Students will carefully observe and learn about either Phillip Guston's Blue Water or Terry Winters's Rhyme. After discussing interview techniques, they will develop questions for an interview with the “artist” of the painting they did not learn about. Using information from their interviews, students will prepare a short article or newscast to share information about the artist they interviewed with their classmates.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- list at least five descriptive words for Blue Water and Rhyme;
- list and demonstrate at least five interview steps/techniques; and
- conduct an interview and write or orally present essential information in a clear, engaging manner.
- Preparation: Read the About the Art sections on Blue Water and Rhyme.
- Post or project images of Rhyme and Blue Water, one on each side of the classroom. Divide the class into two groups, gathering one group at Rhyme and the other at Blue Water. Have the students read the information from the About the Art section on the painting they are observing. Move between groups to facilitate a discussion among group members and refer to the details in the image where appropriate. Tell students you will return to this information in a little while.
- Using the interview information you’ve selected and/or adapted (use these resources as needed: How to conduct a strong interview or How to conduct an interview), lead a discussion about how to effectively conduct an interview. What materials does the interviewer need? How should they phrase their questions? How should they interact with the person they’re interviewing?
- Invite the two groups to switch places and look carefully at the artwork they did not study originally. Give them time to craft 5–8 questions to ask when interviewing the “artist” of that piece.
- Divide students into pairs, with one “expert” on each painting. Each pair will be involved in two interviews; each student will take on the role of the artist of the painting he or she studied in one interview, and interviewer in the next. Interviewers will pose the questions they came up with earlier; artists will draw on the information they learned when studying the artwork to answer the questions.
- Ask students to write a short article or present a short newscast based on information from the interview. Give time for peer review and editing in groups of 3–4.
- Call on volunteers to share their piece with the entire class.
- Debrief what worked well and what was difficult when conducting an interview.
- Paper and pens or pencils
- Web links on conducting interviews: How to conduct a strong interview (Pull and adapt for your age group) How to conduct an interview
- About the Art sections on Blue Water and Rhyme
- Color copies of Blue Water and Rhyme for students to share, or the ability to project the images onto a wall or screen
- Tape recorders
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Philip Guston (originally Philip Goldstein) was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1913 and moved to California when he was six. He began his professional art career in the 1930s, painting murals with social and political themes. In the 1950s, Guston began creating non-representational art (art with no recognizable subject matter), for which he became widely known and respected. After creating this kind of art for nearly two decades, Guston shocked the art world in the late 1960s when he abruptly abandoned non-representational art and started filling his new paintings with objects like eyes, cigarettes, and soles of shoes. “I got sick and tired of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories,” he said. However, the stories in Guston’s paintings weren’t always crystal clear; some of the shapes that he painted resembled real-world objects without being totally recognizable. He wanted “to paint the world as if it had never been seen before, for the first time…”
Guston worked with no master plan, and repeatedly expressed astonishment at the forms created by his own paintbrush. “I am a night painter,” he said. “So when I come into the studio in the next morning the delirium is over. I come into the studio very fearfully… And the feeling is one of, ‘My God, did I do that?’” Late in his life, Guston became completely immersed in his art. He would paint around the clock, working for more than 24 hours at a time. He wrote, “[My paintings] are large, ten feet or so, and take complete possession of me… It is a new “real world” now that I am making—I can’t stop.” Guston died in 1980 in Woodstock, New York.
What Inspired It?
“The trouble with recognizable art is that it excludes too much. I want my work to include more…I am therefore driven to scrape out the recognition…to erase it. I am nowhere until I have reduced it to semi-recognition,” Guston said. Around 1970, Guston began assembling what he called his “new alphabet”: a set of forms or shapes, mostly objects from his own life experiences, some of which actually looked like letters. Cigarettes (Guston was a chain smoker his whole life), light bulbs, body parts, and soles of shoes began crowding his compositions. These autobiographical forms shared the space with other less recognizable forms, whose origins were sometimes unclear even to the creator himself. Speaking of the forms that comprised his “new alphabet,” Guston said, “Sometimes I know what they are, but if I think ‘head’ while I’m doing it, it becomes a mess…I want to end with something that will baffle me.”
Another source of inspiration comes directly from Guston’s childhood. On his thirteenth birthday, Guston’s mother enrolled him in a correspondence course at the Cleveland School of Cartooning, a fitting gift for the boy who was a fan of newspaper comic strips Krazy Kat and Mutt and Jeff. However, Guston soon grew bored with the drawing lessons and gave up after taking only a few courses. In his mid-50s, Guston returned to his earliest inspiration. Many of his late paintings—like Blue Water—borrowed their style from the cartoons he loved as a boy.
Guston used a very limited color palette for this piece: only blue, red, white, and black.
The cluster of objects floating on top of the water strikes some viewers as cartoon-like. Notice the bold outlines, the simplified colors, and the rounded edges.
At the far right end of the cluster of shapes, a large eye looks back at the other forms. Sonnet Hanson, DAM Master Teacher for Modern and Contemporary Art, poses the question, “If one sees the eye as that of the artist, could it be that in some way he is looking back on the remnants or unsettling events of his life?” Other critics purport that Guston did in fact depict himself as a Cyclops or a Cyclops eye in more than one painting.
The ambiguous shapes in this painting are a part of what Guston called his “new alphabet.” Some forms are recognizable and some are not. Is that a ladder, or a letter? Is that a horseshoe or the sole of a shoe? Are those legs sticking out of the water, or intestines? Guston didn’t set out to create a clear-cut meaning for his paintings, so the possible interpretations are endless.