Abstract Painting: Theory and Practice

OLLI (Duke University Continuing Studies)- 3044

Winter 2021 Semester

Instructor: Sterling Bowen, 919-389-8293, sterling@sterlingbowen.com

Location: online only (Zoom instructions)

Time: Mondays, 3:30-4:45, Mar 15 through Apr 23 

Class Description: If asked to talk about abstract painting—even works we’ve encountered and found engaging—many of us struggle to put what we’d describe as feelings into words. How does an art form that owes part of its place in history to the efforts of so many American artists occupy such an odd place in our culture? This course will start with a historical grounding for looking at abstract painting by examining several stages of its development in the 20th century through a combination of lecture and discussion. 

Class format: We will utilize a seminar format, with a topical lecture and directed discussion each class. We will discuss canonical works, and explore some contemporary work and consider the state of the art form in 2021. As we develop a vocabulary to talk about painting, we will apply our new skills by engaging in “critique.”

Supplemental work (recommended): Students will also be encouraged and supported in spending independent time outside of class experimenting with making nonrepresentational artwork. Each lessons’ prompt will be included with the other materials for that class (see below).

Students will also have the opportunity to improve their vocabulary as, each week, they write one paragraph about an abstract artist. Students  can explore artists on this website by selecting from a list of hashtags used to categorize artists, by reviewing the thumbnail image gallery of their works (students can click on an image they like to see the name of the artist which produced the work) or using the search bar below.

Students should also read some of the art writing recommended for this class and from other sources the I enjoy- please share your writing with me if you are so inclined!

Class 1 (March 15)

Discussion: Introductions, class expectations

Lecture: Modernism and the Genesis of Abstraction (presentation)

Exercise (after class): make a “good” and a “bad” composition using solid-colored shapes

Class 2 ( March 22)

Lecture: Abstraction as Symbolism (presentation)

Discussion: approaches to critique (How we talk about art) and (first) critique time!

Exercise (after class): automatic drawing and draftsmanship exercise

Class 3 (March 29)

Lecture: Automatism and Expressionism (presentation)

Demonstration and Homework: Creating abstract expressionist work

Class 4 (April 5)

Lecture: Experimentation and chance (presentation)

Critique: completed student work from Class 3 prompt

Homework: Read!!! (Optional- review materials from my color class)

Class 5 (April 12)

Lecture: Artists whose tools/media shape their work (presentation)

Demonstration and homework: using tools other than brushes

Class 6 (April 19)

Lecture: Abstraction since 1980 (presentation)

Additional Recommended Reading List (check out these other sources, too)

The Golden Age of Abstraction: Right Now

John McCracken: Thresholds (excerpt)

How Piet Mondrian’s Abstractions Became A New Way to See the World

Altoon Sultan’s Powerful Challenge

A Garden or a Grave (review of Brett Flanigan and Ellen Rutt)