Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Finishing Unfinishing

I have been to the preview of the inaugural exhibition at the Met Breuer entitled .  It left me with thoughts left unresolved. 

Appropriating the former Whitney Museum building, the Met stated its mission as follows:  “The Met Breuer provides additional space for the public to explore the art of the 20th and 21st centuries through the global breadth and historical reach of The Met's unparalleled collection (Italics mine).”  If this is the case, the exhibition was a misrepresentation. As critics have rightly observed, a half of the works displayed dated from before 1900, and many of them, as well as those after 1900, were on loan rather than from the Met’s own collection. Furthermore, the exhibition, predominantly European rather than global, contradicted the Met’s vastly multicultural holding.  

More crucially, The title of the exhibition is a misnomer.  The term “unfinished” is itself problematic because it is understood much too broadly to judge by the works selected for exhibition. For one, works that look unfinished are not necessarily left unfinished, often obviously finished.  Moreover, the subtitle “Thoughts Left Visible” contradicts the central concept of the main title.  A sketch or a series of sketches, drawn or painted (as in oil sketches), or modeled (like bozzetti of clay or terra cotta, for example), done in preparation toward the projected final work, records the working process and truly reveals the artist’s “thoughts left visible.”  Works abandoned before completion may give us a glimpse of the artist’s thinking but not necessarily.

Whether a particular work is finished or unfinished is the decision of the artist or, else, the consequence of unforeseen circumstances that interrupted its completion, most obviously by the death of the artist.  Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta, which the artist was still hacking out a few days before his death, was truly left “unfinished.”  A work interrupted by another more pressing work, say, the commissioning patron’s demand, and left in the unfinished state, may best be described as “interrupted.”  This could be the case of this Netherlandish painting at the Met (not included in this exhibit; actually, the 15th century painting was overpainted in the 17th century with the Marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, which in turn was removed in modern restoration bringing to light the underdrawing.  This is, therefore an exceptional case of  "un-finished" meaning “undoing” accidentally exposing the artist’s thought and process. 

The artist may stop work, unable to proceed further and never to return to finish it; such a work, left “unfinished,” considered “unfinishable” by the artist, was “abandoned.”  Leonardo da Vinci’s many “unfinished” works are of this nature.  On the other hand, the artist might deliberately leave the work “unfinished,” considering it “completed as is”.  The superb example of this case is Michelangelo’s Giorno/Day, one of the reclining figures in the Medici Tomb with the face of the Day left in the rough which, as is said, realized the effect of the blazing sundial.  Some artists left parts of the work in the rough — “finished loose” as often seen in the portraits by Velazquez, who finished the face more precisely and the rest of the body in loose style.  Rembrandt after the Night Watch painted this way.  

In more modern works, artists preferred the “unfinished” look with the idea of simulating the optical experience, as among the Impressionist, or the emotional urge, as among the Expressionists.  The ‘unfinished’ in these works is best categorized as “sketchy”, a deliberate stylistic choice.  Alternatively, there were artists interested in the process of making, as in Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists.  Loose or sketchy, the ‘unfinished” in these examples is basically “unfinishing” considered finished, the artist’s “thoughts made visible.”  We find the related style in the tsao shu or the running script in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy; but, rather than “unfinishing” to reveal the process of making, tsao shu indicated the artist’s higher level of mastery, the freedom achieved after mastering the correct or tight style.  Vasari, following Castiglione, adopted the term sprezzatura for this style, as seen in Late Titians — free but consummate; the term is usually translated as a “nonchalant” style.  

There are other ramifications of the loose term “unfinished.”  This brief survey suffices to show that not all works that look “unfinished” are unfinished; most of them, I dare say, are actually finished, even those that are deliberately left in the state of unfinishing.  

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