract expressionist camp. Scholars and art historians have the peculiar need to pigeon-hole the creative process by labeling other people’s work, thus immediately diminishing its originality. Nonetheless, this artist’s work can be said to be both “abstract” and “expressive,” although strictly speaking he was not a classic “painter.” Time magazine called him “Jack the Dripper” because he eschewed traditional techniques in favor of flipping, dripping, pouring, and tossing paint at large canvasses laid out on his studio floor.
The frenetic explosion-in-a-paint-store results were the source of some controversy, and Jackson Pollock became famous for being both a pioneer and a rule breaker. Like other tormented artists, he had the perfect tragic temperament: reclusive, volatile, and alcoholic. But after his untimely death in 1956 in a one-car crash caused by too much booze and too little driving skill, the value of his work exploded. The 44-year old Pollock, who spattered paint against a canvass and himself against a tree, might have been amused: he died with $350 to his name.
As with all valuable commodities, it wasn’t long before knock-offs of his work appeared. Pollock’s technique, to some degree, simplified forgery. You didn’t have to be Leonardo to toss paint onto a canvass. There were no brush strokes to imitate; no exquisite sensitivities to light and shadow were required. Even such banalities as top and bottom, left or right became irrelevant. Let the paint fly and voila, eventually something emerges that might just be a Pollock.
Forgeries are like cancer: bad for the patient, but a source of income for charlatans and healers alike. Potential buyers, museums, and those protecting the legacies of artists want to expose them. But less reputable art dealers, speculators, not to mention forgers, stand to make a great deal of money from skilled imitations, and are therefore anxious to have them authenticated. And, should they in fact be declared authentic, everyone–reputable or not–cashes in.
In 1985, after the death of Lee Krasner (Pollock’s long-suffering wife and an abstract expressionist of lesser renown), the Pollock-Krasner Foundation was established. Its charter included authenticating the works of the artist. But so many forgeries emerged that just 12 years later the foundation outright refused to examine new submissions.
But in 2005, the improbable happened. Richard Taylor recounts the story in Oregon Quarterly, the magazine of the University of Oregon. “Thirty-two potential Pollocks had been found in an old storage locker owned by Alex Matter, the son of a friend of Pollock.” If they were real, they were the Holy Grail of art finds. The foundation was back in the authentication business.
To assist them with the authentication process, the foundation largely ignored the usual coterie of East coast art experts, and instead contacted an associate professor of physics from “the sleepy town” of Eugene, “whose greatest art legacy might well be the tie-dyed T-shirt.” It was none other than the aforementioned Richard Taylor who, with his long, scrolling hair looks like someone who might have painted portraits of Louis in Versailles 300 years ago.
Taylor was contacted because of a study he published in Nature back in 1999. Long enamored with Pollock, Taylor wondered what it was about Pollock’s art that spoke to the viewer. Why was it so compelling? “Was this primitive painting style driven by raw genius, or was he simply a drunk who mocked artistic traditions?” Taylor wanted answers, and IT professionals will be cheered to know that he got them the old-fashioned way: using computers.
Taylor had always been fascinated by patterns. That fascination eventually led him to explore the manner in which electricity flowed through various devices. He developed software that was able to map electrical flow and discovered that it “resembles a river spreading into tributaries: the main channel branched into smaller rivers and these in turn split into smaller and smaller streams.” This phenomenon of patterns repeating in ever smaller permutations is known as “fractal.”
Fractal patterns exist almost everywhere in nature and are often visible to the human eye: trees branching into twigs; waves breaking into wavelets; mountains dissolving into foothills. Taylor must have had a hunch because in 1999 he took images of a number of Pollock’s works and ran them through his software. He discovered that “Pollock filled his canvases with nature’s fractal patterns.” Then he went one step further. Collaborating with psychologists, he theorized that Pollock’s appeal resided in how humans react to fractal images. Even when a fractal pattern isn’t obvious, the human eye can recognize it, and this detection, claims Taylor, “reduced the viewer’s stress level.” Unconsciously, viewers registered Pollock’s fractal patterns and were soothed. Then, for good measure, Taylor tweaked the nose of the East coast art establishment by creating his own category for Pollock’s art calling it Fractal Expressionism.
The Pollock-Krasner Foundation had been well aware of Taylor’s study, so it contacted him and asked him to authenticate the new-found stash of Pollocks. The 32 transparencies arrived at the U of O physics department, and Taylor’s research group “started three weeks of round-the-clock work.” The stakes were high. Art historians were in vocal disagreement and had already taken public positions on the works; some reputations would invariable suffer. More importantly, the foundation was sitting on a mountain of money–if the canvasses were real. The scenario was unprecedented: “For the first time,” said Taylor, “computers were playing a significant role in determining the fate of artworks.”
The frenzy was on. While Taylor was looking for Pollock’s fractal signature, a genuine Pollock sold for the aforementioned $140 million. Pollocks were a hot commodity and there were reports that some of the new finds had already been sold. The sharks were feeding and a number of scholars were reluctant to even express an opinion for fear of being sued.
It was time for Taylor to go public with his results. He released his conclusions to the New York Times. The front-page headline announced: Computer Analysis Suggests Not Pollocks. A lot of experts were displeased and fractal analysis was attacked as “dubious.” But a year later, Harvard scientists released the results of paint analysis that showed “some of the pigments weren’t commercially available until. . . 30 years after Pollock’s death.” Taylor had been vindicated.
Shortly thereafter, a number of organizations worldwide adopted Taylor’s method for authenticating works of art. After all, beyond a high degree of certainty, it offered several other advantages. Computers have no agendas. They have no reputation to enhance; no ego to assuage. They have no feeling for the art and no preference for the artist. And, as far as we know, a computer has never been sued.
As for Taylor, his most enduring legacy may not be in his chosen field of physics, but in creating a software bridge between the chromosomally divergent worlds of art and science. It was Thomas Huxley who noted that “In science, as in art. . . we may think there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors, but it is only in one or two of them.” And, in this case, those two counselors turned out to be a physicist and a computer.