Last update: February 11, 2006 – 11:40 PM

Definition of art? Try painting by numbers

In literature, cinema and other creative fields, it's increasingly a matter of just doing the math.

Chuck Haga, Star Tribune

A scholar using computer-assisted math called fractal geometry startled the art world in the past week by using his numbers to question the authenticity of drip paintings attributed to Jackson Pollock.

To mix media as well as metaphor, the news was sweet music to people attending a seminar on math's growing role in the arts at the University of Minnesota's Institute for Math and Its Applications.

"This kind of 'stylometry,' or the quantification of style in artistic works, applies not only to painting but also to literature, dance and other artistic forms," said Douglas Arnold, the institute's director. "It's exciting that mathematics is getting to the point where it's playing a major role" in such inquiries.

The institute has hosted a seminar on math and the brain, and it plans a session on math and magic. A homicide investigator from Virginia asked for math help in deciphering blurred images from a security camera.

"The mathematicians can't take over this world," Arnold said, explaining why artists shouldn't fear number crunchers. "You're not going to replace art connoisseurs with mathematicians. But when math works with art, the results are going to be better."

Richard Taylor, a physics professor who used computers to identify consistent patterns in 14 indisputable Pollock paintings, did not find the same patterns in six small paintings discovered recently and claimed by their owner to be Pollock originals. Taylor's findings were published Thursday in the British scientific journal Nature and reported in the New York Times.

Despite the apparently random nature of Pollock's drip paintings, consistent patterns are discernible in the fluidity of the paint and how the abstract expressionist applied it. (Rather than use a traditional easel, Pollock poured and dripped paint from a can onto a canvas on the floor or a wall, then manipulated the paint with sticks or knives instead of brushes.)

Taylor told the Times his pattern analysis "shouldn't be taken in isolation but should be integrated" with traditional techniques for proving authenticity, including materials analysis and expert inspection.

Arnold agreed, calling Taylor's work "a powerful technique, but in its infancy. There's controversy over it. But if you go back [to] when they started doing carbon dating of materials in artworks, there was controversy."

Lance Williams, former chief scientist at Walt Disney Feature Animation, was more skeptical. "It's experimental work, and interesting work," he said, but fractal differences in works attributed to an artist may have more to do with that artist's changing technique.

"One of the comments that Pollock was famous for was, 'I am nature,' " Williams said. "He was searching for the fractal dimension he felt was natural."

'It's all numbers'

Doctors use computer-generated streams of numbers to identify tumors, and geologists look at numbers to find oil, Arnold said. Fractal geometric analysis of known Pollock paintings "could quantify how Pollock balanced and how his hands were shaking" as he circled a canvas, dripping and pouring his paints.

"Those would be pretty tricky things" for a would-be imposter to mimic, he said.

Dan Rockmore, professor of mathematics and computer science at Dartmouth College and a featured speaker at the seminar, said that art curators he has talked with are receptive to fractal geometry as "another tool by which they can investigate" authenticity.

"We live in a world where every sort of phenomenon is put on computers," Rockmore said, "and once it's on the computer it's all numbers. The world is a data source, and increasingly the arts are sources of data -- for mathematicians to look at and for artists to manipulate. It's a source of inquiry but also a source of creativity."

Hollywood film editors joined mathematicians at the university to discuss computer-based techniques of making and restoring film.

Jay Cassidy, a film editor at Mathematical Technologies in Hollywood, pioneered digital editing and post-production software to restore a copy of Federico Fellini's "Amarcord."

Film is language, Cassidy said, "and, as with any language, there's a grammar" that must be preserved.

Chuck Haga • 612-673-4514