Having absolutely no talent myself, I’m fascinated with the creative process. Over the last 50+ years of exposure to art and artists, in both small and major cities around the world, I have come to realize that no artist is ever fully finished with a piece of art. An assignment can be completed, or a piece can be sold to generate income, but left to their own evolving creative process, it seems to me that no artist is ever fully satisfied with his or her work – and thus, a lot of art is “Unfinished.”
So what makes a finished work of art? This question is posed with the current, inaugural exhibition at the new Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer branch at Madison Avenue and 75th Street in New York City, former home to the Whitney Museum, now under an 8-year lease to the Met, has piqued my curiosity and offers a greater depth of understanding.
The “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” inaugural exhibition includes some of history’s greatest artists including Titian, Rembrandt, Turner and Cézanne. Beginning with the Renaissance masters the exhibition examines the term “unfinished” in a very broad sense and also includes works non-finito, meaning intentionally left unfinished.
Some of the works, like da Vinci’s “Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child,” are works-in-progress as part of the creation process that were later defined and classified as “Art” although that was clearly not the artist’s intent. These specific quick-sketches give understanding to da Vinci’s artistic practice of studying dynamic poses, the varying fall of light on an object, and the delicate gestures that he is so well known for. According to the Met’s website, “Given the number of major works that the artist left incomplete, it is clear that he found it difficult to bring to a conclusion the process of evolution that so inspired him.”
Included in this exhibit is Paul Cezanne’s “Bouquet of Peonies in a Green Jar.” Cezanne, who was never satisfied with his work, rarely signed his paintings. In a letter to his mother, he wrote that finishing things was a goal for imbeciles.
Other artists, like Warhol’s “Violin by Numbers,” are intentionally left unfinished with instructions and corresponding numbers identifying elements for completion. As famous for his quips as for his art, Warhol was inspired by pop-culture and everyday life. And in the 60s there was a popular rage of everyday people painting by the numbers from kits at hobby stores.
According to an NPR interview, co-curator of the exhibit Kelly Baum says that after World War II, many artists stopped trying to create perfect, completed canvases. Instead, work became about restlessness and flux. Artists began making paintings that looked “unstable, ongoing, boundless, impermanent.”
Baum points to Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting” from 1951 consisting of fours square panels, hung close together to form a big square, each panel completely covered in white paint. Is this an unfinished work? She says it’s hard to tell.
The similar question of “What is Art” was explored in another venue 18 years ago, and I can’t help having a déjà vu moment – not only because of the white art, but of the conversations that stem from viewing this exhibition and that controversial play from 1998. In March of that year I attended a quirky New York premiere of a theatrical production called “Art“ that opened on Broadway starring Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina. Produced by David Pugh, Sean Connery and Joan Cullman at the Royale Theatre, it ran for 600-performances over an 18-month period, and won the Tony Award that year for Best Play.
The Met Breuer’s vast array of exquisite paintings and sketches within this exhibit will truly either modify or re-define every viewer’s concept of “Finished Art.” These famous and not-quite-so-famous artists and their works can open our own eyes to perceptions of beauty and truth, art and reality, and can help us define our own opinions and subjective appreciations of the talents and visions of others.
All images courtesy of The Met Breuer website
The Met Beuer Museum online tickets
Visit or buy the Catalogue – Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible
by Kelly Baum, Andrea Bayer and Sheena Wagstaff
Art: A Play
by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton)
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