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What Can We Learn from 5 Centuries of Unfinished Art?

The Met Breuer’s inaugural show, 'Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,' lays bare the artistic process.
Adolph Menzel (German, 1815–1905), Altar in a Baroque Church, ca. 1880–1890. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

For its inaugural show, The Met Breuer reflects upon broad philosophical questions that have consumed artists for centuries: When is a work of art really “finished?” Beyond that, does it even need to be? The ambitious exhibition Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible assembles a collection of 190 works that speak to each other in unexpected ways, drawing parallels and highlighting differences to advance the conversation. Some pieces appear abandoned or interrupted; others intentionally embrace unfinished surfaces or, in one way or another, refuse to end.


For the most part, these are far from being unknown works, though several pieces on loan are rarely shown in the United States. “These are works that have long been admired despite their unfinished state,” says Andrea Bayer, one of the show's curators. “What was interesting for us was to gather them together, and see what they can teach us about how artists think.”

Alice Neel (American, 1900–1984), James Hunter Black Draftee, 1965. COMMA Foundation, Belgium © The Estate of Alice Neel 

Seven centuries of art unfold across two floors, following both a chronological and thematic outline. The Met’s vast collection of historical works was mined in order to provide context for the modern and contemporary pieces on view. Amongst the older works, some are clearly arrested in time due to an accident (the artist’s death, for example), while some embrace the non finito aesthetic. In certain cases, the line is hard to draw: the intentions of the artist remain mysterious in Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara, for example.

Some of the best moments in those galleries are the opportunities to see the artist’s process laid bare. The underdrawings and underpaintings that are usually only glimpsed in X-rays are plainly visible here. In this regard, the show makes you feel like you’re stepping inside artists’ studios, with privileged views of incomplete canvases.

Janine Antoni (American, born 1964), Lick and Lather, 1993–1994. Chocolate and soap. Collection of Jill and Peter Kraus. © Janine Antoni; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Once you climb to the second floor of the exhibition and encounter post-war and contemporary art, attitudes shift radically. In Bayer’s words, it’s no longer “Am I done with it?” But rather, “Is it necessary that I create a finished product?” All the works here are intentionally unfinished, or boundless in some way—Jorge Macchi’s La Flecha de Zenón, a video from 1992, is a countdown to zero that never makes it to its destination, subdividing into a seemingly infinite succession of decimals.


In many ways, the show feels as open-ended as the works on view—and considering its vast conceptual scope, the conversation was bound to remain unresolved. For one, the area of research stretches across time but not cultures, remaining firmly anchored in Western traditions. “When we first started our investigation, we cast our net even broader,” says Bayer. “We are very interested in these issues in ancient art, Islamic art, and African art, yet none of that made its way into the exhibition. In the end, we had to move towards a taut narrative.” It’s a missed opportunity, but there’s plenty of room for redemption: The Breuer is a work in progress.

Anton Raphael Mengs (German, Ústi nad Labem (Aussig) 1728–1779 Rome), Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar (1740-1794), 1775. Mr. and Mrs. Otto Naumann, New York.

Rembrandt, The Great Jewish Bride, 1635. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929

Jan van Eyck (Netherlandish, ca. 1390–1441), Saint Barbara, 1437. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible is on view at the Met Breuer until September 4. If you can’t make it to New York, all of the objects are online here.


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