Musing on Museums (by Clairan Ferrono)

Before I get started on my museum musing, let me note that mine was the last post on this blog.  And that was over a month ago.  Is anyone out there interested in posting regularly or occasionally? This blog has been an important ingredient in my personal art education, so I should hate to see it fade away.

(Now I must also tell you that most of the images you will see in this post are not those I saw at the museum, but ones I scooped off the internet!)



Last week  another art quilter (Glenys Mann of Tamworth, Australia) and I went to the recently opened Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.  As you might imagine, this has gotten rather a lot of press here in Chicago.  Not only is a major portion of the modern collection  available for viewing and gathered together for the first time, the building itself is attracting a lot of attention.  We entered from Millenium Park, itself a worthy attraction!  I have no way of knowing the architectural significance of the building, but I can say it’s a pleasure to be in and look at art in:  light, airy and spacious.



On the ground floor is a special exhibitions hall.   I was happy to see the Cy Twombly exhibit (see a previous Ragged Cloth post on Twombly); all the work was new to me, but I felt like he was an old friend.  I could go through quite quickly, knowing where in his oeuvre things occurred and how they connected, and just concentrate on paintings I was particularly drawn to. And this viewing, then, provided a context I hadn’t expected for the rest of my visit.



The sections we visited were divided into American Art 1945 – 1960, American Art 1960-present, and European Art 1945-present.  As regular readers of RC know by now, I love Abstract Expressionism, so the 1945-1960 section was attractive to me.  The Rothko, Newman and Pollock were very nice, but not my favorites, so I moved on.  I was reminded that I don’t like de Kooning, Rothtenburg, or Kline, but maybe I’d like to learn more about Kline.  As you know, I believe that it’s hard to like or even to look at with appreciation artists that one has no “way into.”  And that’s how I feel about Kline.  So perhaps further study will lead me to appreciate him more.

I was particularly drawn to Joan Mitchell’s City Landscape (below).  It seems to represent the ganglion of a city’s nerves in the center of the painting which is vibrant and energetic and full of motion.  Note to self:  look at more Mitchell.

Mitchell City Landscape

Mitchell City Landscape

We then moved on to the more contemporary Americans.  I was immediately struck by a fairly recent Jasper Johns encaustic piece whose name I did not remember to write down, although I sketched some parts of it and wrote extensive notes about it.  It was a large painting, almost entirely gray, hinged on the side with parts of doors and  a cord hanging down from it.



I was particularly impressed by the painting, which  had shapes reflecting the shape of the cord, an actual shadow produced by the cord, and painted shadows.  Reflections of reflections of reflections.  I had never before been particularly interested in Johns, although I do remember wanting to see the Grey exhibit and not being able to.  So now I shall have to investigate Jasper Johns more thoroughly.

Then I looked at some paintings by people I had never even heard of (which is not surprising as I know very little of the contemporary art scene) :

Ellen Gallagher Untitled 1999 , Mary Heilmann Heaven 2004, and Margherita Manzelli Dopo la fine 2008. (I remind you that these are not the images of the paintings I’m writing about.)



I was very intrigued by these three and spent quite some time taking notes on each of these artists’ works, vowing to look them up and see more work by them.



By the time I had found the David Hockney and the Gerhardt Richter, I was too tired to look more than cursorily.  After all, I am a member of the museum and can come back and look whenever I want–how lucky am I?!  And then my friend came back and insisted I look at the Joseph Cornell with her!  And I adore Cornell, so off I went, glancing at Lucien Freund and Francis Bacon as I went (two I don’t like, important as I know they are. . . .).



After we had sat down and had something to eat, my friend and I were able to discuss what we had seen.  And I started to think seriously of what the curator does and how it affects our vision of art in a museum.  Why are certain paintings grouped together? We so rarely get to read why a curator makes the decisions he/she makes.  If I am in a room with 4 or 6 or 10 artists, loosely associated in time, and my knowledge of art history is weak, then what do I learn by the association?  I have to be very, very attentive to make out the connections (assuming the curator is a good one and there are connections other than simple chronology), unless I have prior knowledge  of a group or a period.  I have realized that I really prefer to see a large body of one artist’s work at a time so that I can educate myself, make observations and connections, and get a feel for what the artists is doing over a  period of time.  But a large collection, like that of the Art Institute, is great for introducing me to the myriad of artists I have not seen before, or showing me a side of someone I had previously rejected, or revealing to me themes or ideas  or commonalities I had been previously unaware of  among a group I know something about (our old friends the Abstract Expressionists, of course!).

I wonder if your recent viewing experiences at museums have been at all similar to mine?

15 Responses to “Musing on Museums (by Clairan Ferrono)”

  1. 1 kathy June 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Clairan, Thanks for posting this. I too would hate to see this blog go away as I feel that it is valuable to my art education. Keep up the great work!

  2. 2 clairan June 17, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Certainly everyone has her own methodology for looking and SEEING, June. I am neither judging others’ nor proselytising for my own. But it is interesting to “count the ways” and I’m sure we can all learn from one another. Really clarifying for myself the difference in initial approach between a “home” and “abroad” museum has been most beneficial to me!

  3. 3 june June 17, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Olga and Clairan,

    While I’m not as methodical as Olga, I have long since ceased to try to “see” the Louvre or even the Portland Art Museum. Most often I stop at what catches me, and I stand, for long periods, in front of obscure or famous or even infamous pieces until I feel something in my brain click. Sometimes the click is just an overload, but sometimes it’s a meaning — not necessarily anything that a curator would have intended or even that the artist would have been conscious of. Hard to explain, but my time on earth is limited, my energy in museums even more so, and so I look at what catches me and I look long and hard. I sometimes even look at what I despise, long and hard, trying to figure out what the artist intended, why the curator chose it, what got it where it is.

    I don’t look at a lot; but what I look at I try to really see. It’s hard work, but like most things that one works hard at, it’s worthwhile.

  4. 4 clairan June 15, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Thanks Olga, I think you are spot on in making a distinction between “home” collections and “tourist” ones. That’s why I think I prefer while traveling to see special exhibits where the collections is very cohesive. One never has enough time. But we also have to give ourselves the chance for “happy accidents.” Otherwise we can get stuck in a rut of our own likes and dislikes.

  5. 5 Olga June 15, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Curating has become all the rage in Art Education institutions. Often a postgraduate study, it has become a popular offer.

    It is such a no-win situation, however for those presenting collections to the one time visitor. I take a different attitude to home museums from my approach to touristic visits, especially if there is no specific temporary exhibition on.

    I’m one of those boring people who prepares extensively before visiting an institution with a large collection – like the Louvre in Paris, or the Art Institute in Chicago. I will spot favourite artists, areas, periods, etc. and seek them out, enjoying the unexpected delights I see on the way. I will admit that on such occasions I do not stop where I am not immediately attracted. I inevitably miss a great deal, but hey – that’s life. After all we don’t expect in one sitting to eat every meal on offer in a restaurant.

    With home museums I am also exclusive, but return often to spend intensive time with specific artists, or subjects, etc. I was fortunate to spend a couple of years living near Boston in New England in the 80s and must have visited the Museum of Fine Arts at least three times a month. I had the great good fortune to see the Chinese Terracotta Warriors there long before they were widely known about – an astounding exhibition of Chinese artefacts.

    Strangely, since I have started producing my own work I am even less inclined to want to see absolutely everything. There seems to be so little time for me to think out my own thoughts; but on the other hand I love being surprised by astounding input. So I still spend a deal of time looking at art in one way or another, and particularly enjoy seeing increasingly well curated single artist or single topic/theme exhibitions. Catalogues have improved so much recently too.

    I too would hate to see RCC disappear, and although I find it difficult at times to come up with sufficiently interesting ideas for posts on my own blog, in order that the cafe continue, I am willing to try to think of something for RCC from time to time.

  6. 6 clairan June 11, 2009 at 11:44 am

    And I couldn’t agree more with Shiborigirl’s thought that we need more and better and more diverse art education in schools.

  7. 7 clairan June 11, 2009 at 11:42 am

    It’s always good to hear from you June! I’ll take that into consideration if I get an opportunity to see an Escher – I wouldn’t say he’s one of my favorites . . . yet. But your experience continues to confirm my basic belief that the more knowledge we have, the better judgments we can make.

  8. 8 June June 11, 2009 at 8:33 am


    Thanks for the post! Nice luscious insights and information.

    Oddly enough, I spent yesterday at the Portland Art Museum (not quite Chicago, alas) with 4 other quilt artists, viewing an Escher exhibit. Initially, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic, since Escher’s prints as I had seen them in books are fascinating but not, to me, astounding. But I was wrong. They are astounding.

    The Museum’s curator of prints for years had also been a printmaker and private collector, and so their Escher collection is phenomenal. And they had materials that showed the whole process, from Escher’s initial pencil sketches to his traced paper pieces to his final prints. Some of the original blocks were also included. The incredible care he took to make multiple segments of blocks fit seamlessly together was breathtaking.

    You are absolutely right about curating as its own thing, sometimes its own art. Clearly the Escher exhibit was about the process from start to finish as much as it was about Escher’s funny tricks of the eye. It made his work much richer than any simple exhibit of finished prints could have been. And of course, he did a lot more work than what I had been previously aware of — some serious architectural drawings as well as some Dali-esque bits.

    In this case, the exhibit itself hung together with not much textual information that was essential. And once in a while, the text that accompanies an exhibit makes it clear why materials are grouped as they are — what the curator/ exhibit was working toward except 1945 to 1960 or whatever. But often I can’t figure out why groupings appear as they do. Having friends around to chat with about the groupings really helps, as different people can see different aspects of groupings.

    And I love “viewing old favorites in a new and unexpected light” — even the people in the exhibit hall can make one see the work differently, just by their presence.

  9. 9 clairan June 11, 2009 at 6:30 am


    I know. I say get “museum eyes” which roll around in my head like a cartoon after too much input. But I find if I’m looking at one person’s work I can see a lot more.

    That’s how I felt several years ago after I had read the Ragged Cloth List for a couple years and decided to start posting. Then I HAD to read and investigate and think about art in a serious way. That’s how I’ve learned a lot, as well as by reading and thinking about others’ posts. You might consider writing occasionally!


    You are lucky. The Tate are wonderful galleries! I like your comments on curating. An exhibit expressly mounted by theme would be very accessible,
    and “viewing old favourites in a new and often unexpected light” is especially attractive.

    • 10 shiborigirl June 11, 2009 at 8:52 am


      Learning is what makes life worth living-so much to learn-I’ll have to live to a very ripe old age to accommodate it.

      Did anyone see the article in the current Art News regarding museums and rethinking their approach to getting more people interested in visiting? More technology, taking a more interactive game like approach to lure younger patrons. (hiring game designers) Not sure I was buying that but fortunately there were a few directors who brought up the E word-education.

      Also a very good discussion on diversity among museum goers needing to better reflect the nation’s diversity as a whole. Some very startling numbers. Claimed that if the ratios don’t start being addressed and changed that museums will be out of business by 2034. There was a lot of food for thought there. Personally, I think that we are not going to get very far if we don’t get some visual arts education back into the public schools in a broad and integrated way- otherwise there won’t be a market for art or much support for museums in the future. It’s all connected.

  10. 11 Magsramsay June 11, 2009 at 2:49 am

    I’m lucky enough to have access to the Tate Galleries in London. I’ve been going for years , mainly for particular exhibitions but also to see the regular rejigs of the collections which are often hung by theme.For example in Tate Modern at the moment these include ‘material gestures’, ‘poetry and dreams’, States of Flux’. These are often thought-provoking and include big international names and ‘blockbuster’ modern art.
    However I often get just as much out of the collections at Tate Britain – my preference is for the galleries exhibiting British Art from 1900- 2009. These are also hung by theme( ‘Objects and Material’,subject matter’ , ‘Image and paint’) and by individual artist. I often find artwork I am familiar with next to unfamiliar work which broadens my ‘palette’of artists but also makes me view old favourites in a new and often unexpected light. The website ( is very comprehensive and great to check up on when I get home – perhaps to look up a new artist and check up further work.

  11. 12 shiborigirl June 10, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    and meant to add re your question:

    “Before I get started on my museum musing, let me note that mine was the last post on this blog. And that was over a month ago. Is anyone out there interested in posting regularly or occasionally? This blog has been an important ingredient in my personal art education, so I should hate to see it fade away.”

    I would too (hate to see it go away). I really NEED the education. Every time I come to this blog I realize how much I don’t know and vow to learn more. I always learn a lot from the conversations that result from the posts. It’s one of only a very few I subscribe to.

  12. 13 shiborigirl June 10, 2009 at 11:06 pm

    Yes yes, and yes! I’ve always liked to look at one man shows for that very reason. To get more in the head of the artist-to see the progression of ideas as well as mastery of the art form. And a well curated show is a work of art in itself. The description of your visit through the galleries sounds much like how I look at art- I only want to take in so much in a single visit and will come back for more next time. seems I can only absorb so much at a time.

  13. 14 clairan June 10, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Thank you Jeanne, that was an interesting site. Beautiful glass.

    I think I particularly love to see a big chronological show of one, or maybe two artists (I’m thinking of one from several years ago on Gauguin and Van Gogh) so I can see the development of ideas and techniques. Perhaps this is because I am self-taught and don’t know much yet. But I expect I know at least as much as the average museum goer. So I appreciate it when the curator helps my brain organize the material!

  14. 15 Jeanne June 10, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    I have often found it irritating to attend a museum where they have work of many different styles, dates and themes all displayed together. I can’t figure out which artwork to focus on, and end up being unable to concentrate enough to absorb the art. Our brain’s naturally want to categorize things, look for similiarities, and areas of growth. The curator’s job is to help us experience the work in an organized way, so we understand the theme or are educated about the art.
    I saw the Lino Tagliapietro show at the Renwick Gallery, and returned for a talk by the curator, and the lighting designer. Both were fascinating. They described knowing how they wanted to the viewer to walk through the show, which pieces would draw you from the other side of the room, and which were displayed to bring you in close. The show is a retrospective of a master glass blower, and so it was laid out from his early years to the present. It showed his progression through various shapes, techniques and colors, and was a fabulous show. It’s in Norfolk, VA now, and will travel to Palm Springs, CA next. I don’t know if the curators and designers will do as great a job as they did at the Renwick, but I don’t think it could have been displayed any better. Here’s the link if you’re interested in seeing his work. Lino Tagliapietro has had a huge influence on glassblowing.

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