Active Engagement (by Clairan Ferrono)

I have been a participant in the Ragged Cloth Cafe for many years now, and it has played a large part in my education as an artist.  Although I have no formal background in art, reading the Terry Barrett books Interpreting Art and Criticizing Art with the group, and then reviewing them years later, established for me some principals of viewing art critically and systematically .  However, it wasn’t until recently that I internalized  those principals sufficiently to allow me to examine art thoroughly,  experience it both emotionally and intellectually, and articulate that experience to increase both my knowledge and pleasure.  I call this active looking or observing with intent. I love the word intent as it defines both  purpose and focus.  I was able to put my new skills into practice this summer when I had a wonderful opportunity to see some amazing art in London.

The basis for my system (and I don’t claim it as original, but some of us seem to be required to reinvent the wheel!) is to intentionally choose the art to be examined (although you must look with intent, you also have to be open to surprises) and  give it your full attention.  This takes a surprising amount of energy, so you need to be prepared to spend a quite a bit of time or limit yourself to a small number of works.  You must bring to bear on this chosen work the full range of your knowledge of art –not only the technical aspects, but your knowledge of the historical time period and the artist him/herself.  And you must take notes.  You look, you think, you write.  Any reaction you have to the work is valid and should be noted. Trust your 1st instincts and your intuition; but be prepared to change your opinion.  You might write about the composition, colors, value, line,  volume, balance, movement, style perspective,mood, texture, rhythm, the content, theme, symbols, whatever you see and feel and understand or don’t understand or want to know more about.  The more you write, the more you see and understand and the easier it becomes to see what the artist is doing and the more intrigued you become about aspects you don’t “get.”

I used this active looking method to good purpose at three major exhibits:   a Vilhelm Hammershoi retrospective, a major Cy Twombly exhibit, and a room full of large Gerhard Richter abstracts, the Cage series. I can’t remember ever having had deeper, more exciting and inspiring interactions with art!   I plan to post on each of these in future months.

I didn’t want to leave you without any pretty pictures so:

Monet Water Lilies 1916  200.7x426.7 cm

Monet Water Lilies 1916 200.7x426.7 cm

Pollock Sumertime #9!  1948 84.8x555 cm

Pollock Sumertime #9! 1948 84.8x555 cm

Rothko Untitled 1950-2 189x100.8 cm

Rothko Untitled 1950-2 189x100.8 cm



On my way out of the Tate Modern, having spent 3 hours looking at Cy Twombly, I went through a room that had only 4 paintings in it.  Three of them are reproduced above. ( I couldn’t find a postcard of the Joan Mitchell painting that was the 4th.  And I can’t now remember the name of the painting. I can tell you that I was simply too tired to write everything down!) It was a visually striking room.  Three of my favorites — Abstract Expressionists, oh joy!  But what odd choices.  And what was that Monet doing there?  It’s really hard to do this with these nasty little images, but can anyone see what they were saying to one another?

A final note.  My education was in Comparative Literature.  I was trained to do close reading (textual analysis) of literature.  It seems to me I have finally transferred some of those skills to a “reading” of art that interests me.  And an unlooked for lagniappe for me has been an enhanced capacity to actively listen to music and make connections between contemporary art, music and literary themes.  (And I am really untrained in music!)

15 Responses to “Active Engagement (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 bj parady November 10, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    To clarify what I meant by the link in my previous comment, if curators aren’t, can’t be sure of how to hang a piece, maybe any grouping is at its heart an intuitive one, one that evades analysis…but trying to figure it is a good exercise to practice, even if there are no ‘true and only’ answers.

  2. 2 bj parady November 10, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    And where does this fit into analyzing the grouping?

    Turns out the Tate may not be hanging their Rothkos correctly…

  3. 3 Olga November 5, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    Yes, Clairan, I agree with you that the translation of one’s response into words, written or spoken, leads to greater connection with pieces of art one has experienced; but I guess what I would say is that we need not do that with everything we want to experience. I like the feeling of not knowing all there is about some works which move me, including not knowing what it is that moves me.

    But yes indeed, some works become not only revelatory about themselves, but about us too as we study them. You must have had quite a range of experiences with those exhibitions. I too have seen them except for the Richter – but I saw his show at the Serpentine gallery recently: 4900 Colours.

    As far as June’s question about quilt works is concerned – I cannot immediately think of anyone who fits the bill, but straightway Sara Brennan’s tapestries did:

  4. 4 clairan November 5, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I agree with you completely that looking is crucial, and that the emotional response is vital, but I also really believe that the responding and writing, or the responding, writing and discussing, can lead not only to a new understanding of that emotional response, but a deeper and more exciting connection to the art.

  5. 5 Olga November 5, 2008 at 10:36 am

    The Joan Mitchell piece is called Number 12

    The displays of the permanent collection in Tate Modern are thematic, and this particular one is looking indeed at luminosity.

    I like to take differing approaches to art that I look at depending on circumstances. I have been known to go back to look at stuff for several visits over a reasonably short time – or to stand and examine one piece or a few really deeply. I also like the quick glance which can leave a searing image in my memory – such as with sights seen from a moving vehicle. I’m not a note taker unless like Terry I want to write about a piece later, but enjoy discussing my reactions with either my husband or my duodidactic friend (we are self-teaching together).

    I think that everyone has different ways of absorbing and coming to a personal understanding of a work, but that it is true that looking, looking, looking is vital. Left on my own, generally it’s my emotions which rule how long I will examine any piece, because frankly it is easy to suffer from mental and emotional indigestion which leads to a forgetting of the feelings, which I think are more important than the thoughts.

  6. 6 Karen Wentworth November 4, 2008 at 2:58 am

    Just wanted to let all of you know I’ve tagged you with a Thinking Blogger Award. I wanted you to know that I enjoy how you make me think. You need not participate if you don’t want to, but I want to say thank you for your contribution to my personal artistic life, and the education you’ve provided me.
    You can see my post about this here:
    Karen Wentworth

  7. 7 June November 3, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    HA! Clairan, your addition seems to prove the point — at least in my mind. Thanks.

    I got to thinking about the 3 original paintings, and aside from the genius they represent, I was wondering which quilting artists make pieces so sensual and lyrical. There are lots of gorgeous pieces of quilt art, of course, but not many of them strike me as sensual in its largest sense — the kind of thing we see above in the Rothko and, of course, the Monet. Even the Monet imitations partake of something else in their design that codifies or sharpens the mooshy Monet quality.

    Anyone? Who am I not thinking of?

  8. 8 June November 3, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Terry and Clairan,

    Terry said, “I’d love to see if a crisp, flat work (say like Sol Lewitt or even Mondrian) would live comfortably with this group. Even if the palette were compatible I would guess it would not.”

    Absolutely right!!!! It’s one of those seldom spoken, maybe too obvious, observations — some things just don’t work with others, and generally it isn’t about color as about something else –edges, sensuality, lyricism — mooshiness, if you will.

    Quilted art is often crisp, clean-lined; paintings are often (but as Terry points out not always) more soft-edged, mixing colors rather than separating them. Quilted art uses stitching, with its shadows, to make clean lines. Quilted art that uses commercial fabrics, such as Terry makes, is often “cleaner” in style — more kin to pattern and repetition and decoration, like art deco, cartoons, and hard-edged paintings of all sorts.

    I was trying to sort out why the grouping that Clairan showed was so right, and I think Terry has said it precisely right. Maybe Clairan could put up a Mondrian, just to make the point……

  9. 9 clairan November 3, 2008 at 10:22 am


    I didn’t for a moment mean anyone to write a dissertation while viewing art! Jottings are all one needs — they function like the conversation, the brainstorming, so that when one is in the 5 room of a large exhibit, and sees something that nudges a braincell, one can look at one’s jotting and say, “Ah! that’s what she was doing when I say the small drawing. . . . etc. The mere fact of saying out loud or writing down an observation fixes it in the mind, and often sparks other ideas, because most of us don’t totally think through ideas just in our heads. We think we know what we’re thinking, even when we don’t. We don’t get to the logical obstacles, so we don’t try to overcome them — think them through.

    You are so right about the atmosphere, etc of the three paintings. I felt they had very similar rhythms. And they were all very. . .summertime. The light, the rhythm, the colors, very deliciously sensuous and lazy in the heat. Brilliant curating, I think.

  10. 10 terry grant November 3, 2008 at 8:17 am

    As June said, it really enhances my enjoyment and understanding of art to view it with another engaged observer. June and I do have wonderful conversations about art when we go out together and not because, as June said, either of us sees “better” than the other, but that we see different things. I learn a lot from her. We learn from each other.

    I have to disagree a bit about the need to write it all down, however. Sure, jot down of details that you want to remember to pass on later, like the name of a painting you want someone else to see, but for me studious notetaking interupts the flow. I’m ususally content to remember the feeling, even if I forget the details. If I took notes I’m pretty sure I would never look at them again, anyway, unless I was writing about it for raggedcloth!

    The combination of the three paintings you show that were exhibited together is wonderful. The colors speak to each other, but also the sense of atmosphere and luminosity and depth of plane. Also there is a kind of softly lyrical gesture in each that speaks to the others. I’d love to see if a crisp, flat work (say like Sol Lewitt or even Mondrian) would live comfortably with this group. Even if the palette were compatible I would guess it would not.

  11. 11 clairan November 1, 2008 at 11:14 am


    You’re so right, it takes commitment, but, wow! what a payoff. Looking like this can really blow your mind (yes, I am a child of the 60’s, right arm!)

    I love good dialoguing about art as a different form of articulation. I think bouncing ideas around, much like being in a really good book group, clarifies one’s observations and deepens them — after all, no individual can see or hear or know everything. But, I would hasten to remind everyone, write it down. Because we forget things so easily! I really wish I knew the name of that Joan Mitchell painting, but it probably left my mind before I left the museum. And often one’s impressions are fleeting but important.

  12. 12 June October 31, 2008 at 7:48 pm


    “Looking with intent” is brilliant — it captures the essence of really experiencing art. Your comment on the time and energy it takes to truly experience art reminds me of the statistic that most people look at individual paintings in museums and galleries for about 30 seconds. Imagine trying to suss out a Beethoven Symphony (or even a Johnny Cash “I Walk the Line”) in 30 seconds. Impossible! And yet we imagine that if we aren’t “caught” by the image across the room, the art isn’t worthy.

    Some art, of course, catches us. I hadn’t seen the Rothko before but I bet I would have been stopped for 30 minutes if I could see it in person. And then I would have circled and had to come back to it. The room you describe sounds fantastic — a day’s adventure in looking.

    I don’t write much about what I see — but I find some of the richest experiences come in two ways — seeing with another astute and intentional viewer like Terry Grant or my daughter; and re-looking, and re-relooking. I still remember the Van Gogh exhibit that I got to visit twice and the second time through, I spent about 45 minutes just with 3 paintings and a drawing. My daughter had to come and get me; I skipped the rest of the exhibit. My daughter and I are continually being complimented when we visit galleries because she (a writer) really insists upon talking about and re-looking and talking again about what she sees. I get impatient, but then, I learn.

    There is something about articulation, whether in writing or aurally, when you observe and observe and check your observations again, that clarifies and adds depth to the excitement of art. It’s like putting those fresh raspberries into that creamy ice and then a dollop of hot fudge. Raspberries by themselves are good — but the articulation of them with heat and ice and sweet and smooth — oh my.

    I also know about revising my opinion; Terry and I went to an exhibit of a modernist (the name escapes me) who did cardboard pieces (something like birds or butterflies, but in raw, unfinshed, undecorated cardboard). I later described them in some online space — and Terry commented that she wasn’t sure we had been at the same exhibit. My description was not exactly complimentary, but her comment made me look at those pieces again later, in a more favorable light. Well worth articulating, even though I was wrong — because someone else was seeing better.

    I’m looking forward to see your further adventures. Kate is right, that it takes commitment — but then, what else would we as artists be so committed to, if not the fullest comprehension of art?

  13. 13 kate October 31, 2008 at 6:57 am

    This is a brilliant way to discipline your mind and your eyes when evaluating art. With some practice, the same principles would be great for self-critique too.
    I almost replied that I’m going to try this technique. But I don’t want to promise that lightly. It will take a commitment of time and energy to do it right.
    Thank you for the informative article and I’m looking forward to the next installments.

  14. 14 clairan October 30, 2008 at 3:47 pm

    Yes, for sure they do have a lot of colors in common. Especially, the Monet and Rothko, but they do appear in the Pollock as well. And that’s what I noticed first too, because I thought, these aren’t placed here at random. But I think there’s more there.

  15. 15 bj parady October 30, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Could it be as simple as they have similar palettes? To untrained eyes like mine, just having colors in common means they speak to each other–but the conversation is a little hard for me to hear.

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