Painting By Numbers

Wednesday, September 01, 1999
Fractals, geometric patterns that repeat themselves at smaller and smaller scales, turn up everywhere in nature--in lightning, coastlines, and clouds. Now a physicist at the University of New South Wales has found them in a decidedly artificial setting: the famed drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.

While gazing at a Pollock one day, Richard Taylor was struck by its resemblance to the fractals he had been studying. So he scanned some Pollocks into a computer and analyzed them. The computer confirmed their fractal nature and calculated the fractal dimension, a number describing the richness of the underlying pattern.

Taylor found that the dimension of Pollock's art steadily rose from 1.0 in 1943 to 1.72 in 1952. That trend is so distinctive that a conservator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City approached Taylor about using his analysis to authenticate disputed Pollocks. And Taylor sees new meaning in Pollock's notoriously abstract drip technique. "It was representing nature," he says.
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