Friday, October 24, 2008

What's in a Symbol?

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns wanted to be an artist from the time that he was a kid growing up in Allendale, South Carolina. Since there were few artists living in his small southern community, and little opportunity to take formal art classes, Johns had very little idea of what it was like to be an artist. When it came time to go to college, he attended the University of South Carolina but didn’t stay long before moving to New York City. When Johns arrived in New York in the early 50s, he found work as a window designer for Tiffany’s and became friends with another southerner, the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the composer John Cage.

Even with all the artists and artwork at his disposal in New York City, it was a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the work of Marcel Duchamp that proved to be pivotal for Johns. Duchamp literally stood the art world on its head with a series of what became known as Readymades; everyday, ordinary objects presented as pieces of art. These Readymades proved to be the starting point for works that would bring Johns early recognition and later cement his reputation as a principal figure for both the Pop and Minimalist art movements and as one of America’s most recognized and acclaimed visual artist.

Here are two examples of Duchamp's Readymades:

Bicycle Wheel, 1913


When Johns arrived in New York in the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionist movement, a style ofpainting that disapproved of direct reference to real subject matter, was firmly in control of contemporary painting. Johns and his colleagues were looking for a new statement and it was the works of Duchamp that provided Johns with the inspiration he was looking for. Johns started to paint ordinary, everyday objects. American flags, targets, numbers and maps were where among the first paintings to appear. He had no intentions of making high art or an intellectual response to the Abstract Expressionist, for Johns the simple act of painting things was the art. He said of his new object paintings, “there may or may not be an idea, and the meaning of the painting could be that the painting exists”. Even though Johns had learned the craft of painting well, and painted lush and richly textured surfaces, his subjects remained simple and ordinary.

Three Flags

Target, 1958

Figure 4

In the mid and later 1960s, Johns moved his work into sculpture and became a very proficient printmaker. His subjects continued along the same simplistic roots adding objects such as paint brushes, light bulbs, beer cans and plaster casts of body parts to his visual repertoire. For Johns, there was no hierarchy between the mediums, and he easily moved his subjects in and out of both two and three dimensional compositions and constructions.


Untitled, 1977

Throughout his long and prolific career, Johns remained true to his early vision of following in Duchamp’s love and respect of the ordinary. The appeal for Johns everyday subjects were broadly recognized by art critics, historians and people from many walks of life. Whether or not his chosen catalog of objects served as symbols and metaphors for other meanings remains vague and left open to personal interpretation, and for us to judge for ourselves if, in fact, the everyday and ordinary is worthy of being real art.


Jasper Johns: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Jasper Johns: About the Painter

Marcel Duchamp: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Philip Guston

For nearly two decades of his career, Philip Guston was well entrenched and held in high regard as one of America’s best and brightest painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The paintings that earned him high acclaim were constructed of layer upon layer of thickly painted lines that crossed over and under each other in somewhat of a loose woven pattern. Generally, his color palette was limited to a range of pinks, grays and muted primary colors.

Here is an example of one of Guston's Abstract Expressionist works:

To Felleni, 1958

Then, suddenly, in the fall of 1970 Guston’s turned his back on everything that had won him fame and respect and exhibited an entirely new body of work that stands as one of the biggest stylist changes of any well known American artist. It was if he had committed artistic treason. Many of his closest friends and colleagues were so confused and angry that they severed their relationships with him. Many well known art critics had a field day tearing down and mocking his new works prompting Guston to leave New York City in favor of more reclusive and quieter confines in Woodstock, NY.

Here are two examples of his dramatic stylistic shift:


The Problems of a Painter

Philip Guston was born in Montreal in 1913, making him 17 years older than Jasper Johns. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he remained until, like Johns, he too moved to New York City. While in high school, he met and became friends with Jackson Pollack. He won a one year scholarship to the Otis Art Institute but was generally a self taught artist. Like many young artists and students of his time, his early works were figurative and representational. When he arrived in New York City in 1936, he went to work in the WPA Program, painting many large scale public murals. His references at this stage in his artistic development were mostly Renaissance masters such as Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Giotto. He also admired painters from the American Realists movement and some Mexican mural painters.

The primary reason behind Guston’s surprising stylistic shift seemed to come from a necessity to stay the things that he could not through his abstract, non-objective work. By breaking the rules of Abstract Expressionism, Guston was able to liberate himself and return to what he labeled as the “world of things”. With his new style, he was able express his feelings about the struggles of the time: sentiments against the Vietnam War, violent and bitter tragedies of the civil rights movement, political scandals of the Nixon administration as well as offering up a critical review of himself.

The Three

Untitled, 1973

Multiplied, 1972

The images and symbols that filled up Guston’s new canvases included crude, cartoon-like Klu Klux Klan figures influenced out of his admiration for the work of Philadelphia based cartoonist Robert Crumb. The Klansmen are often see riding through his paintings in a beat up jalopy as if out for a comical and casual joy ride. Guston also employed a hooded figure in the role of his self portrait. Beyond the cartoon Klan figures, cars and clumpy cityscapes, Guston, like Johns, painted familiar, everyday objects, many of which inhabited his Woodstock studio. Paint brushes, palettes, stretched canvases, clocks, shoes, cigarettes, French fries, cherries and light bulbs serve as minors and major supporting characters. Piles of spider-like severed limbs, large eyeballs, trash can lids and a scorching sun make many reoccurring appearances throughout his final creative burst. The work that initially lost Guston friends and artistic acclaim would eventually earn him a rightfully deserved place as an internationally recognized artist who summoned the insurmountable courage to risk everything in order to say what he felt needed to be said.


Philip Guston: Wikipedia Encyclopedia

Philip Guston: The Man, His Life and His Work

Robert Crumb: R. Crumb, the Official Website

Discussion and Activity:

What do the subjects / symbols in the works of Johns and Guston say or mean to you?
What associations can you make from some of their images?

Do you think there is more meaning behind the symbols that Johns and Guston painted or are they simply reflections of common objects?

What similarities are there between Johns and Guston? What are some differences?

Because the subjects matter for both artists is common and simple, does this have any reflection on the importance and value of their work and their contributions to contemporary art?

In the spirit of Johns and Guston, think about objects that have a special significance to you. Construct a composition which combines a minimum of five forms or objects. Consider different arrangements and scale of the objects. Ink, charcoal, graphite, the use of collage elements and mixed media techniques can be used. The use of color is optional.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Outsider Exhibition

Adolf Wolfli - Medewerker

The very first pieces of Outsider art where cave paintings. Since there obviously were no art schools to attend, prehistoric men and probably women made drawings on the walls of caves without any type of formal artistic training. They used crude materials and made images from their life experiences and imaginations. Fast forward thousands of years later to the availability of art supplies, the invention of paper, longer life expectancy and much better living conditions, and many contemporary Outsider artists continue to make artwork without any artistic training and often create work that also relates back to their life experiences and vivid imaginations. The term Outsider Art is an often interchangeable one with other labels that mean much the same thing. Folk art or naïve art is also done by people without formal artistic training. The term “visionary” artist can often be found to define a person who, without any prior reason, history or training, suddenly begins to make art, and generally once they start, they continue to make more work at an amazingly compulsive rate.

In more recent times, the naïve and untrained qualities of Outsider artists have gained enormous amounts of interest, appreciation and exposure. Now, in an era where there are literally thousands of trade schools, workshops, colleges and universities that specialize in educating professional artists, for many critics, collectors and museum goers it is not the highly trained artists who are most famous but quite the opposite. Outsider art has become big business with art galleries, dealers, collectors and museums all over the world. The inexplicable lure and magic of the untrained visionary, the imagery of the poor, uneducated, illiterate and sometimes mentally ill are what interests the public the most.


You are a member of a museum staff. Your director has announced that next season the museum will host a large group exhibition of works from four important Outsider artists.

Exhibition Artists

Adolf Wolfli


Martin Ramirez

Untitled - Horse and Rider

Howard Finster

Baby Elvis

Earl Cunningham

Tranquil Garden

As a museum staff member (four or five group members), your tasks are multi-fold. While it is important that you operate as a group, some of the tasks may be better suited to individuals or a couple members within your group. Once you have reviewed all of your responsibilities, you can decide as a group how to best distribute the work.

1. Since the exhibition will originate from your museum, it will need a name; something short that will describe some important qualities of the artists shown while also being creative enough to provide the show with a commercial identity. Review the works from the four artists who have been chosen and come up with some “catchy” ideas. Once your group has come up with several possible titles, vote among yourselves to choose the winner.

2. Since many museum goers may not be acquainted with the term Outsider artist, it will be your responsibility to research artists who are categorized within this particular style and prepare a written introduction that will appear at the entrance to the exhibition. The introduction will be short and concise and describe the unique qualities that define Outsider artists from the other types of art people often associate with museums.

3. Two of the artists in the exhibition - Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez - made all of their work while institutionalized in mental asylums. It will be your job to research how and why these artists lived out most of their adults lives in a mental hospital, the types of mental illnesses they suffered from, and determine how these specific types of disorders may have attributed to the work they produced.

3(a). Forms of mental illness have been well documented in some other famous artists who are not considered among the Outsider genre. Vincent van Gogh became so tortured during the later years of his life that he committed suicide. Jackson Pollack suffered from internal demons that drove him to destructive bouts of drinking and rage. William Blake suffered terribly from delusions. Research these artists to become more familiar with how mental disorders have plagued these and other notable artists and the connections that can be made between them and Adolf Wolfli and Martin Ramirez.

The other two artists in the exhibition were not diagnosed with mental disorders but like the other two generally made their artwork in isolation well outside the mainstream of the general public and contemporary art. Many Outsider artists were poor and disadvantaged and experienced difficult life situations that prevented them from gaining proper educations.

4. Throughout the course of the exhibition, you as staff members will be required to give a short gallery talk about the exhibition lasting no longer than fifteen minutes. The talk should offer a broad overview of Outsider art and the four artists exhibiting in the show. Point out some commonalities and some differences among the artists, offer short bios and some interesting facts that you have uncovered during your research. You will present the talk as a group with each member of the staff handling an equal part of the talk.

5. As part of the exhibition programming, the art education department in your museum will sponsor an Outsider Art Project Day. Children and visitors to the museum will be invited to make a piece of artwork in the spirit of the Outsider movement. You as staffers will construct an example that incorporates many elements that appears in the exhibited work.


Adolf Wolfli

Inner World Music

Martin Ramirez

Untitled - Cityscape

Howard Finster

Heaven is Worth it All

Earl Cunningham

A Sail at Dawn

Outsider Art Collections:

Compagnie de l’Art Brut

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Fleisher Olman Gallery

Anthony Petullo Collection of Self Taught and Outsider Art

Other Outsider Artists and Potential Resource Sites:

James Castle

Madge Gill

Henry Darger

Gee’s Bend

Mental Disorders

Discussion Topics:

Howard Finster - Talking Heads

Do you think that artwork created by untrained and uneducated people is of any less value and importance compared with works of art done by trained and educated artists? If so, then why? Construct arguments that support both sides of this question.

Do you think if the life circumstances of these Outsider artists had been better, they had received good educations and were not so isolated, do you think they would have made the artwork that they did, or is their work a direct product of their circumstances?


Martin Ramirez - Untitled Rabbit

Congratulations on a very successful exhibition. Thousand of people attended the show and both local and national critics wrote positive articles and reviews. Now that the exhibition has moved onto to another museum, you will have time to reflect on what you have learned in mounting this exhibition. Take some time as a group to talk about your experiences - both the positive and negative - and share with the group what you learned along the way.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wish You Were Here - Lesson Plan

Title: The Edge of Town

Sixe: 7 x 8"

Medium: Acrylic and Collage on Museum Board

Location: Center City Philadelphia, PA

Title: City Garden

Size: 7 x 8"

Medium: Acrylic and Collage on Museum Board

Location: Center City Philadelphia, PA

Grade Level: 10 – 12th

Brief History / Background:
To reflect, describe and construct a visual image using mixed media techniques that conveys a sense of place, feelings or memories of a student’s home environment or a personal space and have the images interpreted by another student.

National Content Standards:
1 - Understanding and applying media techniques and process
3 - Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols and ideas
5 - Reflecting upon and assessing the characteristics and merits of their work and the work of others

National Educational Technology Standards:
1 - Facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity

Students will reflect upon feelings, thoughts or memories that they associate with their home environments or a particular special place. Students will write down five adjectives that correspond to their feelings, thoughts or memories and not show the words to the rest of the class. Students will use their words as inspiration to make a two-dimensional visual image. Students will take a digital photograph of their completed images and send it as an attachment to a randomly selected classmate for their personal interpretation. The students who receive the images will, in turn, write five adjectives that describe how they feel about the image and send it back to the students who produced the image. A discussion on intentions versus personal interpretations will conclude the project.

Students will:
Reflect upon their home environments or a chosen personal place
Students will:
Choose and write five adjectives that correspond to their feelings, thoughts and memories that they associate with their chosen place.
Students will:
Use their written adjectives as a guide in the creation of a two-dimensional images made from collage and mixed media techniques.
Students will:
Take a digital photograph of their completed works and have their image sent as an
e-mail attachment to randomly selected classmate for a personal interpretation..
Student will:
Randomly receive an image from a classmate and write five adjectives they feel describe the digital image and send their adjectives back to the image maker.
Students will:
Compare their personal interpretation against those of the image makers and discuss agreements and differences between the image maker’s intentions and the reaction of the viewer.

· Mate board for use as backing material
· Collage items – magazines, postcards, printed material
· Acrylic paints
· Brushes
· Glue or matte medium
· Scissors or utility knives
· Colored pencils
· Digital camera
· Computers capable of downloading and sending digital images

Visual Aids:
Reproductions of how some modern and contemporary artists have conveyed feelings about their home environments or personal spaces through visual images. David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, William Wegman, Martin Ramirez, Vincent Van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Claude Monet all provide good examples of artists using personal spaces as inspiration for visual images.
Teacher Preparation:
Have examples of artists work on hand – either digital or printed images. Have writing material and art materials ready to begin the project.

Teaching: Introduction of the lesson:
An initial discussion about the artist’s intentions versus the personal interpretation of the viewer will begin the project. Students will be asked if it matters that the maker of a piece of artwork and the viewer share the same emotional response for a work of art. Is a work of art less successful if the artist’s intentions and the viewer opinions differ?
After the initial discussion about intentions versus opinions, students will look at a number of examples of artwork inspired by a sense of place and begin the project.

After the introduction, students will:
Reflect upon their home environments or a special space and select a personal place.
Students will:
Write down five descriptive adjectives that relate to their selected place, and at this point not share them with the rest of the class.
Students will:
Use their five chosen adjectives as source material to construct a work of art using mixed media material.
Students will:
Have their finished works digitally photographed
Students will:
Send their digital photographs as an e-mail attachment to a randomly selected classmate.
Students will:
Receive, open and review the attachments and send it back to the sender with five descriptive adjectives of their own.
Students will:
Display their images along with their initial adjectives and the adjectives from students who received the images.
Students will:
Discuss the similarities and differences between the intentions of the artist and interpretations of the viewer. How and why does this occur? And is it a good or bad thing for galleries and museums to place descriptive placards next to pieces of artwork?

Critique / Evaluation / Assessment:
At the conclusion of the project, students will place their images, their five adjectives and the five adjectives from the receiving student up for review. Students will see if their feelings about their chosen space matched up or differed with what the receiving students felt. Both the making and the receiving students will be asked to comment on what they intended their work to convey and how the image was then interrupted. Further discussion can take place on whether students feel it is good or bad to have descriptive wall labels on work – such as those seen in many museums – or is it better to leave and interpretation up to the viewer?

Time Allotment:
Five class periods:
First class – introduction, student reflection and writing (adjectives)
Second class – thumbnail sketches, begin work on personal space images
Third class – continued work on images
Fourth class – digital photography of images, selection of students to receive images
Fifth class – student response to images – review, assessment and comparison

Safety concerns:
Students should be shown proper and safe cutting methods for using utility knives. There are no other safety concerns associated with this project.

Mixed media
Pictorial Plane

Biography / Resources:

Roy Lichtenstein: Interiors

David Hockney: Large Interiors

Vincent Van Gogh: The Night Café in Place Lamartine in Arles

Pierre Bonnard

Martin Ramirez: Milwaukee Art Museum

Monday, October 20, 2008

Transitions to Abstraction - Lesson Plan

Popova - Two Figures

Age / Grade Level: 10th - 12th grade

Brief History/background:
To use direct observational drawing techniques combined with visual selection and collage methods to move from observation and objective images to the non-objective and abstract.

Students will learn one method to bridge the visual gap between making objective and observational artwork and that which is more non-objective and abstract using a personal three dimensional object as source material and inspiration.

9.1 Production, Performance and Exhibition - A, B, C
9.2 Historical and Cultural Context - B, C
9.3 Critical Response - A, B, D
9.4 Aesthetic Response - B

Objectives: Students will:
Choose a personal three dimensional object, no larger than the size of a school backpack, to produce 8 different observational drawings. A view-finder will be used to assist with the visual selection process.
Students will make photo copies of their drawings, then cut up and dissemble them to produce a supply of smaller images from which to make abstract collages.
Students will use the collages as source material to construct a final piece of artwork.
Students will be become more aware of the process of working through stages to reach an end product while becoming visually oriented to the process of visual selection, collage, assemblage and mixed media.

Drawing paper cut to equal size proportions
Graphite art pencils from hard to soft
Charcoal – vine or compressed
Black India ink or acrylic paint
White acrylic paint
Straight edges
Utility knife or paper cutter
Chip board or other appropriate cutting surface
Glue – or Matte Medium

Visual Aids

Elizabeth Murray - The Lowdown (2001)

Instructor will prepare example drawings along with books and pictorial images (postcards) - using Cubism and some contemporary artists (Elizabeth Murray) as visual source materials.

Teacher Prep:

Personal Object - Toy Duck

Cardboard Viewfinders

Have a personal three-dimesional object on-hand, drawing paper pre-cut to a uniform size, example of a visual viewfinder, drawing tools and other visual examples ready and organized.

Teaching: Introduction of the lesson:

What is abstract or non-objective art and how is it different from realism or other types of art that you know? How does an artist make abstract of non-objective art and what do they think about during the process? Through this lesson, student will be introduced to a process of working through various stages to get to a point where they will be making artistic decisions less from reality and more a visual selection of lines, forms, shapes and compositional associations and arrangements.

One of the first types of non-objective art-making was introduced during the Cubist period. Working primarily from still life objects, artists began to bend and flatten reality in ways that had never been attempted or seen before.

Cubist Style

Marcel Duchamp - Nude Descending a Staircase

Starting with a series of 8 different observational drawings derived from a personal object - a three dimensional object no larger than a backpack - students will use a variety of drawing tools and the assistance of a visual viewfinder to make contour line drawings. Emphasis will be placed on varying line quality, finding different vantage points and using different tools to produce varied compositions and visual effects.

Detail Drawing

Detail Drawing

After the completion of the eight observation line drawings, students will make photo copies of the original drawings and then either cut or tear each copied drawing into 3 to 5 pieces.

From this new resource pool of cut and torn images, students will make at least two new collages works. The cut or torn pieces of paper will be arranged, discussed and finally glued down to form new compositions.

Abstract Composition #1

Abstract Composition #2

Student will then choose one composition as a visual source to make a larger final work in which the same drawing tools plus white and black paint, that can be mixed to make values of gray, will also be introduced.

A class discussion and critic will take place at three points throughout the project so that students can discuss their works and their feelings about the process and procedure of making work in this type of stage oriented method from observation into abstraction.

At three points in this project, students will stop and discuss their work and that of their colleagues in order to make a stronger connection to the process of visual selection, methods, problems, and goals of the lesson. The first class critic will take place after the initial eight observation drawings are complete – the second after the two collages are finished – and the third and final critique will come at the end one the final non-objective work is finished.

Time Allotment: Three Weeks
Week #1 An Introduction of the lesson and the completion of the eight observational drawings. Students who finish early can make more drawings beyond the required eight.
A class critic and discussion will be conducted at the end of week one.
Week #2 Students will dissemble, cut or tear their photo copied drawings and assemble at least two collage works onto larger pieces of paper. A class critic and discussion will be conducted at the end of week two.
Week #3 Students will work from a chosen collage to construct a larger final piece that will complete this lesson. A class critic and discussion will wrap up the lesson on the last day in which students will compare their 8 original drawings with their final pieces.

Safety Concern:
Instruction on safe cutting methods and the proper use of utility knives is advised before the students start cutting their photo-copied drawings.

Vocabulary / Terms:
Objective - A thing, person, place that the mind is aimed at. Working directly from either
two or three dimensional subject matter.
Non-objective - The opposite of objective – working from subject matter that is not tired
to reality – working conceptually or from one’s imagination.
Abstract - Existing only in the mind; not concrete
Composition - Arrangement of two-dimensional surface space into distinct parts or areas
Pictorial Plane - The area defined by the edges of the two dimensional working surface
Cubism - An early 20th century style of painting where objects are broken up analyzed
and re-assembled into abstract forms and compositions.