I have always faced the constant struggle of questioning my own position to critique contemporary art, and thereby subconsciously also questioning if my level of education and knowledge mattered in forming an objective judgement. Especially in the realm of the contemporary art world, the word ‘contemporary’ gains a hold in the title of many exhibitions or even in the formal naming of art institutions when indicating work is made in distant locations but sharing the current time. Interestingly, I found my position to be an exciting one to be in, coming from an Asian background, soaking into British art for the past year, to then enter New York’s contemporary art ecology.
“Unfinished” Exhibition at The Met Breuer
The concept of “unfinishedness” has never been too foreign a concept in art critique or simply in the private thought process in the pleasure of viewing art. Yet, to combine them and feature a loan of both older and newer art is an exciting and shakier affair. Unfinished works of art intrigues in an excruciating way, drawing us into the very quintessence and purpose of art – the act of creation. To see over 500 works of such thrumming with energy is certainly delving deep into the ocean to re-examine the history of art, as it questions the process-over-product methods of post-1960s and post-conceptual art. The recent Met Bruer’s opening curatorial statement, packing two entire floors is titled “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”, surveys almost 200 artworks from famous old masters, that are left incomplete, be it intentional or otherwise. While writers from antiquity forward have commented on the problems and possibilities associated with works of art that show an international lack of finish, the exhibit effectively examines the crux of the discourse by examining this subject of enduring appeal, fascination and pleasure. At the same time, rejection, dislike and anxiety among artists, critics and viewer: the unfinished, or perhaps the seemingly unfinished, work of art.
The curatorship of the exhibition is highly commendable for the variety of perspectives it took on the idea of the unfinished, sorting by themes rather than a typical chronological approach according to the date of production of art. In the first floor of the exhibition, the concept of unfinished took place in a literal form, where it was understood according to the artist, place period. Moving onto the second part of the exhibition, ‘Unfinished’ could be interpreted as the main concept of the contemporary works, shifting the focus of the fragment and preparatory sketch, to focus on instead exclusively on objects designed as independent works of art, meant to be evaluated in their current form, rewiring modernism. Perhaps a personal biased favourite which fascinated me was the idea of unfinished in terms of time and infinity. Artists seek to explore the idea of unfinished in their representation of infinitude. As conventional wisdom tells us that art is for the ages: it is design to survive, sealed away in museums, its durability a corrective to the brevity, fragility and transience of life. The sculptures in the gallery convey entropy through form, materials and content, but also through process and technique. All the pieces treat decay allegorically, as a subject to explore. In the section of Decay, Dwindle, Decline, Felix Gonzalez Torres’s work, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991) performed their own decline in real time, offering both a pointed and a poignant reflection on mortality. Consisting of a pile of candy whose combined weight, 75 pounds, corresponds to the artist’s partner’s ideal weight. Visitors are intentionally invited to sample the sweets. The otherwise static, enigmatic mound is then transformed and animated. As the candy disappears, the pile loses its integrity as well as its regularity, shrinking in mass and weight. It’s transformation overtime re-enacts the debilitating effects of illness. Sculptures such as these question our traditional definitions of an unconventional self-portrait, finish as well as militate against the very possibility of ever finishing, once and for all, a work of art.
Possibly, the subject of exhibition could also tend more to be not so much the works of unfinished work, as the exhibition of unfinished works as a work of art. The very title of the exhibition, could have potentially pejoratively affected the way of looking in the works. When discussing the ‘unfinished’, I presume most have a certain idea of what constitute an unfinished work to be. More commonly, it is easy to associate a piece of art as a completed piece if they thought the artist stopped working when they feel like it is enough or they have deemed fit to be completed. Yet, while we have our own reservations, there lies a common understanding that ‘Unfinished’ is ultimately relative. Perhaps so, this seemingly open ended and apparently indecisiveness in the exhibitions bring forth the enlightenment of contextualizing modern and contemporary art. By examining the unfinished works from 15th century to the present, it further expands on the idea of incompleteness, when viewers are stuck in deciding what considers to be incomplete, fragmentary, or rough-hewn. To illustrate an example from the array of works, there is a side gallery devoted to printmaking, in which incomplete proofs can have their own status as semi-artworks, with unfinished comic drawings such as those by Bruegel, that the printmaker never finished carving it. Thus, viewers could see the process that was stopped midway. Another side gallery, occupied by five unfinished seascapes and landscapes by Turner, further scrambles the divide between complete and incomplete. The success effectively lies within the level of engagement the curated works are able to connect with the public. Numerous unfinished works such as paintings by Picasso reveals the birth of cubism, exposed technical secrets and creative processes when one pays attention to the uncompleted spots, which strongly overplays the importance of the works’ incompletion. On the other hand, finished works of WIlliem DeKooning that adopted a deliberately unfinished style questioned the norms of polish, resolution and closure. Through this journey, viewers explore the power and possibility of the unfinished work of art, which emphasized process and experimentation, and sometimes even indecision, over and above definitive results.
Treating contemporary art as an afterthought. it is fascinating to witness how artists have continued to court he unfinished with pronounced enthusiasm since 1945. When the “unfinished” works of art all come together to share the common space and time, the situation ironically makes the differences more obviously by proximity. Most definitely, unfinishedness is both a prerequisite for art and a goal to be pursued for its own sake, challenging the boundaries of art beyond their own spatial and temporal boundaries. Perhaps in this centuries-spanning realities of globalism with artists constantly seizing the chance to deepen, complicate and correct the stories of historical art that it integrates old art and new, this will always remain as an unfinished business.
From a fledgling writer eavesdropping her own mind.
There, they coalesce as lumps in our throats.