By Helen A. Harrison
Last Thursday, a BBC Television production crew arrived at the Pollock-Krasner House to film a segment of a three-part series called “The Code.” No, it’s not another of their excellent spy thrillers, for which a back yard in Springs would hardly be an ideal location. According to its presenter, the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, this show is about the structural systems that determine the form of everything from beehives and bubbles to music, computer animation and the weather.
As the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, du Sautoy is the latest in a long line of British boffins who’ve used popular media to try to get the general public excited about science and math. Apparently he’s quite good at it. His radio broadcasts reach a wide audience, and he’s even done a TV show, called “Mind Games,” that had people all over the U.K. solving number puzzles. His 2003 book, “The Music of the Primes,” on the history of prime number theory, includes a section on how mathematics has influenced the arts, which may be why he decided to include Jackson Pollock in the new series.
The Pollock segment is in episode two, “Nature’s Building Blocks,” which isn’t really about art at all. It deals with the encoded structure of shapes in the natural world, and includes a discussion of fractals, the self-similar patterns found in trees, coastlines, mountain ranges and other naturally occurring forms. First described by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot and popularized in his 1982 book, “The Fractal Geometry of Nature,” fractal theory has been used by Richard Taylor, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, to explain the fundamental structure of Pollock’s poured paintings.
According to Taylor, Pollock’s famous statement, “I am nature,” is literally true. In a spontaneous, uncalculated way, his choreographic body movements and use of flowing liquid material resulted in patterns like those found in natural phenomena. Taylor and some of his colleagues developed a computer program to identify the fractals in Pollock’s paintings, and he’s written several articles on the subject, which he’s dubbed Fractal Expressionism. He maintains that his research “has answered one of the great mysteries of modern art—the meaning behind Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. His patterns are fractal, sharing the same ‘fingerprint’ as nature’s scenery.”
To explain all this to the laity, the BBC brought du Sautoy and Taylor to East Hampton and set them down where Pollock, surrounded by that scenery, created some of his most intriguing and baffling paintings. They’re not so baffling when you see what he was responding to. With the caveats that Pollock wasn’t a landscape painter, nor did he stumble on the paint-pouring technique after he moved to Springs in 1945, it’s easy to imagine how inspired he was by this setting. With wild grapevines, brambles and bittersweet tangled in the undergrowth, and Accabonac Creek babbling away behind the studio, there’s no question that the experience of nature, with its inherent fractal structure, had an effect on his art.
To show how fractal patterns can be manually created, Taylor built an apparatus, which he calls the Pollockizer, that generates a chaotic drip pattern. (This, in essence, is what Pollock did intuitively when he applied liquid paint according to the rules of chaos theory, which wasn’t even formulated during his lifetime.) The thing is actually a couple of modified clothes racks, from which a swinging pendulum releases paint in a steady stream. There’s also a little lever that’s used to disrupt the pendulum’s regular swing. As Taylor explains it, when allowed to swing on its own, the pendulum follows a predictable, non-chaotic trajectory. But if you jog it, you create chaotic motion, which makes fractals.
Getting the Pollockizer to do its thing photogenically occupied most of the afternoon. Fortunately Taylor had brought along Rick Montgomery, one of his graduate students, who did the heavy lifting. As the weather began to deteriorate, and fractal clouds threatened to drop fractal snowflakes, Taylor stage-managed the proceedings and answered du Sautoy’s questions about his analysis of Pollock’s paintings. Both scientists have the knack of making arcane scientific concepts understandable. Those of us who would like to communicate art concepts more effectively can learn a lot from their approach.
For example, how do you explain why some people find Pollock’s poured paintings so compelling? In Taylor’s view, the fact that they contain the same kind of patterns we find attractive in nature is a major factor in their appeal. As someone who sees those patterns outside Pollock’s living room window every day, I’ll definitely buy that.