When I was doing my teacher training, I distinctly remember one of my art history lecturers arguing that abstraction was simply not something worth exploring with teenagers in their early teenage years. Figurative art was the way to go, being more accessible, more linked to a narrative and simply more of an open door to them.
I would certainly acknowledge that figurative work is a more straight forward route, but to leave abstraction out of the picture seems to me to be a neglection of rather too much of the art of the twentieth century! Each year with my classes of 14-15 year olds I launch into a quite extensive series of lessons that explores abstraction from a number of different directions.
I can’t pretend that the first session is often greeted with some bewilderment, but as the lessons and assignments progress there is an increasing realization that there is serious work to be done and artistic decisions to be made.
I normally start by drawing parallels with the world of instrumental music (lyrics being way too much of a distraction). Music is closer to their world of experience and discussions around rhythm, expression and emotional tone are all easily possible. Also matters of personal taste can be explored. I use various music fragments to set the ball rolling, challenging the pupils to react with line, shape and tone to pieces ranging from the most minimal of Brian Eno compositions to pastoral classical music and techno rhythms. Each fragment produces its own distinctive results. The door towards abstract compositions swings slowly open.
We explore directional flow around and towards focal points in abstract arrangements. Graphic qualities in design, chaos and order, both working on paper and in digital work. We have also explored step by step processes of abstraction from a figurative starting point, moving slowly away from pictorial conventions. We have also worked with street maps as a starting point towards working towards a much-abstracted version that has often become essentially unrecognizable.
When working around these themes I often refer to the work of Frank Stella, and this year couldn’t resist the chance to dip into his work to explore the differences between illusionistic form (through the cones and pillars relief pieces) and the real three-dimensional space that these huge constructions have.
All-in all there seems so much to explore and experiment with and I have to say that often after a little initial scepticism there is an increasing focused engagement and they start to understand the considerable possibilities and freedom that these assignments offer. Do they miss the narrative? My impression is that they don’t really, they just focus on the choices and options that are on offer, and they are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and technically able at the end of the module.