Pollock's paints: Modern art X-rayed

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  • Published: Nov 1, 2016
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: X-ray Spectrometry
thumbnail image: Pollock's paints: Modern art X-rayed

Non-invasive analysis

Pollock Number 1A, 1948 (1948). Oil and household enamel paint on canvas (172.7 × 264.2 cm) The Museum of Modern Art. Areas scanned: (1) 520 × 500 mm, (2) 405 × 510 mm, (3) 467 × 504 mm and (4) 463 × 780 mm

A non-invasive study using macro X-ray fluorescence mapping (MA-XRF) and multivariate curve resolution-alternating least squares (MCR-ALS) analysis has been used to work out what paints Jackson Pollock used to create his work Number 1A from 1948, the analysis also suggests in what order the drips may have been applied.

Whether or not you are a fan of so-called modern art, what cannot be disputed is that many of the most well-known artists were creating something original with their works, developing novel techniques, and creating art that can change one's perception of how we define art. One of the most innovative and controversial protagonists of the twentieth century was Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Pollock is perhaps best known for his infamous "drip painting" approach, which gave us such esoteric paintings as "Number 19" from 1948, which sold at auction for almost $60million and, of course, the 1947 work "Alchemy". In a very similar vein is Number 1A from 1948.

1A 1948

Of course, Number 1A, 1948 represents a transition period in Pollock's career, when he threw out palette and easel and turn to the floor and began working with household enamel paints instead of conventional artistic materials. The paints were poured, dripped and splattered on the horizontal canvases, which took on greater scale with each work. However, in Number 1A, 1948, Pollock also used his hands to stain and mark the raw canvas, there are hints that this was done to somehow give a compositional basis for the layers that were applied later, although to the untrained eye one might wonder wherein the composition lies. Writing in the open access journal Heritage Science, Ana Martins of MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) in New York and her colleagues there and in academia talk of "Black, purple and brick red handprints seen on the four edges of the painting." They point out that many of those reveal themselves on closer examination to be partially hidden below successive layers of paints. The team has now partially mapped this work of art to help them more clearly characterize Pollock's approach at this turning point.

Only a few of the paint tins Pollock used in his work are preserved in his studio, so art historians and scientists alike have some useful "clues" as to what materials were flung on to his canvasses. Direct non-invasive analysis of the artworks can provide insights into the nature of the works as well as offer hopes of long-term conservation given that some pigments degrade with time. Hyperspectral imaging techniques have been used widely in scientific studies of art. Mapping then provides information about the nature and distribution of pigments and binders, ultraviolet, mid- and near-infrared, Raman scattering, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and X-ray diffraction (XRD) have all be used.


MA-XRF mapping fits the data to an elemental map and allows researchers to infer the nature of the inorganic pigments and fillers based on the elements identified in the spectra and at the same time to examine their distribution over the surface of a painting and hidden layers. That said, this approach works best with particular schools and processes where the order of application might be known and there are only a limited number of pigments being used. In modern art, the rules are often discarded with regards to application and technique, as with Pollock, and so too, the types of materials being used as "paint" in a painting. Statistics and cheminformatics methods can thus be used to extract more detail from the mapping technique, the team suggests.

"The XRF mapping exposes passages that have been covered with other paints and reveals the unbroken gestures of the artist and the intrinsic differences in flow between commercial and artist’s paints. The distribution maps can also be overlapped to virtually reconstruct the painting and help establish the sequence in which the paints were applied," the team reports. They add that, "Pollock’s intricate composition is the perfect example to demonstrate the value of visualizing the paints separately to evidence, reconstruct and better understand the artist process and single out each of his gestures and how the paint responded."

The next step is to map the whole painting, Martins told SpectroscopyNOW. "Now that we have identified the chemical signature of the hand prints and established that we can visualize them even when hidden, we want to map them all and see if indeed he used his hands to draw a preliminary composition."

Related Links

Heritage Sci 2016, 4(33), online: "Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A, 1948: a non-invasive study using macro-x-ray fluorescence mapping (MA-XRF) and multivariate curve resolution-alternating least squares (MCR-ALS) analysis"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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