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Understanding Abstract Art

Course Times & Enrolment

Mondays from 13th April 2020 (Code AA199-302) Mondays from
13th April 2020 11:10am - 1:00pm • (10 classes)
Holyrood Campus • Tutor: Andrew Paterson MSc BFA PhD
Sorry, this course is cancelled

Course Summary

This course promotes a deeper appreciation of ‘abstract’ visual languages in painting and sculpture, a central feature of 20th-century art. Explore the aims and methods of pioneers (eg Mondrian, Klee, Hepworth) as well as later exponents (eg Pollock, Rothko, Riley).

Please note, this course includes a field trip (a gallery visit).

Course Details

Pre-requisites for enrolment

No previous knowledge required.

Content of Course

1. The Liberation of Form and Colour: Fauvism, Cubism and Orphism.

2. Visual Music: Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and the Bauhaus.

3. Two Utopian Mystics: Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich.

4. The Essence of Form: Constructivism, Constantin Brancusi and Barbara Hepworth.

5. The Second Wave (I): Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.

6. The Second Wave (II): Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

7. Clement Greenberg and The End of Modernism: Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Carl Andre.

8. Personal Visions: Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Richard Long, James Turrell.

9. Present Directions: Bridget Riley, Robert Ryman, Sean Scully, Callum Innes.

10. Gallery visit to study relevant works at first hand.

Teaching method(s)

Slide lectures (PowerPoint), allowing plenty of time for critical discussion Guided gallery visit, continuing critical discussion.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Understand in context the important developments in 20th century abstract art;

  • Understand and compare the creative processes underlying works by key individuals;

  • Assess critically the meanings of abstract painting and sculpture.


Core Readings


  • Lipsey, Roger, 1988. An Art of our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. Boston MA, Shambhala.

  • Golding, John, 2000. Paths to the Absolute. London: Thames and Hudson.

  • Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul, eds., 2002. Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Sylvester, David, 2002. About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-2000. London: Pimlico.

There are good introductory monographs on many of the individual artists concerned in Taschen’s ‘Basic Art’ series. There are also valuable collections of artist’s own statements, for example:

  • Wassily Kandinsky, 1977. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Mineola NY: Dover.

  • Piet Mondrian, 1987. The New Art, The New Life: Collected Writings. London: Thames and Hudson.

  • Agnes Martin, 1997. Writings. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

Class Handouts

Course schedule, list of recommended further reading, weekly lecture notes, including excerpts from readings.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.