Labor Day weekend, I was an invited artist in Art by the Sea/The Sea Ranch Tour, in which I opened my studio to the public. As in the previous two years, I met lots of delightful people and was happy they purchased my artwork for their homes. But one of the other artists on the tour expressed reluctance to sell her work because she didn't think the pieces were finished. She said she was still experimenting. Yet visitors to her studio wanted to buy them.
Naturally, the following questions arose: When is a work of art finished? Who's to say? Or is it ever finished? When do we stop experimenting and reworking? Whether we're involved in literature, theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, or fiber art, are we ever totally done with a poem, play, symphony, tapestry, novel, or collage, even after it has been exposed to the public? During the decades that I freelanced as a writer, I remember editing everything over and over, until the last deadline forced me to stop. If I were to reread the articles, reviews, and books I published during those times, I bet I'd still want to make changes today. As visual artists, writers, composers, or choreographers, we're constantly evolving, so why wouldn't what we create also keep evolving, even if only subtly? One of the women in the monthly art salon in which I participate told us that, according to a biography of Shakespeare she'd read, he kept revising till the very end of his life.
Only two days before we discussed this issue in our salon, a big exhibition had just ended its run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible dealt with something that's crucial to any artistic practice; that is, how and when we determine a work of art is finished. The show included works that were left incomplete by the artists, affording a glimpse into their creative process. It also embraced works that were intentionally unfinished (non finito), "an aesthetic of the unresolved and open-ended" that painters such as Rembrandt, Titian, Cézanne and Turner explored. Then there are the modern and contemporary artists who did not demarcate between making and un-making and even left the "finishing" to viewers. The Met cites Janine Antoni, Lygia Clark, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg in that group. In the case of American artist Kerry James Marshall's untitled work below, the viewer is definitely invited to complete the painting by filling in the numbered areas behind the female artist.
By our standards, artwork from hundreds of years ago might not appear incomplete today because their treatment would make a different statement in the 20th or 21st century than that of detailed realism in the past. El Greco's "The Vision of Saint John" is a good example. In the 17th century, the painting looked unfinished, but not so now.
The Met's website has photos of 209 exhibition objects. I selected some of them for this post. As you look at them, do you feel that they're incomplete? Would you rather have had the artists finish them or do you enjoy the opportunity to imagine what they would be like? Do you find yourself filling in details? Do you interpret the art differently? I consider the incomplete portraits far more interesting, for they seem to convey moods that might not otherwise come across so distinctly when there is so much else to view in the painting beyond the face.
According to the Met's notes, Juan Gris once expressed a "desire to find a more sensitive side in his art, one he associated with the freedom and charm of the unfinished." The underdrawing in this work reveals how Gris constructed his composition geometrically. But he added his personal take on Cubism with such curvaceous elements as the oval shape of the upper body and the flowing black lines. It was not his intention to leave the reading woman incomplete; rather, he abandoned it because of failing health. Still, it has a certain intriguing charm just the way it is, as though peering through an X-ray.
Neither did Gustav Klimt complete his posthumous portrait of Maria ("Ria") Munk III. While he was working on this third attempt at portraying the woman who committed suicide because her fiancé broke off their engagement, Klimt himself died. As with Gris' painting, what remains demonstrates the artist's process. The history of this painting begs another question: How do you finish something that someone else has literally finished off?
Particularly with some expressions of modern art, how is anyone to decide when a painting or sculpture is done? Unless Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) wanted to change the feeling in this portrait of his wife Annette (immediately below), isn't it complete as a reflection of a dark, perhaps troubled state? Would more dabs of clay make a difference in English sculptor Rebecca Warren's "The Twin" (second below)? Etcetera for the others.
I noticed that the Met did not include any artwork from Asia, at least not online. It makes me wonder whether aesthetic ideas of incompleteness are perceived differently in other parts of the world. Although Manet gifted his drawing (above) to George Moore in its unfinished state, I am drawn to it as it is, perhaps because it reminds me of certain styles in East Asian art. For example, to the right, this work of Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), a Japanese painter of the mid-Edo period, is not considered incomplete by any means. It depicts two semi-legendary Chinese monks from the T'ang dynasty: Kanzan ("Cold Mountain") and Jittoku ("the Foundling"). The artist felt no need to fill in the spaces created by his brushstrokes.
Similarly, Japanese artist Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), did not populate the six-panel folding screen (below) with more than one goose. Although nearly empty, the painting does not feel incomplete to me. Looked at closely, the composition conveys a lot about the season and place with minimal brushstrokes. How does it strike you?
Questions and Comments:
Which "incomplete" artworks leave you pondering or wanting to finish them?
How do you deal with the issue of completing your own artwork? When do you know you're done?
How are the criteria for certain forms of East Asian art different from those of Western art? What makes them complete?
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