Today I went to an exhibit at the new Met Breuer, the Met’s modern art annex in the old Whitney Museum building a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit is called “Unfinished: Thought Left Visible,” and includes works from the 16th century up through the 21th of paintings, and works in a few other mediums, which appear uncompleted either deliberately, because of a non finito aesthetic, or because the artist never finished the work.
What was most interesting to me was that very few of the art works looked “unfinished” to me. Perhaps this is because my eye is so used to paintings that don’t look like photographs, but this must have been a shock for 16th and 17th and 18th century viewers. As for 20th century work, who’s to say they’re unfinished even if the pencil or charcoal marks of the underlying sketch are clearly visible, like a Mondrian. It looks fine to me. A few paintings from the 20th century with large areas of beige blotch are clearly incomplete. For example, a work intended to show the drafting of the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War shows George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and others clearly portrayed, while the two British representatives are missing in the beige blob. What’s revealed is a political moment rather than an artistic one, the refusal of the British to willingly acknowledge the independence of their colony.Most of the “incomplete” works, however, looked good as they are, interesting and final in their own way. Even the five Turners, which are mostly vague areas of color. And the Abstract Expressionists? How can four canvases that are all white be unfinished? There’s an artistic intention that has little to do with the visual.