Teaching with Contemporary Art

Blue

Ellsworth Kelly, "Blue Panel", 1977 Metropolitan Museum of Art

A few friends and colleagues have suggested that I share some of the stories I tell in class here on the blog. I sometimes forget as I write the column each week that there are things that have happened in the past (and sometimes in the foggy, distant past) that really do apply to what’s happening now. Some of it has even profoundly influenced what is happening now in my own classroom and perhaps through teachers I’ve worked with.

Anyway, here goes…

One afternoon I was running a field trip with a class of elementary school students at the Met and we were approaching Ellsworth Kelly’s “Blue Panel”. As we got closer, we realized that a docent was leading a tour of very serious-looking adults through the Modern wing and had stopped right in front of the very same painting to discuss it. We stood back and waited (and waited) as the docent shared with the crowd a myriad of things that influenced Kelly’s work. She spoke volumes about how this painting was connected to different sources of inspiration and even mentioned that it was an important piece in Kelly’s career. I saw my students’ faces changing expression. They were becoming impatient. Even some of the adults in the docent’s group began shifting their weight. No one was speaking except for the docent! She continued (and continued) to “reveal” what the painting was “about” when one student began to tug on my pant leg. The little chowderhead looked up at me quizzically and said, “Isn’t the painting just about the color blue??”

After the docent finished and we all got the opportunity to discuss Kelly’s work, I immediately let that student know that the piece IS about the color blue, but it’s also about the size (I mean, this was a big painting!) and shape (it’s a parallelogram, not a rectangle). We discussed why an artist would make this kind of painting and what kind of steps were necessary to create a painting like this vs. painting something “realistic” on perhaps a smaller canvas. We looked closely at the kind of blue it was. We compared it to the blue different students were wearing- all the while happily ignoring official interpretations of the piece.

There’s a lot to be said for seeing things as if you saw them for the first time. The elementary students I was with that day taught me about trying to really see the work first and doing some digging about history and interpretations second.

Note: I was reminded of this story visiting two spectacular shows recently… One that included the work of Ben Durham at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery and another by Butt Johnson (no, I’m not making the name up and you would be taking it a LOT more seriously if you saw the show) at CRG Gallery. In both instances, drawing conclusions through looking into the work was certainly as entertaining as knowing the official press release perspective from the start. I mean, they even gave you magnifying glasses at CRG!

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
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