Fuse Flash: Pollock Research Fractured?

According to a report in ScienceDaily, more surprises may be in store for those following the Pollock-Matter controversies. The award-winning website, which specializes in breaking developments in scientific research, has announced that Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss will be among the invited guests to a New York symposium this week on scientific studies of the controversial “Matter paintings,” attributed by some to the celebrated Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock in action
Jackson Pollock in Action

Professor Krauss has been involved in a research project that casts doubt on one of the scientific methods used to study the Matter works.

The Matter paintings were discovered in 2002 by filmmaker Alex Matter, whose parents were close friends of Pollock, in his parents’ estate. They later became controversial when several scholars and scientific studies took different sides on their authenticity.

The symposium, “Are They Pollocks? What Science Tells Us About the Matter Paintings,” organized by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), will take place in Manhattan on November 28. Speakers will include James Martin of Orion Research and Richard Newman of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, both of whom have conducted independent scientific studies of the Matter paintings.

Professor Krauss is part of a team of Case Western physicists who recently completed a second study of a fractal method of authenticating works by Jackson Pollock. Based on a branch of mathematics widely used to study patterns within apparently random natural forms, like tree branches and coast lines, the fractal authentication method was by developed University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor.

The fractal method is founded on the theory that, in his famous drip paintings at least, Jackson Pollock worked so in harmony with natural processes that he created fractal patterns close to those found in nature. The theory held that, since only Pollock had this special talent for mimicking natural fractals, an analysis of the patterns in a work could determine whether or not Pollock created it.

Professor Taylor has said, at times, that his fractal method can detect forged Pollock from real ones and can even date genuine Pollocks, without other documentation, to within two years, a feat of precision rarely matched by art historians working on any artist. The Case Western studies have cast considerable doubt on Professor Taylor’s claims.

The Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the closely-related Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board have both commissioned Professor Taylor to study a number of works attributed to Pollock. Most recently, the Foundation asked him to analyze several of the Matter paintings after art dealer and Pollock expert, Eugene Victor Thaw, former president of the Foundation, and Francis V. O’Connor, another Pollock scholar and co-editor, with Thaw, of the Pollock catalogue raisonnée, questioned their attribution to Pollock, based on their visual examination of the works.

Professor Taylor’s conclusion, announced in 2006, was that the six Matter paintings he analyzed were not by Pollock. His doubts were widely reported in the news media. Studies of the pigments in the paintings, conducted by researchers at Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and released in 2007, added to the attribution debate when they concluded that roughly three quarters of the paintings contained materials not available during Pollock’s lifetime. Many news reports subsequently implied that the Matter works were imitations or forgeries.

Professor Taylor’s earlier Pollock research was reported in a 1999 article in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, and has been described in number of popular articles and books on real-world applications of fractal methodology. But, until recently, no one had attempted to duplicate Professor Taylor’s results independently. Now their scientific validity is under fire in several new studies.

“No information about artistic authenticity can be gleaned from fractal analysis,” said physicist Katherine Jones-Smith, Professor Krauss’s student and lead author of the most recent Case Western study.

Jones-Smith and her collaborators, Harsh Mathur and Professor Krauss, used Professor Taylor’s authentication methods to study several paintings: three authentic works by Pollock, two from the Matter group, and two created by Case Western students.

Two of the genuine Pollocks and one of the Matter paintings failed Professor Taylor’s fractal tests. The rest, including both of the student works, passed and thus were authenticated, by Professor Taylor’s method at least, as “genuine Pollocks.”

In a note published in Nature in 2006, Jones-Smith and Mathur reported on their earlier study of Professor Taylor’s methods. That study found that doodle-like scribbles made by Jones-Smith herself also satisfied Professor Taylor’s fractal authentication criteria.

“Known Pollock paintings, hanging in museums and worth millions of dollars, don’t pass Taylor’s criteria, and then there are the paintings by these students that do pass, even though they are definitely not by Pollock,” Jones-Smith said in the Science Daily article. She said the research had led her to think about the ways mathematics is used to describe complex real world phenomena. “I think it is more appealing that Pollock’s work cannot be reduced to a set of numbers with a certain mean and certain standard deviation.”

ScienceDaily, which selects its articles from reports submitted by universities and research organizations worldwide, based its story directly on material from Case Western Reserve University. Thus it does not report reactions from Professor Taylor or the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.

Professor Ellen Landau, the first Pollock specialist to attribute the Matter paintings to Jackson Pollock, also teaches at Case Western Reserve. Professor Landau and Jones-Smith and her colleagues have claimed that Jones-Smith’s interest in fractals began independently of Professor Landau’s own art historical research into the paintings’ origins.

In late October, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Steven Litt described some of the Case Western findings. The results of the studies have also been published in the scientific literature and elsewhere. Litt quoted Professor Krauss, a widely respected theoretical physicist, explaining that, as far as the authenticity of the Matter paintings is concerned, “we have no dog in this fight.”

Professor Landau, a former colleague of Thaw and O’Connor on the former Pollock Authentication Board, was one of the organizers of the exhibition Pollock Matters, currently on view at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art. Scientists at Boston College have also looked at Taylor’s fractal methods, coming to similar conclusions to those reached at Case Western Reserve.

The fractal research is the latest in a long series of developments and counter-developments related to the Matter paintings. Some of these earlier episodes have been reported in Fuse Flash and Anonymous Sources“>Fuse Flash and Anonymous Sources stories on The Arts Fuse.

1 Comment

  1. Johan Baptiste on August 4, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Those scientists are wrong about one thing, yeah you can make scientific conclusions out of Pollock paintings regarding fractality BUT you can arrive at the same ones by looking at a bunch bird poop. (or rocks or a lots of trees from above, etc)

    Check it out by yourself.


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