Thursday, February 09, 2006

We've Been Talkin' 'Bout Jackson, Ever Since the Fire Went Out

So there's a part of me that really wants the Matter's Pollocks to be real. It's romantic, this notion that hidden in someone's attic or closet are these long-forgotten works by an art world legend. I don't have any dog in this race at all mind you...I admire, but don't personally like, Pollock's work. But it makes for great drama.

That is, until some killjoy with a
fractal geometry computer program comes along.
A physicist who is broadly experienced in using computers to identify consistent patterns in the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock has determined that half a dozen small paintings recently discovered and claimed by their owner to be original Pollocks do not exhibit the same patterns.

The analysis showed that the techniques in this painting, found in 2003 by man whose parents were friends of Pollock, differ from those in the top work. The finding, by Richard P. Taylor, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, does not prove that Pollock did not paint the works, among a cache of 24 paintings found in 2003 in Wainscott, N.Y., by Alex Matter, whose father, Herbert, and mother, Mercedes, were friends of Pollock. But it casts serious doubt on their authenticity, even as Alex Matter is planning for a major exhibition of the paintings this year. And the finding could deepen a dispute among a once-unified group of Pollock scholars who have disagreed publicly over the works' origins.
In case you haven't been following this story, Alex Matter has been organizing an exhibition of the paintings, with an eye toward cashing in, of course. So he has quite a bit invested in the art-buying public believing these were indeed painted by Jackson. He used to have images of some of the works on his website,, but all you can see on that site now are responses to The New York Times article and counter arguments by Matter's expert, Dr. Ellen G. Landau, who has a fairly public battle raging with her ex-colleague, Eugene V. Thaw (an art dealer who once worked with Dr. Landau on the Pollock foundation's authentication board), who thinks they're fakes. The essence of Matter's rebuttal is that the technology is problematic, or at least not conclusive:

Fractal Analysis is still a very new and contested field in art authentication and is but a small part of a much broader range of technical investigations.
Now it's easy to suggest "Of course, they're gonna say that...they want to sell these paintings...blah..blah...blah." But they're not the only ones questioning the relevance of the fractal geometry study. The supersmart Quantum of Wantum tribe offer a trifold of concerns with Taylor's study (if you're like me and not familiar with some of these terms, you'll have to read the whole thing on their site, where they kindly link to definitions):

The first question is the validity of the assumption (I assume it’s an assumption) of the scale-free nature of his measurements. In particular, I’ll mention Cosma Shalizi’s Notebook on Power Laws and All That, which should be required reading around here (and in many parts of the web). Note his note at the end,

If I had, oh, let’s say fifty dollars for every time I’ve seen a slide (or a preprint) where one of us makes a log-log plot of their data, and then reports as the exponent of a new power law the slope they got from doing a least-squares linear fit, I’d at least not grumble. If my colleagues had gone to statistics textbooks and looked up how to estimate the parameters of a Pareto distribution, I’d be a happier man. If any of them had actually tested the hypothesis that they had a power law against alternatives like stretched exponentials, or even log-normals, I’d think the millennium was at hand.

So I don’t know if Taylor has done any of that or not, but there’s no sign in either the NYT or the Nature correspondence. So I’d consider that my First Concern.

I think the second concern here is, even if the assumption of a Power Law is correct, how good a classifier is the power-law exponent? This is more of a statistical question, and it’s one that I don’t see any of the newspaper journalists asking (and Taylor doesn’t appear to volunteer it? I can’t tell; maybe it just didn’t make it into print.) In other words, how well does this statistical process work on all the new Pollocks? On all the old Pollocks? How often can it tell apart different painters? What about different painters with the same style? (That is, different drip-painters.) In fact, even another quick Google search on this brings up evidence that other people are asking the same questions, and that the answers might not always be positive. You could probably find more on this, on your own. So that’s my Second Concern.

And then there’s the Third Concern, which is how I think this stuff is (or appears to be) covered in the press? Taylor’s not the only guy doing this general kind of work; how about getting a comment from another mathematically-astute forensic-art mathematician, when you write an article like this? .... Or even just a professional
. I’m not asking that every journalist have also been a math-major — but if it’s not your area of expertise, at least find someone for whom it is? In general, I think issues like this (even asking questions about the power, specificity, and applicability of these kinds of statistical techniques would be nice) are (a) important, and (b) woefully neglected.

OK, so even Taylor willingly admits that the study is inconclusive:

"Certainly my pattern analysis shouldn't be taken in isolation but should be integrated with all the known facts — including provenance, visual inspection and materials analysis," he said.
but I think all this fuss was totally unnecessary. All I needed to know the one painting, at least, was made by Pollock was to look at it. It's clearly a self-portrait:

You don't see it?

Look to the leftside of the canvas. Here, I'll highlight it for you.

Why it's the spitting image of the man...and if that's not all the evidence anyone would need, well....

Yes, please consider this an open thread.


Anonymous pc said...

I think Edward's on to something with his brilliant discovery of the self portrait. But, although I'd have to consult the literature on Pollack, I'm almost positive he had fingers. The artist depicted must be Julian Schnabel.

Anybody read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell? I don't think I can represent his argument accurately, but basically he says it's more reliable for a highly educated eye to authenticate a work of art in an instant than subject it to lenghy analysis.

2/09/2006 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The artist depicted must be Julian Schnabel.



2/09/2006 10:16:00 AM  
Blogger James W. Bailey said...

Finally, something we can all agree to laugh about.

Thank you, Edward.


P.S. I'm anxiously awaiting the plate tectonic analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey regarding the possible fake Smithson spiral jetty located in the Canaries. God help us (or I should say God help all y'all in New York City!) if that fake Smithson is grabbed out of the water by a flock of Sikorsky helicopters by a billionaire collector, thus hastening the slide of the Cumbre Viejo volcano on the island of La Palma into the Atlantic! -

2/09/2006 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Edna said...

Edward, you're right! That is definitely Ed Harris.


2/09/2006 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Dang PST, you beat me to it Edna ;) Huzzah!

2/09/2006 11:34:00 AM  
Anonymous George said...

Ed linked a PDF I found interesting

It has illustrations comparing a similar method of analysis to a Pollock and painting by "les automatistes".
A real test of this methodology might be to compare the 'new' Pollocks with a Mike Bidlo. Right about the time the original article appeared in the NY Times and the website had pictures the paintings in question I happened to go to the Brooklyn museum. I was initially fooled by the Bidlo "Pollock" on display there. Aside from bad eyesight, I recall that part of my response was partly conditioned by having just seen the 'new' Pollocks.

I mention this because 'fractal analysis' is looking at the surface (marking) complexity in order to make distinctions. While this description over simplifies the actual methods of analysis it approximates what they are looking at. I'll bet that f they had analyzed a larger number of validated Pollock works for their base reference, fractal dimension, whatever, it would have probably suggested he was faking it part of the time

2/09/2006 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edna said...

I love when folks attempt to reduce artmaking (especially a process like Pollock's) to a trackable system. It's f*ing hilarious. They should analyze my dog's turds next - he's working on a series of Gertrude Steins that are just uncanny.

2/09/2006 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous pc said...


Just curious. Is the dog writing fake Steins or making little sculptures of her? I was thinking of organizing an exhibition of artist-animals who forge literary works using expelled, excreted, and cast off materials. If your dog is making sculptures, forget it: big-time cliche.


2/09/2006 12:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi edward_!

I should be clear -- I wasn't so much questioning the validity of the fractal-stuff...

(although I thought the Nature correspondence runs afoul of some of Shalizi's criticisms, but that might have been a function of its maximum allowed length)

... so much as complaining about the generally opaque way in which the whole issue is covered in the press. Even if the journalist doesn't understand the math behind a study like this, it'd be nice if s/he gave enough pointers so that someone who did could figure out what was going on.

It's perfectly possible that this stuff *is* fractal in nature, that the power-law exponents *are* good predictors of artistic origin, and that the Taylor study is completely damning. We just wouldn't know, or have any chance of knowing, from the NYT article.

Without more information, the math just feels like a little patina of authority added to what is otherwise merely a human conflict. That seems wrong to me.

- son1

2/09/2006 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Edward, that image of a figure settles it. I think you've stumbled upon...The Pollock Code!

2/09/2006 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

thanks for the clarification son1.

I agree that we could use more indepth analysis from traditional press coverage of such findings (and thanks for helping those of us less familiar with the key issues).

I see that as a growing problem though, as, especially with the forum blogs provide the experts, and the pressure to bring stories to print faster and faster, journalists simply cannot fend off their critics and meet their deadlines effecitively. And it's only going to get worse.


If your dog is making sculptures, forget it: big-time cliche.



The Pollock Code!

heh! ;-)

2/09/2006 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

If you squint your eyes and tilt your head you can just make out the fireplace and, yes, a puddle.

2/09/2006 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

I could elaborate, but it would be rude considering how serious this fractal analysis business is.

I didn't mean to say that my dog's turds even come close to a Pollock. But I sometimes I say, "You've busted it wide open!" when he makes a poo-poo. He really appreciates the encouragement.

2/09/2006 01:00:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I've got a basement full of Duchamps . . .

2/09/2006 01:20:00 PM  
Anonymous oriane said...

There's a documentary being made about the whole cache of maybe Pollocks but I think they've already finished filming. If so, it's too bad because they should be getting all this in.

2/09/2006 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

it's suspicious that they won't release the report. I thought the smart guys point that it would be nice to know what computer made of allof Pollock's output, what sort opf range of numbers it came up with and what the new work measured. I think it is called the fractal index and would be a measure of the images complexity. Like a fingerprint, all Pollock's work would, presumably, have a similar measure. In the Nature article referenced Pollock's work was said to have a higher fractal index that most art and certainly higher than amateur copies of his style. Like the similar analysis of Rembrandt's ouvre, it makes me wonder if they would miss the artist's experiments. Which would be very valuable to a scholar.

2/09/2006 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Very interesting highlight Ed. Now, would you mind highlighting the image of The President in a big a** cowboy hat in the upper right hand corner? He's got no mouth, but the hat's a dead giveaway!

2/09/2006 04:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Lotus blossom said...


My cat's furballs have interesting configurations, but I'd hate to venture on how archival they are. I'd hate even more to maintain the collection.

2/09/2006 04:26:00 PM  
Blogger rilkefan said...

My attempt at an art post.

2/12/2006 10:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Who is the figure on the right side of the canvas? That figure looks like it's dancing, and maybe wearing something like a jester's cap, or maybe has long flying hair. One could also argue that the shape directly in front of the face of the "self-portrait" you identified on the left side of the picture is a small guitar or violin, but that might be pushing it.

2/13/2006 08:04:00 PM  
Blogger hwaltonart said...

Hi there,

I may be being really naive but does anyone else think that Pollocks drip paintings could be a kind of 'self-image', a cathartic release of energy?

I would appreciate some thoughts on this as I am currently trying to teach expressive portraiture to a bunch of 17 year olds and would love to use Pollock!



8/26/2006 09:27:00 AM  

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