Banner by: Matt Stoss and Dennis Doyle

Jack the Dripper: Fractal Patterns in Art

by David Nascari  

Scientific analysis and interpretation of art has been held hostage by reciprocal dogma in the two fields for decades. To many scientists, rigorous, high-throughput analysis of art seems like a waste. To many art historians and collectors, breaking down art into quantitative constituent parts takes away from the magic of the work. Yet, these two opinions are not mutually exclusive. One hybrid physicist and art historian, Richard Taylor, advocates that scientific consideration can reveal new and exciting truths about art, as well as artists themselves. Specifically, he argues that geometric fractal-like characteristics are found throughout abstract expressionist works, namely Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

In the words of Benoit Mandelbrot, the de facto father of fractal mathematics, fractals are shapes “made of parts similar to the whole in some way.”

Taylor lays claim that Pollock’s paintings are fractal, “reflecting the fingerprint of nature,” and showed that the fractal index of Pollock’s paintings increased throughout his career. The fractal index categorizes an object’s fractal-like qualities and can range from one to two. To calculate the fractal index of the drip paintings, Taylor superimposed a computer-generated grid of squares with identical lengths, and extracted each square’s index with complex algorithms. By definition, a fractal-like object should show the same index across every level of scale. In fact, two scales in Taylor’s study each provided a unique repeating index value. As a result, Taylor demonstrated that Pollock generated unique fractals in two distinct ways: one through dripping and the other by ‘dancing’ around the canvas. Taylor explained that Pollock “anchored” these two indices by dripping paint into small islands and linking them through his motions around the canvas. While developing his technique, as Taylor argued, Pollock aimed to achieve a fractal index of 1.7. This particular fractal index is notable because it is the value fractals in nature cluster around. Why was Pollock driven to this value, or even driven to paint fractals at all? To begin to understand, we must first delve into his methodology.

Often called Jack the Dripper, Pollock’s technique involved dumping, spilling and dripping cheap enamel paint onto a large canvas on his barn’s floor. His creative process mimicked the natural processes through which Mother Nature molds the natural environment – the ocean eroding a cliff face over decades, or sediment deposition transforming into sedimentary rock. In the fury of his creative frenzy, his paintings were not constrained by the limits of the canvas; instead, his canvas was a space to move into and through. Over his career, Pollock’s action painting established him as a vanguard of the post-World War II Abstract Expressionism movement. Evidently, the movement’s revolt of humanity against wartime anxieties served as a catalyst for Pollock’s nature fractals.

Can any amateur armed with a canvas and paint produce a Pollock? As it turns out, fractal character can be used to distinguish fake Pollocks from real ones. Commissioned by the Pollock-Krasner estate in 2006, Taylor used a computer to algorithmically verify that a recently-surfaced cache of paintings was not authentically Pollock’s. Although computer-based fractal analysis has 93 percent accuracy, it is hard to imagine a human being boasting the same statistic. Why, then, are fakers unable to faithfully reproduce a Pollock? On BBC’s “Natures Building Blocks,” Taylor and a group of students built a paint-dripping pendulum with a lever that veered the contraption off its previous non-chaotic trajectory, resulting in Pollock-like fractals. As the so-called Pollockizer replicated a body’s chaotic movements, Pollock likewise exercised fine-motor skills to adjust paint trajectories as they dripped from his brush.

Given that Mandelbrot first coined the term fractal in 1975, several decades after Pollock’s death, it is impossible to argue that Pollock knew he was painting fractals. It is more likely that rather than painting undiscovered abstract mathematical objects, he painted what he knew: nature. It is worth noting that the start of his critical acclaim was marked by his move to a rural offshoot in the Hamptons, where his time wandering outdoors made an indelible impression on his artistic aesthetic. Fractals are widespread throughout nature with an index that usually hovers between 1.5-1.7. Their aesthetic has been ingrained in our being, and eventually became an unconsciously integral element of what Pollock considered beautiful. Modern schools of neuro-aesthetic theory claim that humanity’s aesthetic tastes develop through evolution, underscoring a deeper potential truth about both Pollock and the viewer’s joint fascination with fractals. By painting the rules of nature rather than nature itself, Pollock captured its beauty and more without ever consciously painting fractals. Though purely abstract and non-representational, his paintings portray a visceral and ephemeral flavor of nature. His genius was encapsulating these fragments as sublime ejaculations of the patterns he found throughout nature.

As Pollock danced around his canvas, cigarette in mouth, a paint can in one hand and a stick dripping paint in the other, he turned into a literal flurry of nature. The dripping paint tracked his movements through space and time. His paint record reveals something both totally unique to himself and unanimous to human nature; the fact that Pollock’s drip paintings turned out to be fractals reiterates the beauty and complexity of his work, mathematics and nature. Because his fractals are purely abstract by mathematical definition, I would argue that his paintings are the perfect representation of Abstract Expressionism. Meanwhile, both his methodology and subject matters are the purest expressions of himself, nature and human nature as a whole. Perhaps, Pollock himself put it best: “I am nature.”