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At a press preview earlier this month, Sheena Wagstaff, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s chairwoman for modern and contemporary art, said that “arguably only the Met” could put on a show like Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. Being the Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibit, it is, Wagstaff claimed, “at the core” of the museum’s future programming.
There has been a fair amount of build-up for this takeover of the old Whitney Museum building, which could be considered the centerpiece of the Met’s major rebranding effort. From its new logo to its online “fourth space,” the museum is on a mission to appear relevant, contemporary, and, of course, global.
At a long-standing and ultimately conservative institution like the Met, small steps can feel like big ones. When I was an intern there two summers ago (later, I was briefly a contractual educator), the simple idea of different departments collaborating and communicating with one another was considered notable progress. Curators and educators cited, multiple times, the novelty of including a contemporary sculpture by Kohei Nawa of a taxidermied deer encased in glass in the Arts of Japan galleries, where Edo Period scrolls (including one featuring the same animal) were on display. The installation certainly made viewers pause, but the enthusiasm with which staff members returned to it felt almost quaint.
Around the same time, I heard about the museum’s plans for the Breuer, how the collection would mix contemporary art with older art. The premise sounded promising, and it still does. But, somewhat like that deer in the Arts of Japan galleries, the risks here feel safe and relatively few.
As a whole, and many critics have already made this point, Unfinished very much falls within the Met’s purview. Curated by Andrea Bayers of the European paintings department and Kelly Baum of Modern and contemporary, the exhibition is mostly organized chronologically, tracing the history of Western painting, with some exceptions, from the Renaissance through the present. In other words, Unfinished isn’t particularly radical in how it relates art history. But it is great for what Met exhibitions generally are: the thoughtful pairings, individual masterpieces, and carefully curated rooms — the roomful of prints, for instance, where the swirling patterns of Edvard Munch’s “Kiss in the Field” (1943) woodcut hang next to a Vija Celmins 1985 drypoint of an ocean’s rippling surface; or the delight and surprise of Gustav Klimt’s chaotic charcoal loops surrounded by painted flowers in a portrait of a young woman that was still in the process of being completed when he died. This is an exhibition where you’ll have the most fun up-close, inspecting the lines of tape on a Piet Mondrian working canvas or the pleated drapes and thin scaffolding of a cathedral in Jan van Eyck’s “St Barbara” (1437). This imperative to inspect details is partly why the sheer size of the show — two whole floors — can be unwieldy and frustrating.
Unfinished begins with the idea of a figurative image coming into being. Pale, barely formed figures look ghostly in paintings that seem to exist between life and death. In a Peter Paul Rubens battle scene, horses and soldiers alternate between appearing as mere outlines and colored bodies, creating a dynamic palimpsest in a plane of brown, the underpainting then known as dood verwe, or “dead color.” At times, this lifeless effect is apt and powerful, such as in Guido Reni’s “Lucretia” (1640–42), where, in the rape victim’s act of suicide, the blade of the knife is just barely formed and her truncated hand collapses under the weight of her robe, rendered in skeletal strokes. While this painting is one among Reni’s many unfinished efforts, his later works are considered characteristic of the Renaissance non finito style that Unfinished expands upon, where the artist’s traces are purposefully sketch-like and fragmentary.
We are reminded in wall labels that incomplete imagery appeals to modern tastes. Absence speaks, inviting stories, interpretations, and mystery. Gradually, we see artists push this non finito style further, the turning point being J.M.W. Turner. In a room of five of his paintings, most serve as examples of his late style, rather than unfinished work, that captures color, speed, and atmosphere. The transience of his subject matter translates to his canvas; we’re no longer seeing the stages or mapping of an image, but rather its unstable nature.
From this point onward in the exhibition, the unfinished and intentionally “incomplete” works begin to blur. We sense Édouard Manet express abandon, such as in the portrait of his wife that he scraped away at the face multiple times. In another barebones sketch, we observe what apparently was his second attempt to capture the scene of an Irish critic in a café. And then there is an enigmatic Alice Neel: a portrait of a black man who, after being drafted for the Vietnam War, did not show up to a second sitting. Rather than filling in the gaps or giving up on the work altogether, Neel left the blank parts intact so that the sitter’s absence became an aspect of the portrait. The work hangs close to other half-complete portraits by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Lucian Freud, and Elizabeth Peyton. It is the only room on the third floor that really mixes up chronology, which feels a bit inconsistent and jarring, especially since it’s followed by an extensive section on the “The Long Nineteenth Century.”
The second half of Unfinished gives its theme a bit of a twist. Our starting point is Paul Cézanne, who is described as having pioneered a looser approach to finish, though the curators very quickly move away from formal to more abstract concerns. Luc Tuymans‘s wall-filling still life, inspired by an actually unfinished one by Cézanne, depicts fruit and a jug in a white expanse. Tuymans made the painting after he witnessed what he felt to be the unrepresentable events of 9/11 and it sets the tone for the other works on the fourth floor, which express what cannot be articulated, made definitive, or be fulfilled. For instance, there is a Lygia Clark bicho and an Hélio Oiticica bólide, both of which are meant to be manipulated but that, in museums settings, no longer can. Or Robert Morris’s “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making” (1961), which emanates the sounds of sawing and hammering, recorded when he was constructing that very box. With these works, we can’t quite tell where they end or begin.
The last rooms of Unfinished return to the idea of decay, death, and ephemerality, and this time with the help of sculpture. From Robert Smithson‘s sand installation, which over time loses shape and slowly disintegrates, to the decaying peels in Zoe Leonard’s “Two Oranges” (1992), meant to allude to the public’s apathy towards AIDS, we are left with the notion that art — and what inspires it — is fragile and mortal. These works that are literally falling to pieces before our eyes make obvious what is true of much of the art on display in Unfinished: while seemingly permanent, prized objects, they are as much about frustration, irresolution, loss, failure, and uncertainty. The final room gathers marble, resin, and plaster sculptures of dismembered body parts by the likes of Auguste Rodin, Louise Bourgeois, Medardo Rosso, Bruce Nauman, and Alina Szapocznikow, exacerbating this sense of the vulnerability of art and, ultimately, the artist.
“Unfinished” seems to be somewhat of a misnomer for the exhibition as a whole. The definition, anyhow, gets a bit muddled in the overwhelming offering of artworks (after a while, I got a little tired of reading all the labels to figure out whether the art was technically unfinished). In a way, the story here is about how art — again, almost exclusively Western — evolved from building an image to breaking it apart. It illustrates this historical point with mostly under-the-radar works by established artists. In Met style, it’s a well-researched show with extraordinary holdings, but it feels “at the core” of the museum we already know. It would have been more impressive if Unfinished, like the most surprising works on view, had drawn out its theme with fewer and bolder traces.