Magazine article Artforum International

The Hidden Variable

Magazine article Artforum International

The Hidden Variable

Article excerpt

IN THE PROCESS of authentication--of verifying who made what when--every painting becomes a landscape painting. Pigments are harvests, geology, trade routes, chemistry: Scheele's green and lead white, viridian and madder and chrome yellow. The board on which they're painted can be dendrochronologically dated, analyzing the rings and grain that document dry years and bitter winters in an oak on the Ligurian coast. A portrait from a wall in a private home is a slow-developing accumulation piece about coal heat, gaslight, and lampblack. The cotton of the canvas of a fake Fernand Leger, supposedly painted in 1913, carries "bomb peak" levels of carbon 14, the residue of postwar atmospheric nuclear testing--making it a picture of the skies over New Mexico and Novaya Zemlya in the 1950s that also happens to have a knockoff "Contraste de formes" on it. Just as a city skyline has its mirror image in the negative space of quarries, mines, and pits, so a painting forensically analyzed is the reflection of its infrastructure and era.

A painting is also a probability landscape. A brushstroke, a drip, a line are decisions made against the backdrop of all the other possible marks not made--not just in the sense of pentimenti and underdrawing but as characteristic choices, as style. Or take prose: Every word is a step on a path through potential arrangements. Stylometric machine-learning tools are very good at finding these patterns, with which we can distinguish authors and identify collaborations and forgeries. Prose decomposed is data: lengths of sentences, choice and order of words, syntax and idiosyncrasies of usage, and elements whose predictive power escapes the human writer. For Gertrude Stein, a comma was like a butler, solicitously reminding you to breathe and helping you find your slippers; as it turns out, commas are also like butlers in that they can testify against their employers and rat them out.

In the case of words, stylistic analysis is fairly intuitive. Rhythm, cadence, a baffling preference for crepus-cular--we can understand how inferences can be drawn from these elements. But how can this be applied to visual entities like paintings? Consider a signature: Sylvia Ann Howland's, in 1867. A great fortune hangs on that scribble, among the most closely studied in history, the Zapruder film of handwriting. Howland had willed some of her estate in trust to her niece, Hetty R.obinson; Robinson produced a second, secret will awarding her the whole thing and sued the executors. The important page was in Robinson's handwriting, as she'd taken dictation from her elderly, infirm aunt. Only the signatures on the page were Howland's. Or not. On this, millions rested.

The concern wasn't that the signatures on the conflicting wills were too different; it was that they were too similar. They were identical, stroke by stroke, and even their placement and distance from the margins on their respective pages was the same, which made them look less like writing than tracing. "Such evanescent shadows of probability," said the mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Peirce in his testimony, "cannot belong to actual life." He and his son Charles Sanders Peirce, the philosopher, were attacking this problem with the mathematics of probability rather than the visual connoisseurship of signature experts. They identified the most salient visual features of the signature--thirty down-strokes--and went through dozens of examples, cataloguing the variations for each combination. They developed a statistical model of the (very remote) likelihood that the signatures on the contested page could precisely correspond. In the end, the case was dismissed and Robinson settled out of court. (She had already married by then and become Hefty Green, the "Witch of Wall Street," the legendarily shrewd investor who was to become the country's wealthiest woman.) The debate was never really settled: Were the signatures perfectly fine, or were they too perfect? …

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