Loving Those Abstracts

By Stevens, Lori | School Arts, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Loving Those Abstracts


Stevens, Lori, School Arts


Convincing rural, farm-grown teenagers to appreciate modern abstract art is akin to getting them to like liver and onions. We have all shown a poster of a Jackson Pollock or a Franz Kline, to the sneers and grimaces of our young proteges. Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Dadaism, Fauvism, and Action Painting are "otherworldly." Because of these mind-sets, coupled with the difficulty of establishing a definition of abstract art, beyond "not representational," I have veered around the movement each time I want students to grab a piece of art history. Determined to add an important part of art appreciation to my classes, I launched into an unproven lesson in my studio art classes, requiring each student to complete and value an original abstract work. I knew abstract art was going to be a tough sell, but off I went.

All work done in my classes must be grounded with authentic assessment, but it must also be successful in students' views. I began by showing images of work done by icons of abstraction--Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Jackson Pollock. We discussed principles of design, color theory, and expression. Simultaneously, I asked them to look, at their environments in new ways, to look for the emotion, the action, or the density of an object. I inquired: What would an object look like if it were a song? This was an outrageous but playful and perplexing question.

I find that one of the largest obstacles to students completing original work is their fear of not achieving the requested result. Lecture, research, and individual discussion help dispel their insecurities and boost their motivation to start and complete. I spend any extra budget dollar on my used, abused, and so well-loved classroom library. My classroom motto is "Look, look, sketch a thumbnail, look."

I passed out a required step-by-step outline of the project process. I asked each of them to look at abstract art. They were to list five or six abstract artists they thought were interesting, narrow their list down to the one most personally intriguing, and do a bit of research, and finally complete a paper in which they included a little biography, information regarding the timely importance of their artist, and short critiques of two artworks they photocopy or print. Their personal critiques were imperative. They structured their final painting to resemble the style of their chosen artist in their final project.

Then I flipped the normal sequence. Before thumbnails and before painting, I asked them to choose a title for their work. The title could be big--Extinction, Millennium, or Teardrops Dancing in Confusion, for examples or simple and playful--A Fork, Friends, or A Hole.

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