Teaching abstraction

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Teaching abstraction

From Gerald King

Published before 2005


Greg Scheckler wrote:
Virgil, you're right! There isn't much to teach in terms of techniques re: abstract expressionism, and no substantive way to measure a student's progress in learning it because the artform is too internal.

Could we not say that the reason a student's progress in learning abstract expressionism cannot be measured is because it is a mindless activity only practiced by infants trying to gain motor control? The fact that it is considered meaningful activity of adults and is exalted by some as a great artistic movement boggles the mind.

It's more accurate in Pollock's case to say it's an attempt at selflessness. But in any case such art is easy to make. There's not much to teach. Anybody can do it.

The question then is, why would anyone want to waste time doing it or even learning about it? The answer is that it is forced upon naive art students and art history majors by sycophant art professors too ignorant and intimidated by their peers to admit that it is a fallacy and a fraud. This is the first time I have heard about Pollock's "attempt at selflessness." I always thought of his strategy was an attempt at "mindlessness" and selfishness.

Anybody can make a good drawing. I've taught hundreds of college students how to draw realistically, using various academy methods and standard, well-known art techniques. It seems to me that anybody can learn how to draw this way. It'll take years of intelligent practice and intense motivation to really master it, but, with time and effort pretty much anybody can do it.

Unfortunately, not everyone has a teacher of your competence. It is true that anyone can learn to draw, but the number of students who ever "master" it is extremely small. Not all drawing activities stimulate growth and after taking your classes the student is likely to spend less time drawing from life and drift into an "abstract mode." You yourself rightly state that it takes "years of intelligent practice." Who in the art world has ever considered practice beyond the art school as a necessity? Most graduate art students consider "practice" a student activity and go about doing what they consider serious art. Rather than adding to and filling the vessel, they drain it.

Virgil, your view that student's desire to make abstract work or study it stems from mental laziness is off-base, from my viewpoint. What I observe in my realist drawing courses is that sometimes students get frustrated and out of frustration want to then refuse the course goals or learning objectives of the art project. They draw little tails on their figures, start making fun of things. It's not laziness. It's frustration with how hard art can be to learn.

This is exactly what happens to children at the age of 9 thru 13. Without a teacher or parent who can draw better than an average teenager, they will not receive help with their drawing and become one of the visually immature. It is not surprising to see traces of this impairment in college art classes.

I do think it is possible that one could become a good abstract painter without learning how to make mirror-smooth academy-method figure drawings, still lives, or landscapes.

I disagree. That's like saying it is possible to become a good surgeon without studying biology and medicine. It is common among today's modernists to believe 'color' is a superior element in art and paintings which use color in a "creative" way are art. To these people learning to make mirror-smooth figure drawings in black and white seems to be wasting time and competing with a photograph. One of the characteristics of the old masters was their ability to take their painting beyond the sketch, beyond the cartoon, beyond the design and beyond the impression. In order to go beyond the impression they had to learn how to carry a black and white drawing to higher and higher levels of finish. It is ludicrous to believe that developing a drawing or painting to a high finish will stifle a young artist's desire to explore other painting styles, techniques and methods. This is where rebelling against the system is healthy. After going through rigorous academic training most art students want to loosen up a bit. Abstraction will seldom lead to tightening up or a desire to do more finished work. Once again Picasso can be show the pattern. He rejected the academic methods and took the road of abstraction ending with elementary graffiti. Pollack never could draw worth a lick and ended his artistic career doing childish mishmash. Perhaps had he done a mirror-smooth rendering of some fruit and flowers he would not have ended up designing floor tiles and wallpaper.

Thanks Greg for the opportunity to express some thoughts. I respect you as a good artist and fine teacher and agree with most of what you wrote.

Gerald King