Friday, April 01, 2016

Postfinishism


The Met is using the brutalist building Marcel Breuer designed for the Whitney for its modern art. It has just opened with a fascinating survey of "unfinished art." This comprises a floor of Renaissance to Impressionism ranging from works interrupted to others left without "finish" for effect - and some where it's hard to say. The former kind promise more to me (and have been thus seen at least since Pliny), a somewhat voyeuristic disclosure of the artist's method - as well, often, as a melancholy reflection on what will never be. Not all artists have kept their process hidden, of course, and not a few, I gather, claimed not to know when a painting was finished until it was. Sir Thomas Lawrence's charming painting of sometime actress Emilia, Lady Cahir in two roles above is
finished as un- finished - the artist might one day have com- pleted it but he left such unfin- ished-looking works in his studio precise- ly to impress clients with his craft. Perhaps this knowingness was especially appropriate for an actor, in fact. Still I was convinced that the women at the right had a body, was in a whole scene of green accidentally covered by a beige paper: more power to the artist! A second floor of the exhibition features modern and contemporary works which strive for infinity or indeterminacy or endless process or erosion: finish, come modern art, is finished. This stuff didn't quite follow from what came before, though perhaps it helps explain the anachronistic ways I found myself winking at the earlier works... But there was the marvelous Cézanne above. And then there was the sensation of a painting by Titian of an unidentified mother and daughter which, left unfinished at his death, was turned into something entirely different - Tobias and the angel! Restorers only recently discovered this, and returned the work to its unfinished finish.
 
Among the contemporary works, Robert Smithson's "Mirrors and Shelly Sand" (1969-70) most charmed me, though I'm not sure it's because of any insight into incompleteness or unfinalizability but something more like a phenomenology of time - the time of our lives seems continuous and linear but in face what seems like looking forward is often a looking back - and vice versa. On the other hand, maybe this exhibition's vague but interesting premise did help me appreciate it. I think I've seen it, or another work like it, before, but then it seemed merely clever, cute.

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