In the 1970’s I was asked to testify before congress and my lawyer gave me the following advice. He said, when asked a question reply, “Thank you so much for asking me that question and then say whatever it is that you wanted to say in the first place”. I found this to be great advice for my entire life. I feel that must have been what happened here, the curators were asked to prepare a contemporary exhibition and said, we’d be delighted to and then did the show they always wanted to which in this case is, “Unfinished Thoughts Left Visible”. As an exhibition it wanders all over the place with just too many points to make. The two main themes of the exhibition are paintings that were left unfinished because the artist, for whatever reason, put them aside, and those that were “unfinished” on purpose. I would claim that in that case they were finished … but if you are like me and just want to see wonderful pictures and sculptures, it is a fine show!
After I had been looking around for a while, I hear someone call out, “Gerry” and was somewhat startled since during the second half of my life I have been known as Gerald. Sure enough it was an old friend, Michael Conforti, recently retired director of the Clark Art Institute, who I have known since both our early days in the art world. He proceeded to say, “I can’t get over the fact that I am at the Whitney” and I realized I had felt the same way. It is somewhat disorienting when you expect to see a section of Edward Hoppers around the next corner and it is something totally different. It’s a bit like walking into your own home and seeing a huge spiral staircase and marble floors in front of you! It took some getting used to and the fact that Leonard Lauder a major donor to the Whitney was one of the main funders for this show didn’t make it any easier.
The idea of unfinished works of art is not a new one but I cannot remember one with as wide a range of some 500 years. In some cases such as with Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) “Saint Barbara” from Antwerp of 1437 it is totally obvious that the picture had not been finished, while the “Vision of St. John” by El Greco (1540-1614) from the Metropolitan Museum I have been staring at for years and never thought of it as unfinished. My fault?. The latter is for an altar in a hospital outside Toledo that the art historians believe was cut at the top after damage and they speak of the unfinished sky and the figures floating. At least they admit that it adds to the “mesmerizing quality”, since El Greco is all about atmosphere …
A personal favorite in the show is a bronze relief of St. Jerome done in the 1570’s by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (Siena 1439-1501) and lent by the National Gallery in Washington D.C. It is pointed out here, and it is clear, that some areas have been highly finished and others left in a rough state. This is referred to as “non finite aesthetic in sculpture”.
Then there is a small Frans Hals (1582-1666) called “The Smoker” (1523-25) from the Met. I gather from the label that it is included here because Hals used a rough style of painting which forces one to look from a distance to get its full impact. I believe that in today’s terms we might say that is what gives it wall power.
J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) may have left more unfinished paintings than any other well- known artist. “Sun Setting over a Lake”, lent by the Tate, is one that is extremely unfinished, showing many of the abstract qualities that were so admired by artists like Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. What is not mentioned in the label is that Turner liked to finish his paintings while they were on exhibition finding that they sold better that way… another very contemporary notion.
One of my favorite artists is Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) besides being a leading member of the Vienna Secession he was the most popular portraitist in Vienna. His “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III” 1917-18, lent by the Lewis Collection, is of a woman who had committed suicide after being spurned by her lover. Having produced two portraits that the family did not care for, Klimt himself died before finishing this, the third.
My final image for this Missive is by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and even though he is a 20th century artist, he has been referred to as an Old Master. The artist is represented by a work from the Museum of Modern Art, “The Charnel House” 1944-45. Picasso referred to it as the “massacre” and when you look at the dates and think of the Spanish Civil War followed by World War II and the holocaust, the picture is not surprising. Picasso used charcoal to draw his picture and only after he had finished applied paint. He considered the picture finished enough to donate it to The National Association of Veterans of the Resistance in 1946 but asked for it back again in the same year, ostensibly to make changes. He kept the painting in his studio until 1954 when he sold it to an American collector having made hardly any changes at all.
There are some more contemporary images in the show but the Met Breuer does not live up to its hype for being the contemporary art showcase for the Met. Upon reflection I am very happy about that since we have a number of museums in town already fulfilling that function.