case western reserve university



Public Affairs Discussion Group

"The Pollack Pictures Firestorm"

February 2, 2007
Crawford Hall, Room 9 - The Inamori Center

12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Dr. Harsh Mathur

Harsh Mathur, Ph.D. - Associate Professor of Physics

Kate Jones Smith

Kate Jones Smith - Graduate Student Department of Physics


Dear Colleagues:

This Friday's Public Affairs Discussion Group will meet in an entirely new venue. We will be in room 9 in the basement of Crawford Hall, a part of the newly established Inamori International Center of Ethics and Excellence. We assemble at 12:30 and run until 1:30.

Most of you may have read about the controversy over a collection of 32 paintings and drawings attributed to Jackson Pollock which surfaced in 2005. If authentic these pieces would be worth millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in the current art market. The last time a Pollock canvas went on the auction block it was reportedly knocked down for over $140 millionone painting. That's enough to see this university easily through its current financial woes.

To protect their investments and to try to arrive at a definitive determination as to the authenticity of these pieces the Pollock-Krasner Foundation hired a physicist from the University of Oregon, Richard Taylor, to examine them and particularly to see if these works were consistent with the complex patterns known as fractals in Pollock's artwork. In February 2006 Taylor reported his findings that none of the six paintings he examined had Pollock's distinctive fractal hallmarks. Bombshell #1.

Meanwhile, a physics graduate student at CWRU, Kate Jones-Smith, had uncovered what she sees as major flaws in Taylor's methodology. Encouraged by Professor Harsh Mathur, she and he published collaboratively their findings. In short, they found other flaws in Taylor's work and also that even some of her own scribbles that Jones-Smith ran through the Taylor model exhibited the same fractals attributed to Pollock's work. Bombshell #2.
Coincidently, Professor Ellen Landau of Art History, an expert on Pollock, independently had viewed the paintings and said that she thought that they were authentic. So CWRU is knee deep in this debate. The plot thickens.

On Friday, Kate Jones-Smith and Harsh Mathur will join us to discuss their work and to describe how they landed in this firestorm. This is one of those delicious projects that transcends disciplinary boundaries and is ready made for our public affairs forum. Of what utility is fractal analysis, indeed what is fractal analysis, and how can it be applied to the study of art? Are there other analytical tools from physics and from the other physical sciences that might be used by art historians and the students of the other arts? The stakes are high in this particular debate, and the issues ramify throughout the academic and economic world.
Joe White will be out of town and so Ken Grundy (Political Science Emeritus) will chair this session. Come prepared for a wide ranging discussion and for the coffee and beverages and cookies, our regular fare. Bring your own lunch if you desire.

Best regards,
Joe White

More About Our Guest

Harsh Mathur's main interest has been in the propagation of waves in random media, particularly electrons in dirty conductors. This is an old subject --- important results were obtained by Lord Rayleigh in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless significant advances have been made in the last two decades with the formulation of localization theory and the discovery of a new kind of universal behavior. The common feature of these phenomena is interference on length scales long compared to the mean free path.

Localization refers to interference corrections to the incoherent transmission of a wave through a random medium. In dirty conductors this is manifested as a growing resistance at low temperature. Under appropriate conditions interference can produce a transition or crossover from metallic to insulating behavior.

Harsh Mathur's and his collaborators have investigated the modulation of localization by electric fields. By coupling to the spin-phase of the electron's wave function, strong electric fields produce a dramatic effect known as antilocalization in which the sign of the localization effect is changed. There approach provides a clear understanding of this phenomenon and may help extract material properties from magneto-resistance measurements.

With colleagues from AT&T Bell Laboratories Harsh Mathur is now studying localization in Si MOSFETs, the basic building blocks of modern semiconductor electronics. The purpose of this is to probe the roughness of the semiconductor-oxide interface to which mobile electrons are confined. This is important because interface roughness limits device performance and further miniaturization. There is a second motivation to study this system: due to the roughness a uniform magnetic field applied in the interface plane behaves like a random field. Motion in a plane in a random magnetic field is of fundamental interest: it is relevant to both the Quantum Hall system and high temperature superconductors.

The electronic energy levels of a small metallic particle illustrate universality: their statistical properties --- for example, the distribution of level spacings --- are the same for all samples regardless of details such as sample composition or the nature and density of impurities. The universality is reflected in the conductance and thermodynamic properties of metallic grains at low temperature --- Harsh Mathur and his co-workers, for example, have investigated their spin-magnetism theoretically. Although this universal behavior was discovered in context of electron-waves, it is a general wave phenomenon: similar physics underlies laser speckle. Harsh Mathur is currently exploring the possible application of these ideas to indoor wireless propagation. Another subject of interest is the geometric phase. Such phases arise in diverse contexts: examples range from the ability of a cat or a diver to re-orient in free-fall by changing shape to the phase accumulation of a slowly driven quantum system. The common feature of these problems is the use of gauge fields to describe the geometric phase. My interest is in characterizing the kinds of gauge fields that can arise geometrically. For example, together with R. Shankar, Harsh Mathur recently showed that quantum systems with a two-fold degeneracy support a gauge field configuration called the meron. In addition Harsh Mathur is interested in chaos, and the physics of ultra-small devices and structures.


Can mathematics explain the art of Jackson Pollock? Can it be used to authenticate paintings of uncertain provenance? Case Western Reserve University physicists address these questions in next week's edition of Nature.

Case physics doctoral student Kate Jones-Smith first encountered these questions in December 2004 when preparing for a weekly astrophysics seminar . Jones-Smith performed a Google search that linked her to research by University of Oregon physicist Richard Taylor and collaborators, who claim that Jackson Pollock's famous drip paintings, are fractals. Fractals are complex geometric shapes that have been studied by mathematicians since the 1970s.

In articles that appeared in scientific journals and news magazines including Nature, Physics World and Scientific American, Taylor and coworkers also claim that fractal analysis can be used to distinguish Pollock's drip paintings from imitations.

Intrigued, Jones-Smith began to examine Taylor's articles, but quickly found that the work was seriously flawed She showed that doodles that she could make in minutes using Adobe Photoshop were as fractal as any Pollock drip painting, vividly refuting Taylor's claim that Pollock was able to generate fractals by hand only because he had attained a mastery of chaotic motion.

Jones-Smith presented a pointed critique of Taylor's work to Case astrophysicists and was encouraged to write up her critique for publication. But since Taylor's original work had appeared in Nature five years earlier, she thought interest in the topic had waned.

That changed this February when Taylor was invited by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation to determine the authenticity of paintings recently found by Alex Matter, son of the late photographer Herbert Matter. According to Matter, a close personal friend of Pollock's, the paintings are the work of Pollock, but Taylor used fractal analysis to pronounce them inauthentic.

Convinced now that her work might still be of interest, Jones-Smith developed her critique into the article, Revisiting Pollock's Drip Paintings, co-authored with Harsh Mathur, Case professor of physics.


A key element of the paper is a painting called Untitled 5 that Jones-Smith created in a matter of minutes in Photoshop. Untitled 5 depicts a field of stars and looks like the kind of drawing the proud mother of a three-year old might stick on a refrigerator door, says Jones-Smith. But, according to the fractal authentication criteria that Taylor has made public, it is an authentic Pollock.

Jones-Smith adds, "I found I can make paintings at will in Photoshop that meet all the criteria he has made public."                       

A defining feature of fractals is their self-similarity: They look the same if magnified. Sometimes the self-similarity is visible to the eye, as in the famous Koch snowflake, which is composed of a hierarchy of ever smaller equilateral triangles. More often the self-similarity is statistical and can be detected only by computer analysis using a technique called box-counting.

In their Nature article, Jones-Smith and Mathur show that Pollock's works lack the range of scales needed to be considered fractal in the sense of box-counting analysis. This is because typically the smallest marks of paint are only a thousand times smaller than the entire canvas.

The researchers show that considering Pollock's paintings to be fractal actually leads to mathematical contradictions and inconsistencies. "Not only does Taylor state Pollock's paintings are fractal," said Jones-Smith, "but he goes further and says such things as this is why Pollock is such a masterthat he had mastered the language of nature."

The Case researchers' findings, particularly their painting Untitled 5, do not support this contention. Jones-Smith and Mathur also note that Taylor has analyzed only 17 out of more than 180 drip paintings made by Pollock. Aside from the other problems with his analysis, the Case physicists contend that 17 paintings are too small a sample to provide an adequate basis for some of Taylor's inferences.

Adding to the unfolding drama of this research is that while Jones-Smith was preparing for her December 2004 seminar, on the other side of campus- unbeknownst to the physicists- Ellen Landau, Case professor of art history, and one of the world's foremost experts on Pollock, was studying the paintings discovered by Alex Matter. Jones-Smith and Mathur learnt about Landau's work only this February by reading about it in a newspaper article. Immediately they contacted her to tell her about their research.

"Once Harsh contacted me, I collaborated with him and Kate, providing them with in-depth information on Jackson Pollock and his working methods useful to their project," said Landau. "I am pleased they have successfully refuted Richard Taylor's thesis and that it will be published in Nature. Irrespective of whatever determination is ultimately made on the authenticity of the recently found Matter paintings, fractal analysis should not be considered a foolproof technique for authenticating works by Pollock. The fact that Taylor has refused to fully share his testing criteria casts further doubt on the credibility of his claims."

Jones-Smith concurs, noting that the main implication of her work for the Matter paintings is that fractal analysis should not be part of the debate regarding their authenticity

(story courtesy of Susan Griffiths)

Spring Semester Schedule

Beginning on February 2, the Friday Lunch will move back to Crawford Hall, in ROOM 9. Room 9 is within the Inamori Center, on the basement level of Crawford.

It is very kind of Bill Deal, Director of the Inamori Center, to make this room available on a regular basis. Thank you, Bill!

Room 9 seats 35, with a central table and also chairs along the wall. It should be a better setup than Guilford. If we expect a large crowd, we may be able to open a partition and join up with Room 11.

There will, however, be a class in the room until 12:20. Therefore it will not be possible to get there much before the lunch begins. On the other hand, people who are a bit early should be able to hang out in the Tomlinson food court. I believe the underground passage from Tomlinson to Crawford will be restored when construction is finished.

Coffee will be provided from the SAGES Cafe'. Which should mean very good coffee.

The tentative schedule of speakers, so far:

January 26: Phil (Perkins Professor of Physics-Case Western Reserve University) and Sarah Taylor, Wind Power and All of It's Aspects - Environmental, Energy,  Economic, Aesthetic, and Maybe More.

February 2: Ken Grundy, Marcus Hanna Professor Emeritus of Political Science, on subject to be determined

February 9: Paul Schroeder, Visiting Lecturer in Political Science and from Families of the Fallen for Change, on what to do in Iraq

February 16: Mark Turner, Professor of Cognitive Science, on cognition and politics

February 23: Mel Goldstein, Professor of Anthropology, on why the Chinese are winning in Tibet

March 2: Susan Helper, Professor of Economics, on strategies for American workers within the current global competition.

March 9: Baiju Shah, President, Bioenterprise Corporation, on the new economic prospects in Cleveland.

March 16: Break

March 23: Mike Aronoff of Cuyahoga County on the evaluation of sexual predators for the courtsare they really dangerous, and can we predict if they will reoffend?

March 30: Barbara Morrison, Assistant Professor of Nursing, on how current patterns of care for Moms and newborns deny them the peace and quiet and bonding they need.

April 6: Open

April 13: Marixa Lasso, Assistant Professor of History: Drugs, War, and Coffee in Colombia

April 20: Mark Joseph, Assistant Professor, Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences: Mixed-Income Development as an Approach to Addressing Urban Poverty

April 27: Christine Cano, Associate Professor of French, on the French elections (this date falls between the first round and the runoff election)

Parking: For those people who seek to make special arrangements about parking, the contact person now will be Fay Alexander.  Her phone number is 368-4440, and her e-mail is

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