Mahadevan, collaborating with art historian Claude Cernuschi and physicist Andrzej Herczyński, both at nearby Boston College, took an interest in Pollock when his colleagues suggested that the artist may have exploited the same aspects of fluid dynamics that Mahadevan has studied in the past.
Instabilities in a free fluid jet can form in a few different ways: the jet can break into drops, it can splash upon impact with a surface, or it can fold and coil, as when a stream of honey lands on a slice of toast. The artist Robert Motherwell produced drips and splashes by flicking his brush; Pollock's technique, on the other hand, is defined by the way a relatively slow-moving stream of paint falls onto the canvas, producing trails and coils.
In a sense, the authors note, Pollock was learning and using physics, experimenting with coiling fluids quite a bit before the first scientific papers on the subject would appear in the late 1950s and '60s.
Quantitative explanations for what are now termed inertial, gravitational, and viscous coiling regimes are relatively recent findings, elucidated only within the last few decades. Mahadevan himself has studied the coiling of honey, nanofibers, and rope, and the behavior of a dripping faucet, among many other aspects of soft matter physics.
Mahadevan and his coauthors examined the black and red painting Untitled 1948 and demonstrated mathematically that the only way Pollock could create such tiny looping, meandering oscillations was to hold his brush or trowel high up off the canvas and let out a flow of paint that narrowed and sped up as it fell. To create tiny loops rather than waves, he likely moved his hand slowly, allowing physics to coauthor his art.
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