Andrzej Herczynski and Claude Cernuschi’s chance friendship is the sort which sometimes occurs between professors whose personal interests extend beyond the boundaries of their professional fields.
Cernuschi, an art history professor and specialist in Abstract Expressionism and author of several books and essays on Jackson Pollock, and Herczynski, an expert on fluid dynamics from Boston College’s physics department, would normally be considered strange intellectual bedfellows.
Their work found common ground, however, following an otherwise benign comment from Cernuschi during a discussion of Jackson Pollock’s painting Autumn Rhythms. Cernuschi remarked to Herczynski that the paint on Pollock’s canvas seemed as if it was in fact, “freed from gravity.”
To Herczynski, a dynamic fluid specialist in the physics department, this comment carried more weight than Cernuschi perhaps had intended.
“As many things in life that end up being important to us … this was in large part accidental,” Herczynski said.
The offhand comment that caught the fluid dynamics professor’s attention was not only an aesthetic observation, but a veritable principle of fluid dynamics.
Further, the entire painting seemed, to Herczynski, to exhibit an array of dynamic fluid mechanics. The curiosity and willingness to examine and study the paintings followed and resulted in academic papers on a physics-based consideration of Pollock’s paintings.
Each professor, though viewing the painting in the same light and at the same distance, observed Pollock’s work through different lenses.
“I can’t help but bring a certain physics sensitivity to things,” Herczynski said.
While the colors, negative space, and textures of the canvas were most apparent to one professor, the other was instantly drawn to flow rate, coiling effects, and lateral deflection.
For example, what can be observed in many of Pollock’s paintings are “quasi-sinusoidal” patterns, or long strokes of paint that resemble sine waves.
To the untrained eye, it may look as though Pollock had merely wiggled his brush as he dripped paint over his canvas. But to the physicist, this was an instantly recognizable result of principle of fluid dynamics called the “liquid rope coiling effect.”
With the help of various equations instilled in the mind of any decent fluid physicist, Herczynski (in collaboration with Cernuschi and Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan from Harvard University) was able to deduce many things, within a reasonable margin of error, about particular strokes in Pollock’s paintings.
The right combination of variables and fluid principles and the academic trio could determine the viscosity of the paint, whether Pollock’s hand was speeding up or slowing down during the stroke, and the height at which he was dropping paint onto the canvas. But more importantly, their studies have revealed much in relation to the method of Pollock’s painting.
“Pollock has discovered this coiling effect … and this is very central to his art-making … so, in this sense its not just measuring certain physical attributes or properties, but it’s connected with his whole attitude … It is insight that is central to the artistic process, or the meaning of the work,” Herczynski said.
Pollock not only stumbled upon these principles of fluid dynamics, but also “indulged” in them, making them significant parts of his artwork.
Herczynski and Cernuschi have written four academic articles together explaining their research on Polllock and Abstract Expressionism in general since that initial discussion.
Herczynski stresses the universal applicability of physics, likening it to a toolbox from which one can draw alternate perspectives to his or her own area of study, even art history. Studying and understanding physics requires a “certain childishness,” he said.
One must ask, “Why does this happen?” for every observable event, he said. Herczynski merely applied what had become natural to him through years of musings on mechanical motion. But through the lens of physics, he came away with truly unique observations on what may seem to some an exhausted figure of the artistic canon.
“It seems to me to be folly to disregard this training and this set of tools … just because you’re looking at a painting rather than a particle accelerator,” he said. With this in mind, Herzcynski will be leading a month-long study abroad trip to Parma, Italy this coming summer.
The program, entitled “The Art of Physics,” will expose students to the methods, principles, and philosophy of the field.
It will ask students to consider how the study of physics fits in to that of liberal arts and, engage them in conversations with scientists to help them better understand technological advances, and help them develop practical skills, according to BC’s international programs webpage,
This knowledge, Herczynski believes, will help to broaden the perspective of those who may have avoided Higgins Hall during their BC tenure and give them a chance to explore physics and science in a new way.
The course will also give students a chance to explore locations important to both artistic and scientific development in Italy during the month-long seminar.
“I hope it invites considerations on the power and beauty of physics and its place among the study of liberal arts,” he said of the new summer course.
Inspired by an accidental fluid dynamics student—Pollock—Herczynski hopes to help students reconsider the multidisciplinary applicability of physics.
Featured Image by Emily Sadeghian / Heights Editor