Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, the Met’s inaugural exhibition at its new space in the Breuer-designed building the Whitney occupied before its move downtown, sprawls by design. It presents a range of visual, conceptual, and historical exemplars and provocations, of staggering variety and substance, and it offers no easy answers.
On ViewThe Met Breuer
March 18 – September 4, 2016
Per the Met’s description, the show is intended to parse the many implications and multiple meanings of the unfinished—what it is, but also what it means; when it is, but also what it does: “The exhibition examines the term ‘unfinished’ across the visual arts in the broadest possible way; it includes works left incomplete by their makers, a result that often provides insight into the artists’ creative process, as well as works that engage a non finito—intentionally unfinished—aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended.” The works proceed in chronological order, beginning with the Renaissance on the third floor and winding up through the present, on the fourth. Some, like Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes (1974), take incompleteness as subject and content; others, like Cy Twombly’s transporting late series of green paintings Untitled I – IV (1986) (irrepressible, oddly impressionistic, overflowing their frames) are deconstructive, complicating assumptions about where painting begins and ends.
It would be easy to critique this as incoherent or too general, but such a response would manage to elide, rather neatly, what is a signal moment: one of the world’s great museums literally resituating and conceptually reconsidering itself. It is a moment that warrants a pause before the critique, a reorienting of our own to grapple, epistemologically, with what, exactly, the Met is making of itself.
For a declarative, self-defining show, this is a refreshingly honest, even vulnerable curatorial stance: its remarkable gesture is in acknowledging its own incompleteness, which is really permeability—a quality too frequently, and too easily, mistaken for lack of rigor or for intellectual daftness. Our current moment is one of curatorial ubiquity: the word “curated” itself is deployed in all sorts of contexts, used to sell almost everything; in the art world, specious curatorial rationales abound. So while a degree of resistance is, in a way, heartening, it also limits potential interpretations of a new kind of museum show.
I’ve been struck by the exhibition’s structure as an expression of the fragment, an essential concern in the art, poetry, and philosophy of the past two centuries. William Carlos Williams memorably translated Sappho. Conceptual games and engagements around the fragment are everywhere in Derrida (most resonant here is The Truth in Painting (1987)). Heidegger was fascinated by translating (and translations of) the Anaximander fragment. To be unfinished is not to be incomplete; rather it is an activated experiential mode in which completion—or totality—is beside the point. In Unfinished, the fragment operates from the panoptic down to the granular (seen “from above,” as it were, this is a show of fragments; seen as a series of relationships, each work’s take on the fragment offers the potential for interaction with a different quality of fragmentation in a different work; reduced to singularity, individual works might or might not be fragments in or of themselves). In the spirit of the poetic structure of the exhibition, I’ve engaged works here that drew me back, time after time, despite wide divergences in period and completeness. They recalled Sappho, as fragments will.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), The Flaying
of Marsyas, probably 1570s
As on the hills the shepherds trample the larkspur
under foot and the flower lies empurpling in decay on
The story is straightforward. The satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo (god of music, among many other things) to a contest of musical skill, with the winner to punish the loser however he liked. Surprising no one, Apollo won; he flayed Marsyas alive for his hubris. The Met’s rationale for including one of the most iconic works in the history of art in a show dedicated to the unfinished is that its patron and intended destination are unknown (“although it is signed”). As a composition of fragments and references it is bewildering, jittery: whole but open-ended.
The painting is famous for the details of its sky, which, in contrast to the composition of its figures, can only be clearly seen from a distance. It is an overwhelming onslaught of details—allegorical and visual fragments—that create a felt but ultimately inconceivable whole. Put another way, the experience can be felt in the body but not held in the head. Here is a world made of the upside-down and backward, beginning with its central subject (Marsyas himself occupies a space of undefined limits: neither and both, man and horse), who is inverted. On top of this (literally and figuratively), his strung-up legs are crossed in a strange contrapposto, twisting figurative convention. Marsyas’s position inverts yours—to make eye contact (and this is a demanding eye), you have to bend down and twist your own head. That close, you take notice of the little dog at the very bottom of the canvas, guilelessly licking up Marsyas’s pooling blood. Within this whirlwind of a work, nothing unsettles quite as much as that chilly pup: it belongs in a different painting—perhaps the portrait of a Venetian princess, coddled in her lap as an allegory of loyalty—certainly not in an ancient god’s torture scene.
Finally, the narrative construction of the painting turns in on itself: On the left laurel-crowned Apollo (the leaves look dusty; glancing swipes of brush on canvas) wields his flaying knife; his back is (mostly) to us. On the right, robed in a faded red, gazing towards where the viewer is (if the viewer has knelt to look at Marsyas’s face) is a thoughtful, compassionate figure, widely believed to be Titian; he wears a glittering circlet that is the most meticulously rendered detail in this section of the painting. In a story about the punishment for artistic hubris, it is the painter—not the god—who is crowned in gold.
Adolph Menzel, Altar in a Baroque Church, ca. 1880 – 90
The moon shone full
And when the maidens stood around the altar...
Altar in a Baroque Church is a technical marvel of the unfinished, one of the most clear-cut examples of process in the show. This is not necessarily a major work, but it is a structural education: an insight into the 19th-century preoccupation with the orderly and the taxonomical, a counterbalance to the transports of the sublime. Menzel has delineated what is in effect the architecture of his painting: penciled blue lines indicating exactly how the geometric construction undergirds its sight-lines and perspective priorities are already in place: it’s not simply a preparatory sketch, but a literal blueprint. The painting seems well on its way to becoming one of those luscious, esoteric tableaux that worship at the altar of Moreau. As much as an education, it offers a sensual provocation: in the century that saw Baudelaire and his contemporaries revel in the glories of synesthesia, Menzel created a visual work in which another sense overtakes sight—an art historical interpretation of the Baroque communicated through the brush. He completed first, not the central nave or the throne structure that the blue lines tell us are coming; instead he scrupulously detailed the censers that swing from the church’s ceiling. The primacy of the moving, wafting incense calls our mind to the multiple components—or the phenomenologically fragmentary potential—of how a painting works on our senses. Through our eyes, it evokes scent and its ineluctable link to memory, joining the fragments of perception into a graceful whole.
Alice Neel, James Hunter Black Draftee, 1965
Like a sweet-apple
on the tip
of the topmost branch.
Forgotten by pickers.
A young black man dissolves into white. The glowing brown-black paint of his skin means something (it is 1965: that something is specific, and particularly powerful). The white into which he fades is less knowable. The painting is “unfinished” for a reason. It was not originally conceived as such—with its sophisticated, slightly skewed composition, it is a modern, even radical take on the form, but it is still certainly a portrait. “Unfinished” here is a responsive, touchingly collaborative painterly gesture because the subject’s situation, once in the process of being painted, dictated its final outcome: in two weeks, James Hunter would be leaving for Vietnam. Neel began the work; when Hunter failed to return for his next sitting, she signed it anyway as a completed portrait.
A gout of white highlights James Hunter’s darkening brow, troubling the distinction between paint and bodily fluid—it’s a technically expressive painterly effect; it feels like sweating blood. Like Marsyas, James Hunter is being pried from himself by forces beyond his control. The artist has blurred the lines between her own intentionality and the rightness of the subject’s vision of himself; she has complicated black and white optically, semantically.
In an interview with Jarrett Earnest in the Brooklyn Rail, Hilton Als spoke of “honoring the copyright a person holds on their own life.” That extraordinarily subtle, compassionate moment of respect for the subject’s lived experience guides and becomes the point of the painting itself. It is also a commentary on the instability and uncertainty of history—any history—distilled into that moment of uncertain subjecthood. In engaging history, the painting complicates the question of time—what awaits this young man is much more relevant than his present; in fact it effaces it. This is a portrait defined by an unclear, unpromising future, compressing time into a space of fear, dissolving the self into the unknown.
Openness to uncertainty and fluctuation is a unifying thread running lightly but clearly through Unfinished (echoes of Theseus in the labyrinth). We twist our own bodies looking at Marsyas’s, smell at Menzel’s evocation, dissolve into and fade away with the soon-to-be soldier. It is a simultaneously fatalist and optimistic philosophical statement: Nothing is permanent; everything changes. Even the Met.
LAILA PEDRO is a former Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. She is a scholar and translator, and holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY.