CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible

Exhibition: 18 March - 4 September 2016

March 2016 will see the opening of this exhibition at The Met Breuer, the brand-new expansion of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. No fewer than 197 unfinished masterpieces by, among others, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Eyck, Titian, Turner and CĂ©zanne.

From the Metropolitan Museum, 2 March 2016

The exhibition examines the term “unfinished” across the visual arts in the broadest possible way; it includes works left incomplete by their makers, a result that often provides insight into the artists’ creative process, as well as works that engage a non finito—intentionally unfinished—aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended. Featured artists who explored such an aesthetic include some of history’s greatest practitioners, among them Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, and Cézanne, as well as modern and contemporary artists, including Janine Antoni, Lygia Clark, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg, who have taken the unfinished in entirely new directions, alternately blurring the distinction between making and un-making, extending the boundaries of art into both space and time, and recruiting viewers to complete the objects they had begun.

The accompanying catalogue expands the subject to include the unfinished in literature and film as well as the role of the conservator in elucidating a deeper understanding of artistic thought on the subject of the unfinished.

The exhibition features works that fall into two categories. The first includes works of art that are literally unfinished—those whose completion was interrupted, usually because of an accident, such as the artist’s death. In some instances, notably Jan van Eyck’s Saint Barbara (1437), there is still debate about whether the artist meant the work to be a finished drawing, which would have been considered unusual at the time, or if it was meant to be a preparation for a painting. Because such works often leave visible the underlying skeleton and many changes normally effaced in the act of completion, they are prized for providing access to the artist’s thoughts, as well as to his or her working process.

The second category includes works that appear unfinished—open-ended, unresolved, imperfect—at the volition of the artist, such as Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather (1993–1994). The unfinishedness of objects in this second category has been debated and appreciated at definite times, in definite places. Unlike the historical art presented in the exhibition, which includes a significant number of truly unfinished objects, art from the mid-to-late 20th and 21st centuries is represented almost entirely through the lens of non finito.

The exhibition is organized chronologically, spanning the third and fourth floors of The Met Breuer. The works are subdivided thematically, with each group representing a specific case-study in unfinishedness—corresponding to specific times (such as the Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern periods), media (prints and sculpture), artists (including Turner, Cézanne, and Picasso), and genres (most importantly portraiture).

A new, light-based installation by Tatsuo Miyajima, created especially for Unfinished, will be on view in the Tony and Amie James Gallery in the lobby of The Met Breuer (late April through mid-October).


The exhibition is accompanied by a 336-page fully illustrated catalogue that constitutes the most exploratory, yet also comprehensive, introduction to date of the long history of the unfinished in the visual arts, film, and literature. The book is divided into two main sections that roughly correspond to the periods 1435–1900 and 1900–2015. It contains essays by 13 curators, scholars, and a conservator on a range of artists and subjects related to the theme of the unfinished. The catalogue also features interviews with five contemporary artists—Vija Celmins, Marlene Dumas, Brice Marden, Luc Tuymans, and Rebecca Warren—whose work is represented in the exhibition; and a section of brief catalogue entries on each of the objects featured in the exhibition that explores the significance of the work, with an emphasis on its place in the broader narrative and, frequently, an account of its reception. The catalogue is published by The Met and distributed by Yale University Press.