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Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible

Opening exhibition at the Met Breuer
by Carola Lott
Thu Mar 17th, 2016

Untitled painting by Kerry James Marshall

“To finish a work is to kill it,” Picasso once declared. Whether or not a work of art is finished is a question that has intrigued artists and connoisseurs for centuries. The opening exhibition at the Met Breuer “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” attempts to answer this question with 190 works of Western Art from the Renaissance to the present. 

Two kinds of objects predominate: those the artist intentionally left unfinished and those that for some reason were never completed. Sometimes the artist became dissatisfied with the work and abandoned it. Occasionally politics intervened leaving the artist and his subject on opposite sides of the fence. Especially poignant is Alice Neel’s 1965 portrait, James Hunter Black Draftee, which depicts a black man about to be sent to Vietnam. Neel only completed his face because he never returned for another sitting.

James Hunter Black Draftee by Alice Neel

Whatever the reason, the unfinished works in the exhibition allow us to see how the artists work. In Manet’s portrait of his wife, her figure and the background are roughly indicated while her face and elegant black tricorne hat are carefully rendered. Apparently Manet was not content with the results, for he scraped off and repainted the face at least twice before giving up.

Madame Edouard Manet by Edouard Manet

Another feature of the show is the way two works are often juxtaposed to contrast or enhance each other. Andy Warhol’s “Do it Yourself (Violin),” a colorful abstraction against a background of paint by numbers, complements  Kerry James Marshall’s  untitled painting of an artist sitting at her easel. The colors are similar to those in the Warhol and Marshall’s unfinished background is also comprised of a paint by numbers chart. 

 “Unfinished” is divided between pre-Picasso work (1435-to-1900) on the third floor and post-Picasso (1900-to-the-present) on the fourth. Leaving the elevator on the third floor you enter a large gallery hung with four paintings by masters of Venetian art: one by Tintoretto, one by Jacopo Bassano and two by Titian including the horrifying “The Flaying of Marsyas.” The walls are dark grey, the paintings themselves are somber which gives a rather gloomy welcome. 

Further on you encounter a fragment of an enormous painting, “Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry,” by Rubens. Mostly in shades of brown and taupe with a white horse and occasional touches of red it conveys the power and turbulence of battle. Some areas, especially the central soldier with three arms each one holding a weapon, suggest the artist is still undecided about his composition.  

The part of the third floor devoted to portraiture is, to me, the best part of the exhibition. A highlight is the self portrait by Lucien Freud painted by placing a mirror on the floor to create a mole’s eye view of the artist. Although Freud has painted his face in detail, the rest of the canvas is a tangle of lines that show Freud still experimenting with different angles. Throughout Freud’s seven-decade career, he often left a work unfinished. There is no known reason why he abandoned a painting, sometimes after months of work.

Self Portrait by Lucine Freud

The fourth floor, although devoted to works by such masters as Jasper Johns, de Kooning, Picasso and Cezanne, is something of an anticlimax. There are exceptions of course. In his wonderful portrait of a harlequin Picasso has painted the face in great detail but indicated the costume with sketched lines. 

Harlequin by Palo Picasso

Two installations on the top floor were rather appealing, although it was difficult to tell if they were actually finished.  Sol Le Witt’s “Incomplete Open Cubes” consists of 122 small white wooden structures that he described as 122 ways of “not making a cube, all the ways of the cube not being complete.” Nearby is Robert Smithson’s “Mirrors and Shelly Sand” - fifty mirrors, placed upright back to back in a long mound of sand that stretches the length of the gallery. According to the label, “what we see is not necessarily what exists.”