From The Dallas Morning News Education Extra 16A, July 20, 1999

Inside Education
In painting or math, practice precedes art
Daniel N. Rockmore

The name Jackson Pollock brings to mind images of energy, movement, even chaos. The large canvases he created are a riot of dripped and splattered paint, an apparent explosion of motion frozen in time and space. He was the embodiment of "action painting" and one of the great and original figures of abstract expressionism.

Like many, I thought of Pollock as the born artist, someone whose thoughts, emotions and subconscious simply transferred directly to the tip of his paintbrush. Hans Naumuth filmed Pollock as he created one of his energized drip canvases; we aft him moving like a dancer, tossing, teasing, twirling paint in an almost unconscious but considered way.

But Pollock was absolutely not a born artist. In fact, the overwhelming consensus is that he had almost no innate talent. What Pollock did have was a fierce desire to be an artist. So, Pollock put in years and years of practice.

He tried out all sorts of media, including sculpture and metalworking, but it seems he always returned to drawing. He apprenticed to Thomas Hart Benton, a realist and geometric reductionist. When, several years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibit of Pollock's notebooks, they were not pages and pages of dripped paint and squiggly lines but, rather, study after study, imitations of El Greco, copies of magazine covers ... evidence of long hours spent trying to master the techniques of line and shading.

Like many of the abstract expressionists, Pollock was familiar with Jungian theories of the subconscious and for some time was an advocate of automatism and automatic writing; he aimed to paint or draw "free of the dictates of conscious manipulation." Yet the unconscious must draw from somewhere. These images do not spring up simply from our gray matter, but rather from some well of experience, emotion and even technique. As the pen, pencil or brush races across the canvas, seemingly unguided by direct thought, the motion must draw from some familiar, natural, unblocked and deeply remembered activity: the practice.

Much of the same is true in mathematics. While for various reasons many of us like to believe in the myth of the born mathematician and mathematically gifted, in fact, for most of us, mathematical skill is to a degree an acquired talent: pages and pages of sums; then multiplication tables, algebraic manipulations, geometric formulas; and depending on how far our studies take us, integrals, matrix operations and solving differential equations. Problem set after problem set, example after example ... until finally one day, the mechanics of it all recede into the background and our minds, our creativity, our inspiration are set free and given the tools to express themselves. Now we can design beautiful house, plane or graphics program, now we can explain that economy or disease response. Our hearts will choose the music we want to hear, and mathematics will help us dance to it.

I think of these parallels as I look over Pollock made during a 1936 visit to Dartmouth with his brother Sande and other artists to see the (then) recently completed Orozco mural cycle, "Epic of American Civilization." The sketches seem inspired by the panel "Gods of the Modern World," which consists of five ghoulish academics bearing witness to the "birth" of a skull from a skeletal figure who lies supine, surrounded by specimen jars and books.

The sketches remind me that academics, science with out inspiration or magic, is a lifeless exercise. Pollock's drawings ... the delicate lines of bones, skeletons and ghosts ... belie the hours of academic drawing exercises, but of course are much more than that. They are a synthesis of his perspiration and inspiration. All that homework gave him a way to channel his ferocious desire to be an artist into being an artist.

Daniel N. Rockmore is vice chair of the mathematics department at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H