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


Horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty. —Piet Mondrian

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 by abstractionists (Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Twombly, Diebenkorn). Often it is a paradox, or a surprise or an explicit negation of the classical principles that produce an artistic effect (Picasso, Dalí, de Kooning, Bacon) or the hypnotic repetition of patterns of colors and shapes (Mondrian, Escher). 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) or Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry in Minneapolis, or Barry Flanagan’s hare sculptures.

Project Description

This project team will investigate connections between concepts in the visual arts and laws of nature (or physics), and human perception of the two. We will inquire if the principles of visual arts stem from the same origins as the principles of physics. The rationale behind such a postulate is that both derive from the same source: a need or desire for order and a balance between simplicity and complexity. They differ, however, in that the principles of physics are valid without any human involvement (or so we think), while those of visual arts are established by humans (or so we think).

The question we will explore is to what degree the principles of art are consciously or subconsciously driven by human perception of the laws of nature. The goal of our project is to determine whether 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 whether this need results from a basic human instinct for harmony, balance and rhythm.

Team members will elaborate a mathematical expression of the laws of physics within works of art. They will also utilize eye tracking technology to examine viewer interactions with works of art.

Anticipated Outcomes

Team members will synthetize the results of the experiments in an interdisciplinary paper (possibly submitted to a peer-reviewed journal along with a version more accessible to the general public, to be made available online) and will make a proposal for an exhibit (in collaboration with the Nasher Museum and the Bologna Museum of Modern Art) of the main findings.


Summer 2016 – Spring 2017

The Franklin Humanities Institute provides additional support for this 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.

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Tomasz Hueckel, Pratt School - Civil & Environmental Engineering*
Amilcare Porporato, Pratt School - Civil and Environmental Engineering*
Marc Sommer, Pratt School - Biomedical Engineering

Graduate Team Members

Filippo Screpanti, PhD in Romance Studies
Xiaoshuang Yin, Pratt - Electrical and Computer Engineering

Undergraduate Team Members

Janie Booth, Chemistry (BS), Art History (AB2)
Maxwell Duncan, Physics (BS)
Zihui Liu, Mathematics (BS), Physics (BS2)
Gehua Tong, Biomedical Engineering

Community Team Members

Multiple Contributors, Nasher Museum of Art

* denotes team leader