Lesson: Younger Than Jesus: Understanding, Looking At, Making Abstract Art

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Visual Arts, Social Studies, English Language, ESL, Math
  • Adam Pendleton, Black Dada, 2009Adam Pendleton, Black Dada, 2009
  • installation shot of "Balck Dada," 2009.installation shot of "Balck Dada," 2009.
  • "Untitled," 2008."Untitled," 2008.
  • "Large Collage (New Museum)," 2009."Large Collage (New Museum)," 2009.


Written by Museum Educator, Chio Flores

This lesson plan approaches the theme of abstraction in contemporary art by looking at a selection of artworks in the New Museum’s Triennial exhibition “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus.” Each of these artworks uses language of abstraction differently and with a different agenda. Abstract art, also known as non-representational art or non-objective art is an art form that was avant-garde in the early twentieth century but that has been thought of as an old-fashioned art form for a long time. However, a return to abstraction can be seen in the work of young contemporary artists such as Tauba Auerbach, Mark Essen, Adam Pendleton, and Josh Smith. These artists are approaching an “outdated” art form in new ways, combining abstraction with technological motifs and popular-culture iconography as well as referencing the history of abstraction.

Time: Four sixty-minute session
Note to teachers: This lesson plan has been designed to use as a process-based lesson plan but each session can also be used individually.


  • Students will be introduced to the concept of generations as a group of individuals and as part of a collective.
  • Students will be introduced to vocabulary of abstract art.
  • Students will discuss how art forms are in permanent flux and continue growing and developing from generation to generation.
  • Students will reflect on how artists inherit art forms from previous generations and transform them to be able to communicate their own ideas.
  • Students will analyze how abstract art differs from representational art.
  • Students will produce an abstract artwork.


Abstract art Art that uses shape, color, line, and in some case texture to create a composition, without using any representational imagery.
This term refers to art that has a concrete image as point of departure, where forms are exaggerated or simplified.
In the visual arts, this term refers to the use of borrowed elements to create new work. The borrowed elements can be images, forms, or styles from art history, popular culture, or non-art contexts. The term also refers to quoting the work of another artist to create a new work.
Chromogenic print This is the most common type of color photograph; it was developed in the 1940s and is printed from a chromogenic color negative; it consists of dyes within gelatin layers on a plastic-coated paper base. It is subject to fading and color shifts in dark storage and on exhibition.
Composition Composition refers to the plan, placement, or arrangement of the elements of art in a work. The choice of composition affects the meaning of the artwork.
Contemporary art Art from the present time.
Curator: In museums and art galleries, curators plan and oversee the arrangement, cataloguing, and exhibition of collections.
Expressionism Expressionism was an art movement that originated in Germany at the start of the twentieth century. Expressionist artists sought to express the meaning of “being alive” and emotional experience rather than physical reality. Expressionist artists distort reality for an emotional effect.
Generation A generation is a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously.
Installation This term refers to artworks occupying space in a particular way, often site-specific and ephemeral.
Line Line is one of the elements of the visual language. It refers to the continuous mark made on any surface by a number of points.
Mixed mediums Mixed mediums is a term that involves the use of two or more artistic mediums, such as painting and collage, in a single composition.
Pattern In the visual arts, pattern is one of the principles of design. It refers to the repetition of shapes, lines, or colors; it’s also known as motif in a design.
Pop art Pop art is an art movement from the mid-twentieth century. It’s characterized by themes and techniques drawn from popular mass culture, such as advertising, comic books, and mundane cultural objects.
Shape: Shape is an element of visual language, an enclosed space defined and determined by other art elements such as line, color, value, and texture.
Silkscreen Silkscreen, also known as serigraphy, is a stencil process of printmaking in which an image is imposed on a screen of silk or other fine mesh, with blank areas coated with an impermeable substance. Ink is forced through the mesh onto the printing surface with a squeegee.
Texture Texture is an element of the visual arts pertaining how an object feels or appears on its surface.
Tone Tone is the quality of a color and is related to its saturation, intensity, luminosity, and temperature.


Images from the digital archive of the following artworks:

Tauba Auerbach’s images
Static IX, 2009
Chromogenic print
60 × 42 in (152.4 × 106.7 cm)

Mark Essen’s images
Flywrench, 2008
Video game stills
Courtesy the artist

Adam Pendleton’s images
Black Dada, 2009
Silkscreen on canvas
96 × 75 in (244 × 191 cm)
Courtesy the artist and Haunch of Venison, New York

Josh Smith’s images
Untitled, 2008
Collage on 9 panels
60 × 48 in (152.4 × 122 cm) (each)
Courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

For session one:

  • Journals/ sketchbooks
  • Pencils
  • Erasers
  • Thick, sturdy cardstock
  • Tempera or acrylic paints
  • Brushes
  • Printed material such as takeout menus, subway maps, inkjet prints, newspapers, phone books, receipts, etc.
  • White glue or wheat paste
  • Access to computers and printers
  • Chipboard
  • Glue sticks
  • Scissors

For session two:

  • Assorted Sharpie markers
  • White cardstock
  • Journals/sketchbooks

For session 3:

For session 4:

Lesson Strategy

Note: For each session, students will need a copy of the vocabulary.

Session 1

1. Class discussion: What is abstract art?
Start your lesson by asking your students to look at Josh Smith’s exhibition installation shot. This installation is made of a series of eighteen artworks of the same size presented as a grid. Through this discussion and by looking at Josh Smith’s work, students will be introduced to looking at abstract art and learn about its characteristics. Instruct students to describe these paintings and ask:

  • What elements or parts of these paintings can you name?
  • Describe the shapes, colors, and materials you find in these artworks.
  • A gesture in art can be describe as the way materials are used in a particular work. What gestures is the artist making here?
  • Imagine the artist at work making these artworks. How do you see him or her applying the material onto the surface?
  • How do these choices affect or not the meaning of the artist’s work?
  • These artworks belong to American artist Josh Smith who uses abstract art language in his artwork. What does the word abstract mean?
  • Judging from Smith’s work, what are the characteristics of abstract art?
  • How is abstract art different from representational art? (Refer to vocabulary.)
  • How does abstract art convey meaning?

2. Activity: Writing interpretations about Smith’s work.
Ask your students to reflect on all the elements discussed about Smith’s installation, and without further guidance ask them to write a paragraph which describes their interpretations of his work in their journals/sketchbooks. Have your students answer:

  • What is Smith communicating and expressing with these abstract pieces?

3. Share students’ interpretations and then use the information below to give students a glimpse into Smith’s process, how the choices he made affect the meaning of the piece and his intention. Use the following artist quote regarding the way he approaches his work to guide this conversation: “I’m actually interested in mistakes, controlling mistakes, and thinking about mistakes.”[1]

Josh Smith: The Artist’s Process and Intention
Josh Smith is an artist born in Tennessee and living in New York. For many years he has painted one sole subject, his name. He uses the letters in his name as a base to build abstract imagery. Smith takes the letters of his name and distorts them and breaks them down in different combinations until they lose their meaning as a name. He uses a technique called mixed mediums, combining painting and collage; he also scans, photographs, silkscreens, and blots. In many ways, his background as a printmaker influences his process. Smith’s works explore ideas of authorship and originality. He also references artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Hanne Darboven, as well as art movements such as Expressionism and Pop art. Smith is a very prolific artist, producing work after work in a serial or bulk way; the materials he uses for his collages are simple and humble, such as newspapers, inkjet prints, and takeout menus on plywood collage boards. Smith’s work seems highly abstract but he in fact uses very concrete references such as leaves he picks from trees on walks. (An example of this can be seen in artwork number fifteen, counting from left to right and top to bottom in the installation shot.)

Consider another artist quote: “Back in school, I would always draw the same thing. For a year, it was ladders. Then I did a face. I have continued to pick stereotypical things like my name or a beef heart or a fish or a leaf, and have simply focused on how I could change this image technically. There’s too much in the world to learn everything, so I have to learn through something; it’s a way to justify and control the intake. Everything I do is logical in this way. I recently found a leaf, which I’ve been working with. I was in Pennsylvania and I picked up this leaf and thought. ‘This will be easy to paint.’ I always try to paint things that are easy to paint. I never try to get hung up on trying to render something.”

4. Activity: Making an Abstraction with My Name

  • Step 1: Using white glue or wheat paste, collage the background of a large sheet of museum board or thick, sturdy cardstock with newspapers and other found printed materials such as maps, takeout menus, old flyers, receipts, etc. Ask students to do this loosely without constraining themselves.
  • Step 2: While the background dries, have students write their names in their sketchbooks and make a variety of sketches using the letters of their names, but deconstructing, distorting, and rearranging them.
  • Step 3: Have them select one of their sketches, the one they think works the best as a composition.
  • Step 4: Ask students to use paint to add the letters of their name to the pre-made background, following their sketch.

5. Homework:
Ask students to research abstract expressionist artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell. Ask them to compare Josh Smith’s artwork to the work of these artists. What elements did Smith borrow from these artists? Ask students to write a paper discussing the ways in which Smith was influenced by Abstract Expressionist artists.

6. Extending the Lesson: Exploring Museum Skills: Curating a Show
Ask students to visit Josh Smith’s Web site, joshasmith.com, and to review Smith’s vast production. Have students become curators; in museums and art galleries, curators plan and oversee the arrangement, cataloguing, and exhibition of collections. Ask students to use Smith’s Web site as their collection and to select five pieces that they would like to use in a show of this artist. Ask them to base their selection on a theme. In class, print out the images of the artworks chosen by the students and ask them to write an introduction to their exhibition as well as to create an exhibition title. Ask students to arrange the printouts of their selected pieces on previously painted chipboard. The color of paint they use to paint the chipboard should be one that works well with their selected pieces. Ask students to include labels of the pieces selected. Have students present their exhibition to the class. As an alternative, build a virtual exhibition as a PowerPoint presentation or go to wordpress.com and start a blog with all the students’ exhibitions.

Session 2

Individual reflection: Why do artists choose the abstract language? How does abstract art relate to representational art?

1. Look at Tauba Auerbach’s chromogenic print, Static IX (2009). Tell students that various contemporary artists who work with abstraction often depart from a very concrete starting point.

2. Give student print outs of Tauba Auerbach’s Static IX. Ask them to look at it in silence for a few minutes. Discuss what is present in this image and have students describe what it’s an image of. Ask them:

  • How does this resemble an image of TV static? Tell students that Auerbach was interested in this as she explores the randomness in which patterns occur. She is interested in repetition, language, symbols and codes. Ask students to think of examples of these they have encountered in various places and write their ideas down on large easel pad paper.

3. Auerbach questions the relationships between symbols and the ideas they communicate. Discuss how her art is related to mathematics as well as technology; she utilizes principles from these disciplines to produce images that sometimes create optical illusions. Look at the student examples of randomness in patterns and relate them to mathematics, physics, trigonometry, and geometry. Ask students to think about how art and science can connect, and let them know they will be asked to reflect on this question later on in this session.

  • Discuss how the TV static in this image is produced by analog TV. Analog TV is a system that encodes television picture and sound information and transmits it as an analog signal. This system precedes digital television. By the time the exhibition “Younger Than Jesus” opened, analog TV was supposed to be extinct in New York to give place to digital TV. This will now happen in June 2009. By capturing this image, Auerbach is also capturing an instance of technology becoming obsolete. Ask students to think of other ways in which other technologies are becoming obsolete and what image they would use to symbolize this.
  • Ask students to think of random patterns found in modern life similar to the ones Auerbach used for this artwork and make a list of them in their journal/sketchbooks. Ask students to then sketch the patterns they found or present them through photographs. Ask students to build a grid with the patterns they found or to use them to create an optical illusion. Ask students again: How can art and science connect, and feed from each other?

4. Reflection: Have your students read the following two quotes from two different artists explaining their reasons for choosing to work with abstraction. The first one is from the renowned Romanian sculptor and pioneer of abstraction Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957): “What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things . . . it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real by imitating its exterior surface.” The second is from “Younger Than Jesus” artist Josh Smith: “The opposite of abstraction is realism. And realistic paintings are not that good. I respect them, but from my point of view, they’re pictures. You look at a picture and you recognize what’s in it, and then more than fifty percent of the joy is over.”

After reading both quotes, discuss with students how artists choose to use the language with which they can coherently convey what they want to express or communicate. Have a group discussion on the differences between how abstract art and representational art communicate meaning.

5. Homework:
Have students select symbols from physics, geometry, trigonometry and calculus to use in an artwork. Ask them to think of a part of life that they are interested in questioning or in exploring further such as dualities, eternity, repetition of the same mistakes, loss, etc. Ask students to use the chosen symbol to design an abstract artwork using Sharpies on cardstock. Remind them that artists make choices regarding color, line, pattern, composition, format, etc. Have students plan their work by sketching different options in their sketchbooks first. Ask students to give their piece a title.

Session 3

Crit session: Ask students to share their finished pieces done as homework and to give critical feedback to each other about their work. Exhibit the finished pieces in the classroom or school hallways.

What new elements are contemporary artists incorporating in the abstract language?

1. Look at Mark Essen’s, Flywrench (2008), either as video game stills or watch the Flywrench trailer or the play-through. Download the game.

2. In pairs, ask students to compare and contrast Essen’s artwork to Auerbach’s. Students should document their findings in their journals. Suggested questions to guide their comparisons:

  • What elements of abstraction are present in this artwork?
  • What has the artist created with those elements?
  • What kinds of symbols and colors has the artist used in this artwork?
  • What role does sound play in this artwork?
  • Do you play video games?
  • Which video games do you play?
  • How are those games similar or different to this one?
  • What are common characteristics of contemporary video games?
  • Are those characteristics present in Essen’s Flywrench? If not, what are the characteristics of Essen’s artwork/game?
  • How is Essen applying contemporary life elements to his artwork?

3. Activity:
Flywrench is a very unsophisticated video game made by twenty-two-year-old Los Angeles-based artist Mark Essen, who’s also known as Messhof. This game was done with the program Gamemaker, a program designed to allow its users to easily develop computer games without having to learn a complex programming language. This software can be downloaded for free here. The soundtrack is handmade with electronics and drum machines.

  • Step 1: Have them think of an important current event or a personal issue they would like to reflect on through their game. This will be its goal.
  • Step 2: Ask students to create a storyboard for a video game using abstract elements in their sketchbooks.
  • Step 3: Ask students to give their games titles.

Session 4

Group discussion on sampling in visual art: How do artist feed and recycle from past generations of artists?

1. Divide the class in groups of three students. Give each group a printout of Black Dada by artist Adam Pendleton. Ask them to look at the artwork and to discuss all the elements they can see as they’ve done previously with Smith’s work. Have them document this in their journals.

2. Give students copies of poet and activist Amiri Baraka’s poem Black Dada Nihilism and of conceptual visual artist Sol LeWitt’s installation Incomplete Open Cubes. Ask students to find connections between these three pieces. What are the similarities between these works? How do they respond to one another?

3. Have a sharing session and as a class build together the information about Pendleton’s Black Dada painting. Suggested questions for discussion:

  • What can we call this type of artwork? Tell students that it looks like a painting but is actually a silkscreen on canvas. Silkscreen is a printmaking technique by which you can reproduce multiple prints. We also have been constantly discussing artists’ choices. The use of silkscreen is an artist’s choice. Why would he choose this technique over painting? What characteristics of a print might the artist be interested in?
  • Let’s look at each part separately. How would you describe the colors in this artwork?
  • Black is the predominant color here. What do we associate this color with? Mood?
  • What shapes do you see?
  • Let’s talk about the artwork’s composition. How have the shapes been arranged in the canvas?
  • How have the letters been placed?
  • Do the letters spell anything?

4. Share with your students that the letters in this painting seem to be implying spelling the word “BLACK,” and the use of color adds to that idea. The letters on the lower part of the artwork are two “D”s. The title of the piece is Black Dada. Dada is the name of an art movement from the beginning of the twentieth century that began in Europe but spread to the US. This movement involved the visual arts but also literature, poetry, and manifestos among other things.

This artwork was created by American artist Adam Pendleton, who was born in 1980. He is a painter, but also a performance artist and a writer. He also publishes the experimental magazine Lab Mag. Pendleton borrows ideas and elements from art history and other sources to inform his work and then recontextualizes them. This means that he gives them a new meaning. This is a common practice among artists known as appropriation. In this piece he has appropriated from three sources. One of them is from American artist Sol LeWitt. Like many artists from the ’60s, LeWitt began to use non-traditional materials such as numbers and language in his work. They thought of the artist as a kind of scientist, someone who worked with reality and not individual expression. These artists used language borrowed from science or math to produce less emotional work opposing the expressionist art of the 50s. Going back to Pendleton, let’s look at the shape in the painting that seems to be a cube. Take a look at LeWitt’s work and find what Pendleton appropriated from LeWitt .

The choice of technique in this piece is intentional. The process of silkscreening produces a more accurate rendition of an image and also deletes the mark/hand/energy of the artist that a brushstroke can leave. Ask students:

  • Why would this be important? What are the benefits of this process?

5. Tell your students that oftentimes artworks posses several layers of meaning, as in the case of Black Dada. Pendleton is very interested in language but also in history. In music, sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a different sound recording of a song; Pendleton has done something similar in this work. He has appropriated elements from poetry and the visual arts to make this artwork. Ask your students:

  • In what ways can appropriation be applied to life?
  • What do we learn and appropriate from previous generations in our own lives?

6. Activity: From concrete to abstract, making an abstract artwork

  • Step 1: Ask students to select an image they are attracted to from a magazine or from reproductions of artworks.
  • Step 2: Using a 2 × 2 inch viewfinder, have students select a part of the image they find particularly interesting.
  • Step 3: Ask students to then take a large sheet of paper and enlarge the selected part on it. They will now have an abstract image.
  • Step 4: Give students oil or soft pastels to add color to their abstract piece. Give them the option to use the same colors found in the original image or their own selection of colors.


  • Are students able to recognize an abstract artwork?
  • Are students able to articulate the difference between representational and non-representational art?
  • Can students apply new vocabulary words learnt through these lessons when looking at artworks?

Additional Resources

Work Cited
[1] 1,000 Words: Josh Smith Talks About Currents, 2008-,”Artforum, pp. 160–63
[2] Ibid
[3] http://www.artquotes.net/masters/brancusi_quotes.htm (accessed May 11, 2009).
[4] 1,000 Words: Josh Smith Talks About Currents, 2008-,”Artforum, pp. 160–63

“Black Dada Nihilismus” poem by Amiri Baraka in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader by Amiri Baraka, Basic Books; 2nd edition, November 21, 1999. The poem can also be found online here (accessed May 11, 2009) and as an mp3 file here (accessed May 11, 2009).
Image of Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes from the San Francisco Museum od Modern Art (accessed May 11, 2009).
Flywrench playthrough.

Lesson Plan: Younger Than Jesus: Understanding, Looking At, Making Abstract Art