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Teaching Thoughtful Responses to Abstraction

Posted on July 5, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Lilah Anderson

Some of the responses that always makes me cringe a little (and I am sure I am not the only art educator to do so) is “I could do that.” or “What’s that supposed to be?”  when a student encounters a work of art that is abstract. My gut response is always “But you didn’t!” or “It doesn’t have to be anything!”. However, I think it is important to create a nuanced dialogue about abstraction and non-representational works of art as an educator. I have to check myself and give more thoughtful responses with the hopes of encouraging more meaningful engagement. Something along the lines of, “Well although the artist is using simple forms and colors, the expression they are able to create is impactful and can be interpreted in many ways.” As University Museums serves the ISU community, and I am often in classes with students who have been assigned a museum visit and consider their own academic discipline far different and perhaps more important than art; it is my job to make them question that idea and present some challenge, and hopefully, inspiration, to look again. 

With all that said I want to come to my next Educator’s Choice selection for the blog: Beverly Pepper’s Janus Agri Altar. I could write many different blogs about this work of art; its totemic quality, the amazing career of Beverly Pepper, the story of how it came to Iowa State, but instead I want to focus on the experience of first introducing this sculpture to students. Standing in the center of the Agronomy Building courtyard at a towering 14 ft. and weighing approximately 5000 lbs., Janus Agri Altar makes an impression. The massive patinated bronze sculpture sits inside a gravel ring and is a simple shape that is not immediately recognizable as something specific. I find this sculpture to be a good introduction to the concept of abstract art because it has concrete ways for students to read it, thus making the experience of not knowing what you are looking at easier to unpack. 

While college-age students tend to be a little more subtle with their dismissals or questioning of an art object than say a class of fifth graders, there are often a few whose shrugged shoulders and crossed arms tend to fill in a picture of “What’s this supposed to be?”. Employing an inquiry-based approach to visual literacy, I start with questions to help expand what we are looking at and how it makes the students think and feel. In the best cases, students see something I haven’t seen and we can learn from each other.After guiding students through looking and describing, I give some more information and thoughts about what Pepper might be engaging with. I can point out that the form resembles an ancient tool for cultivation and that the form they might have thought was not representing anything might be an abstracted adze, a bladed tool. Or that the name of the sculpture isJanus Agri Altar, an allusion to the two-headed Roman god Janus and the idea of an ancient altar. I will also provide some context about the sculptor herself and her innovation in monumental Minimalist sculptures. We can also discuss site-specificity and how the sculpture directly responds to the study of agronomy as it is placed in the courtyard outside of Agronomy Building. With these more concrete interpretations, different ways of looking can open avenues and hopefully change the opinions of those that start the exercise with crossed arms. 

As we delve into the various ideas that the sculpture can bring up, it is my hope that some of the hesitation at an abstracted form dissipates and the strong impact, both intellectual and emotional that the sculpture can elicit comes into focus. Further, I hope that the experience of understanding a work of art like this can open the possibility for students to feel empowered so when they see another abstract sculpture they can approach it with a sense of understanding and think about it just as deeply as a narrative work of art. So, with each new class I challenge myself as an art educator to present a thoughtful way of looking and being open to learning from students as well as teaching them. 

~ Lilah Anderson, Educator of Visual Literacy


IMAGE INSET: Janus Agri Altar, 1986 by Beverly Pepper. Patinated bronze with high content brass. Located in the south courtyard of Agronomy Hall. Commissioned by the Iowa Art in State Buildings Program for the Agronomy Building with support from Sevde Transfer, Ames, Iowa. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University. U86.588

ABOVE: Artist Beverly Pepper came to the ISU campus to work directly with the Public Art Committee.

ABOVE: Janus Agri Altar arrives on campus in 1986.

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