The inaugural show at The Met Breuer Museum in New York is called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” and it raises the question of what makes a finished work of art. Fresh Air’s classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been pondering some possible answers:
In this show, there are some extraordinary paintings that have obviously been abandoned. In a gigantic sketch of a battle scene by Rubens, one of the warriors has three arms, and each arm is holding a different weapon. Rubens clearly hadn’t decided yet which arms to keep. Several artists have left faces without bodies. Daniele da Volterra’s portrait of Michelangelo has vividly detailed images of his teacher’s face and left hand, which holds a sculptor’s tool, but the rest of the painting is barely filled in. If this had been painted in the 20th-century, we might actually regard it as complete. In another case, a portrait of a woman is complete except for her face. For some reason, the artist has scraped away the paint from the sitter’s face, leaving only her body. Centuries later, the Surrealists did this on purpose. Some of the later paintings are especially revealing. There’s an uncanny Mondrian, in which this extremely deliberate abstract artist was still figuring out how far apart to space his famous grids. Those not-quite-completely brushed-out stripes are like seeing an x-ray of the artist’s mind at work, perhaps the best embodiment of the subtitle of this show, “thoughts left visible.” Then there’s a gigantic Andy Warhol still life with parts of several objects painted in, while most of the canvas is blank, but dotted with tiny numbers. It’s the ultimate paint-by-numbers painting. Warhol is asking us: How would you finish this painting?
Even if you’re not especially interested in the technical questions behind this selection, or what makes a work of art finished or not, there’s still an astonishing gathering of masterpieces in this show, from Leonardo da Vinci’s ravishing oil sketch of the head of a woman, whose wild coils of hair make Mona Lisa look frumpy, to Picasso’s mind-bogglingly disjointed Woman in a Red Armchair, a painting that’s never been publically exhibited anywhere before. In some way, what makes this show so exciting is that it too seems “unfinished”—it’s one of those rare art exhibits that actually expands your sense of how open-ended or even unresolved great art can be.
Do It Yourself (Violin) is Andy Warhol’s nod to paint-by-numbers kits that were popular in the 1960s. He invites the viewer to complete the work.