I love abstract art. I hate teaching abstract art. Not the art history aspect, that’s absolutely fantastic–right up my alley with drunk Jackson Pollock decapitating himself, and Mark Rothko murder conspiracy theories. That’s the soap opera stuff I love to talk about and that’s what gets my kids excited about art history. The actual artmaking, though, is what is difficult–first to get kids to accept the idea of abstract art, then to actualy begin the creative process.
So what do we do? How do we answer the questions and complaints about abstract art? Then, how do we focus students on the creative process?
First, the questions/complaints I get EVERY YEAR (and how I answer them):
How is that famous? Why is that art?
Ever since modernism and Marcel Duchamp, art is about the idea. Yes, the visual aspect is important, but you need to know about the idea behind the work. When you see an individual painting, that painting is part of a century-long conversation between artists about the direction of art and the ideas of what they are trying to create. When your art can completely change the direction of that conversation, you become famous (see: Pollock, Jackson).
I could do that!
No, actually. You probably couldn’t. But we’re going to try, so you can experience what those artists experienced. Art needs to be experienced to be understood. Once you have that experience, you can then critique what has been done. But not yet.
Then, the lesson. I want to share a really simple one that I’ve done for a few years, and I’m sure plenty of other teachers do it as well: We get out our big stack of art prints (you can use books, whatever). Students receive a stack of notecards–four, five, however many you want–that are made into viewfinders. Here’s a Chagall print with a few taped on:
After viewfinders are taped onto the print, students sketch each of those views. After selecting the best one, it is re-drawn onto 18 x 24 paper and painted with acrylic.
There are a lot of teachable aspects here–composition, painting styles, painting techniques, but nothing that forces the teacher to be overly involved. My student teacher kept the grading simple as well–the grading criteria involved using non-recognizable objects, consistent brushstrokes, consistent paint coverage, and clean edges and lines. Below are a few of the first ones that were turned in.
This is not a difficult project by any means, but it’s a good introduction to abstract art. Kids are forced to make decisions about composition, design, and color. They gain an appreciation and an understanding of abstract art, and it only takes a couple of days. From there, you can then move on to bigger and better things in the world of abstraction.