Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible is the inaugural marquee installation at the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum’s new exhibition space in the building that once housed the Whitney Museum. The show is, as its name suggests, an assemblage of artworks that are incomplete. Sometimes a lack of resolution is obvious, sometimes not, and then, it’s sometimes unclear whether a work was left incomplete by design or accident. Often not even the artist knows for certain when a work of art is done. “To finish a work? To finish a picture?,” Picasso once asked, and then supplied the answer. “What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.”
There are many circumstances in which the coup de grace is never delivered, and Unfinished enumerates these, and then some. The Met Breuer’s show sprawls over two floors, and includes work whose trajectory was truncated either by accident—examples include Gustav Klimt’s Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III, left unfinished at the time of his death, and Alice Neel’s James Hunter Black Draftee, with the title all but explaining why Mr. Hunter never returned after the first sitting—or aesthetic choice—see any one of the paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose landscapes so brazenly disregarded traditional ideas of finish that they’ve merited their own small gallery. In Turner, the demarcation between a completed painting and one that was left in progress is often negligible, and the distinction is further complicated, or blunted, by a modern acceptance of visual suggestiveness. There are revelations; I never realized that El Greco’s Vision of Saint John was incomplete, and there are memorable Titian portraits and an incomplete Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry by Rubens that I’d never seen before.
The curators have included a number of works that make tangential points. Michelangelo’s famous study for the Libyan Sibyl was a preparatory drawing that was probably not intended for public display, thus the concept of “finish” is irrelevant. Sunset on the Sea, by John Frederick Kensett, is a finished painting that was chosen because it’s less compositionally elaborate and more overtly visionary than Kensett’s previous work. What of Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I, which was repainted in its entirety dozens, if not hundreds of times over the course of several years? Is it unfinished because the artist was persistently dissatisfied (though he eventually stopped and announced it finished), or because it looks brusque? Robert Smithson’s installation of sand addresses themes of loss and decay, but this deals with the artist’s acknowledgment of art as ephemera, an issue which is distinct from that of completion. Conceptually, Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather seems a natural continuation of Rodin’s incomplete sculptures, whose human forms emanate from rough-hewn marble, and the “melting” surfaces of Medardo Rosso’s impressionistic portraits. But Antoni’s pair of busts, one cast in chocolate and the other in soap, were completed before she licked the former and bathed with the latter, slightly deforming both self-portraits (the catalogue notes that three other chocolate busts were defaced by viewers who bit off their noses, perhaps the most forgivable instances of art vandalism). The points being made here are a bit arch, with the curators casting a net so wide that not just the materials used in the artworks but the theme itself starts to disintegrate.
For artists, thematic cohesion will probably be secondary to the work itself. The pickings, as may be surmised from the works already mentioned, are bountiful. Additionally, there are beautiful figure works and portraits by Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Corot, not to mention a small painting by Leonardo that invites the obligatory cluster of fascinated viewers. There are a couple of abandoned paintings by Lucian Freud: a clean, early self-portrait that reveals a methodically piecemeal approach, and a nude portrait left incomplete at the time of his death, the paint dry and scabrous. The scholarship is divided as to whether Cézanne finished Gardanne, but any further filling-in of the bare canvas would have sacrificed the landscape’s luminosity and compromised the delight one feels at confronting an incomplete puzzle. Two of my favorites here are Corot’s Sybille, a Met denizen of perfect equipoise, the shudder of her unfinished arms supplying counterpoint to an idealized face—it is the sort of painting Picasso digested but never forgot; and Degas’s Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, a canvas the artist continued to rework more than three decades after it was first exhibited. Any painting that can remain unfinished for thirty years and retain this much nervous energy merits a show unto itself.
If visiting artists opt to cherry-pick through its nearly six hundred years of art, they will find more than enough to amply reward the inconveniences—on a sunny Saturday late afternoon, the crowds were wicked thick, and negotiating them required a measure of midtown-style sidewalk agility. Some of the works beguile with the charm of non finito, others open limited windows on the creative process, be it methodical or spontaneous, while still others, with their bizarrely empty passages, are inadvertently surreal.
The exhibition isn’t a master class, but it does address a topic that’s central to our studio pursuits, where students customarily want to finish before they’ve learned how to start. One of the Whitney’s last blockbusters in its former location, wherein Edward Hopper’s preparatory drawings were liberally mixed with paintings, was far more instructive. Notwithstanding the chance to glimpse so many works abruptly halted midstream, the struggles of conception and composition remain gratifyingly inscrutable. This, alone, is an important reminder to those who teach and study the nuts and bolts of making art.
The Met Breuer’s self-described mission is to function as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s flagship for contemporary art, and it’s been noted that in this respect Unfinished, with its preponderance of old masters, is a confusing inaugural. The exhibition allows the mother institution to draw from its own collection and borrow from those of major museums worldwide, and the result is too expansive by half. The scope overwhelms the theme, for any show that runs the scale from van Eyck to Warhol risks feeling like a prelude to an art history midterm. Some part of me takes stubborn offense at juxtaposing Titian with Smithson, if not for issues of quality then at least for the disparate vocabularies of the work at hand. One can argue that with these rapid juxtapositions, the Met is constructing a bridge between its past and its future.
Happily, Unfinished doesn’t come off as a pedantic exercise. There’s great buoyancy to the exhibition, and a sense that the show’s title refers as much to the state of the new museum as it does to the exhibition itself.