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A fractal fracture over true Pollocks

One test of authenticity comes under renewed criticism. Big bucks are at stake in such debates.

December 25, 2006|Joe Milicia | Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Finding a Jackson Pollock painting is the art world's equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.

But proving a Pollock painting's authenticity isn't easy, which is why physicist Richard Taylor's theory that the famed artist's work can be identified using fractals has stirred such interest and controversy.

Now, a graduate student is debunking Taylor's analysis, saying she can make a crude drawing in a matter of minutes that has all the fractal qualities of a Pollock masterpiece.

Fractals are complex geometric patterns with a self-similar structure -- they look the same if magnified.

A snowflake and a coastline viewed from above are examples of naturally occurring fractals.

"I firmly believe his analysis is seriously flawed," said Kate Jones-Smith, a third-year doctoral student in physics at Case Western Reserve University.

Pollock's drip and pour technique has been both praised and ridiculed, but there's no debating the monetary value of his work, with his "No. 5, 1948" selling for a reported $140 million last month.

Pollock paintings seem to be popping up all the time, and even those that haven't been authenticated have fetched large sums. A man bid $53,000 in October for a painting that was possibly done by the abstract artist, who died in a car crash in 1956.

When Jones-Smith read that Taylor's method of fractal analysis was being used to discredit paintings discovered by Alex Matter, son of Pollock's friend, photographer Herbert Matter, she decided to take a closer look.

"It really became relevant to tell people that it didn't hold up under mathematical scrutiny," she said.

Alex Matter found the paintings in 2002 in a storage unit belonging to his late father. The discovery was made public last year by Matter and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Although Taylor determined the works weren't Pollock's, Ellen Landau, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University, believes they're authentic. The issue is still being debated.

Taylor, a University of Oregon associate professor, first applied fractal geometry to Pollock's paintings in a report commissioned by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in 1999. He determined that Pollock understood the complex patterns in nature and applied them to his work, something that would be impossible for another artist to copy.

Taylor, who is working in New Zealand and did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment, said in February that fractal analysis is effective at spotting imitators. He also has cautioned that his analysis shouldn't be the sole factor in deciding authenticity.

Jones-Smith and Case physics professor Harsh Mathur go a step further though in a critique that appeared in the November issue of Nature.

They say Taylor's analysis shouldn't be used at all because Pollock's paintings are too small to be considered fractal -- the smallest paint drips are only a thousand times smaller than the canvas.

To prove her point, Jones-Smith made a drawing of stars that she said is just as fractal as a Pollock painting.

"The drawing is incredibly childish and simple," Mathur said. "What I've been telling people is that [Taylor is] either wrong about the criteria or that Kate's drawing is worth millions of dollars."

Taylor wrote a reply in Nature saying that if Jones-Smith and Mathur dismiss Pollock's fractals, they would also nullify other investigations of physical fractals.

The Pollock-Krasner Foundation believes that fractal analysis is one of many tools that should be used to investigate the authenticity of a Pollock work, said Kerrie Buitrago, executive vice president.

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