Beauty in Balance and Balance in Beauty: An Exploration of the Laws of Physics in Abstract Modern Art (2016-2017)

To what degree are the principles of art consciously or subconsciously driven by human perception of the laws of nature? One of the primary classical principles in the visual arts is harmony, also referred to as balance or equilibrium. This refers to the geometry of shapes and to the use of colors, but also to something much less explicit: energy, motion and rhythm. These principles were observed not only in classical art, but also in abstract art. Often it is a paradox, or a surprise or an explicit negation of the classical principles that produce an artistic effect or the hypnotic repetition of patterns of colors and shapes.

Comparatively, three principal laws of physics are those of balance of mass, momentum (linear and rotational) and energy. The balance of momentum leads directly to the concept of equilibrium of forces. Some of the best examples of art that explicitly play with the laws of force and momentum equilibria are the mobiles of Calder (a mechanical engineer by training), Spoonbridge and Cherry by Oldenburg and van Bruggen and Barry Flanagan’s hare sculptures.

Exploratory in nature, this Bass Connections project investigated connections between concepts in the visual arts and physics, and human perception of the two. The team explored whether the principles of the visual arts stem from the same origins as the principles of physics, and delved into the degree to which principles of art are consciously or subconsciously driven by human perception of the laws of nature. Does the need for harmony, balance or equilibrium in visual art derives from the fact that our brain has learned to approve of balance and equilibrium in nature? Or does this need result from a basic human instinct for harmony, balance and rhythm?

Team members utilized eye tracking software to examine viewer interactions with paintings by abstract artists. Focusing on American artist Mark Rothko, the team assigned numerical values to determine the “weight” of colors and developed an app. They provided their Rothko test to 80 Bass Connections in Brain & Society team members. The test will be synthesized with graphs and material values, and findings may be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal.


Summer 2016 – Spring 2017

Team Outcomes

Rothko Test

Family-oriented activities at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Discovery Day (April 9, 2017)

This Team in the News

Three Bass Connections Faculty Leaders Receive Honors

I was the only art history major on the team, and I gained perspectives on areas I had little knowledge of. I picked up some coding, learned more about physics and how to conduct research. I feel so lucky to be a place where you can do research and work at a museum. –Janie Booth

This project was selected by the Franklin Humanities Institute as a humanities-connected project.

Image: Frank Stella, River of Ponds IV, 1970. Lithograph on paper, edition 33/70, 31 7/8 x 31 7/8 inches (81 x 81 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Gift of Nancy Hanks, 1971.60.1. © Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

Team Leaders

  • Tomasz Hueckel, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Amilcare Porporato, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering

/graduate Team Members

  • Filippo Screpanti, Romance Studies-AM

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Jane Booth, Art History (AB)
  • Maxwell Duncan, Physics (BS)
  • Zihui Liu, Mechanical Engineering (BSE), Mathematics (BS2)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Hrishikesh Rao, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering
  • Marc Sommer, Pratt School of Engineering-Biomedical Engineering
  • Jun Yin, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Nasher Museum of Art