Intuition and the Irrational Elsewhere

The first gallery of Intuition, at the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice. Statue-Menhirs from Italy and France (3rd century BC) coupled with “Versus Medici” by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Ali Smith, author of the remarkable novel How to Be Both, tells a story about how that book came to be. Leafing through a copy of Frieze magazine, she saw an image from a fresco in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, painted by the little known 16th century artist Francesco del Cossa. The image was a man in rags, looking both rich and poor at the same time, and in her estimation, utterly undefeatable. “It just looked to me like one of the most powerful images I’d ever seen.”

Her response was immediate, and she dropped everything to get to Ferrara so she could see it in person for herself. When she returned to her home in the UK, she continued working on the book she had been writing before this happened. But after a few months she realized she was working on the wrong book.

As Alex Clark reports in the Guardian, “She put it to one side, started reading up on the Renaissance ‘with the eyes of a child’, and tried to find out everything there was to know about Del Cossa. ‘I couldn’t deny what it was asking of me,’ she remembers, ‘which was to go as close to a life of which there was so little left in the world, but the so little that had been left was so much.'”

I am drawn to this story for so many reasons. I delight in how it brings me in closer to the very particular spark that resulted in Smith’s masterful book, one that blends the past and the future in such an inventive but penetrating way. I am also delighted that it features Italy, a country for which I have a particular partiality (my daughter and her family live in Florence.)

But the feature I am most compelled by is how this story captures that experience when something just reaches in and grabs you by the collar. And the only way to handle that grab is to let it have you, the way it happened with Ali Smith.

The How to Be Both collar grab that Ali Smith describes closely parallels a recent experience that happened to me. Rather than an image in a magazine, I was triggered by the firsthand account from friend and artist Debra Weisberg of an exhibit she saw while in Venice. The exhibit she described, Intuition, was the last of a cycle of exhibits curated by Axel Vervoordt and Daniela Ferretti at the Palazzo Fortuny over the last 10 years.

My response to Debra’s report was an instantaneous voice inside that said, You have to experience this yourself.

I don’t have the kind of life that would make getting to Venice in a matter of days a feasible undertaking. But in this particular circumstance, something was different. What began as a longing quickly transmuted into an undeniable need. Within just a few hours the pieces fell into place. The trip just materialized, in an instant.

Now that I am back from this spontaneous and essential pilgrimage, I am full of feelings but short on words. Spending a day in the Intuition exhibit was a kind of initiation. I can’t name what it is, but it is something quite distinct from how it felt to read about the show and to watch the videos posted online. Similar to the way Ali Smith was lured by that frescoed face, I jumped in to a vibrant stream that is taking me somewhere I cannot yet see.

Like the very word intuition itself, the exhibit is hard to describe. As in their previous exhibits addressing themes like the void, time, infinity and proportion, Vervoordt and his team assemble artworks from every era. In Intuition the objects tend to reference dreams, meditation, mystical knowing, telepathy, creative power, inspiration. Spanning a range of geographies and cultures, this exhibit explores how intuition has played out in our understanding of art from the beginning.

Inspired by his friendship with artist Jef Verheyen (one of the earliest participants in the Zero movement cofounded by Otto Piene in the 1950’s) who has ascribed to the notion that “seeing is feeling with the eyes,” Vervoordt embraces an approach to experiencing art that is refreshingly distinct from the often dry, doctrinaire and programmatic curatorial efforts so common in our postmodern world. In his hands these eclectic gatherings of objects are given a chance to be experienced in silence, in the unexpected, the unfinished, the mysterious. If intuition is how we sense and know things that live outside the confines of logic and reason, Vervoordt has moved that sense to how objects interrelate with us and to each other.

In the show catalog, Axel Vervoordt describes how intuition drives the art making process in a statement that feels close to a manifesto. For anyone who is invested in pulling form out of the air, I offer his words as a worthy credo.

Art is born when the energy of creation is stronger than the voluntary act of the artist. The artist follows intuitive feelings in a free way that one might describe as liberating. They are seeking connections to express cosmic energy. The feeling of intuition is one that’s stronger than your ego. It’s at once being connected to a source of global knowledge. Artists have the unique ability to share this knowledge with us, while not always revealing the source. The ways they materialize their intuitive visions is what gives art its magic.

These words are resonant with these statements by each of the lead curators:

The artist lives this indescribable feeling that is inaccessible to words as a reflection of all that has been present, of what will be present, from the beginning and forever. Freed from the need to depict the visible world, the artist becomes the receptor through whom the echoes and reflections of an irrational elsewhere flow freely and take form.


Intuition is a feeling that comes out of total freedom, being one with cosmic energy. Its knowledge before knowledge. It’s understanding before understanding…Intuition gives us new ideas and doesn’t always tell us where those ideas come from.


Note: This is my attempt, albeit inadequate, at a languaged report of my experience with Intuition. The gap between what I read before I went and what the experience was in person is so immense that I feel a bit foolish even attempting to bridge it. But I can’t not try. That inadequacy applies to photos as well. Even so, images from the exhibit can be viewed here.