I. An Introduction to Abstract Expressionism
Students will learn about several Abstract Expressionists and identify the ways in which they use color, line and form to express themselves.
Students will be able to understand the concepts of Abstract Expressionism, identify Abstract Expressionist paintings, and create an Abstract Expressionist work of art.
The lesson may be spread over 2 to 3 50-minute class sessions
Preparation: One week before the lesson:
Visit http://www.pbs.org/hanshofmann/photo_gallery_001.html and become familiar with the galleries of Hans Hofmann’s artwork.
Visit www.artcyclopedia.com and www.artnet.com and locate and print out works done by the following Abstract Expressionists: Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.
Bring in books, posters, postcards with reproductions of Abstract Expressionist art
Preparation: The day of the lesson:
- Prepare a display of the books and reproductions relating to Abstract Expressionist art
- Assemble the following materials: sketching paper, tracing paper, pencils, multi-color construction paper.
- Set up a plant or still life arrangement for students to sketch.
Note: Use the following to inform the conversations you have with your students:
Abstract Expressionism covers a wide range of non-objective painting in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. It became the first American art movement with international impact. Some preferred the term “Painterly Abstraction”, and indeed Abstract Expressionism was characterized by the lavish and loose manner in which paint was applied to canvas.
Some Abstract Expressionists (Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock) were Action Painters, emphasizing the gesture in their process. Others (Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko) were Color-Field Painters, using large planes of color to create atmospheric space with a sense of spirituality. Hans Hofmann taught the fundamentals of Abstract Expressionism as he saw them, using non-representational forms, expressive use of color, interplay of form and color to create a sense of space, and belief in nature as jumping-off point for abstraction.
- Instruct students to sketch the plant and/or still life.
- Discuss with students how they created a sense of reality for each object in the sketch.
- Direct students to cover the sketches with tracing paper, select certain elements and trace over their general shapes, disregarding detail. Suggest that they repeat and overlap these elements. The resulting drawings should have the quality of design rather than realistic still lifes.
- Compare the two drawings. Explain that the second drawing, while based on a realistic rendering, is an abstraction: it has become a non-objective work. Set drawings aside.
- Working in small groups, students receive construction paper in a variety of colors, and several line drawings.
- Ask students to use their art journals to record their responses to both color and line. They should try to define a mood or memory that each color and line drawing expresses.
- Ask each group to report its responses.
- Direct students to complete their abstract drawings. They should consider the following questions:
- What mood or memory will be expressed?
- What colors would best express that mood or memory?
- How can the lines in the drawing be altered to express a mood or memory?
Students write assessments of final work in their art journals.
Students examine reproductions of artwork and give reasons for the label Abstract Expressionist.
- What artistic decisions were made regarding color, line and form?
- How can the work be evaluated in terms of the ways in which color was used?
- How can the work be evaluated in terms of the ways in which line was used?
- Was mood or memory successfully expressed? Why or why not?
It is strongly recommended that for the extensions below students continue to use their art journals as sites for reflections, inquiry, preliminary sketches, ideas for new art work, research notes, etc.
For a deeper understanding of the work of Hans Hofmann and, more generally, the creative process, listed below are several aspects of Hofmann’s process linked with suggested classroom applications.
The Importance of Drawing from Nature (time required: ongoing)
As evident in the PBS Special Hans Hofmann: Artist/Teacher, Teacher/Artist, drawing played a large part in Hofmann’s work as an artist as well as a teacher. He always insisted that nature should be the basis for all art. Students view the segment of the PBS program where artist Myrna Harrison and film director Irvin Kershner discuss Hofmann’s interest in drawing from nature:
HARRISON: In the classroom you either worked from the nude or in the afternoon you worked from the still life he had set up. You were always working from some sort of visual, nature stimulus.
KERSHNER: Nature is the key. And he set up these still lifes. Some colored celluloid, an apple, an old white fish, a chicken—I mean odd things. If there was nothing around, he would take a big piece of paper, crumple it up, throw it in front of the window. And study it. Say, look how the light bends. Look at the form. What creates a three-dimensional form. And this would be enough inspiration to begin a whole painting.
Direct students to observe a still life for 5 minutes, walking around it. Then ask them to move away from the still life and sit down with their art journals. Without looking at the still lifes, have them draw their interpretations.
Discussion and Creation of Public Art (time required: 1-3 lessons)
The mosaic design planned by Hans Hofmann for the New York School of Printing (now High School of Graphic Arts Communication) is featured on the PBS program. It was commissioned in the 1950’s. Hofmann had to design an artwork that would fit a space that was 64 feet long and 11 feet high. Pictures of the artwork and its location at the school may be found at:
Many of the artists who were students of Hofmann’s worked on the WPA murals before they came to study with Hofmann. Other artists such as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, Willem deKooning and Jackson Pollock were just a few of the thousands of artists on the WPA Project who have achieved worldwide recognition. Go to www.newsday.com/extras/lihistory/tmachine/hs746a.htm to see examples and learn more about the WPA murals.
Cue up tape to segment with Michele Cohen of Public Art for Public Schools discussing Hofmann’s mosaic:
MICHELE COHEN: This is really what I would consider one of the Board of Ed’s hidden treasures. To have an original mosaic mural by Hans Hofmann, commissioned in 1958 when the artist was 77 years old. This mural very much represents art in the late 1950s and is a very fitting counterpart, you know, to a building that is also using an architectural vocabulary that is very current. And he kind of divides it into two areas. He has the smaller more delicate imagery that really evokes Thoreau and the biomorphic forms of the surrealists on this side and much broader planes on this side. He did not put on his public artist hat to create this mural. He really wanted to do something in a permanent medium for it to be recognizable as a Hans Hofmann.
Discussion questions for students: What is the difference between public art and art in a museum? What kinds of things does an artist have to consider when creating a piece of public art (logistical things as well as aesthetic issues)? What does Michele Cohen mean when she says that Hofmann “did not put on his public artist hat” to create this mural? How do the often social or politically charged, narrative murals of the WPA differ from Hans Hofmann’s mural?
Based on this discussion, commission the students in your class to plan and execute a design for a specific site in the school. All plans and research should be kept in the art journals.