Yesterday afternoon I had the joy of attending an art exhibition at the Met Breuer in Manhattan. It is called "Unfinished" -- and presents paintings and some sculpture that range from Rembrandt to Picasso to Pollack -- all of which left some part of the canvas incomplete -- in most cases deliberately so; in some simply because the artist had cast it aside. It left one with the impression that the art which seems incomplete is more than complete -- indeed -- in some ways superior to the finished work of these artists. These are paintings that actually breathe.
I had gone to the museum to see an exhibition of photographs by Dianne Arbus -- the photographer of geeks and freaks -- these were her early works and in a sense unfinished because she had not yet developed the un-judgmental eye that made her later works so intriguing.Quite simply, I was bored by the grim black and white photos of women in hats and furs, the uncle with the pot belly on the beach wearing shoes and socks -- all stuck in the late nineteen fifties -- elevated from snapshots in a family album to art by the museum through the claims of her later artistry. The early work was not unfinished -- it was immature or if you want to get fancy, jejune. Easy targets for the young photographer. So I went to the other exhibition in the museum -- the one of unfinished work that ranged through the centuries of art and I was thrilled by it. It spoke to me not only of the nature of fine art -- but of living itself.
There was one Joshua Reynold's painting of a black youth that was unfinished -- the head perfectly rendered against a blur of costume -- yet superior to all his fancy 18th century women in their silks and satins for which he was famous. These unfinished works allowed us to glimpse the artist's process -- and for some, like me, process is nearly everything in the arts and in life.
The unfinished is as relevant to life as it is to art. Here I am, much to my own surprise, living through my late years, and still feeling unfinished. Not just about work I wish to do, books to write, but in relation to the people I love. I know that everyone dies in the middle of life, so I make it a point of telling those I love how much I love them, even if it embarrasses some.. My friend Ken who died a few weeks ago was passionate about politics and he did not live to see the results of the coming election -- not even to prematurely celebrate the decline of Trump. And this will no doubt be my fate in other ways. It is unlikely that I will live to see my beloved seven and eleven year old grand-daughters graduate from High School and find the true shape of their lives -- indeed, all human relations are unfinished, if they are not changing and evolving they are not fully alive. So I celebrate the "now" of my life - and leave the future to take care of itself.
When I look at my own work, my plays, and more recently my memoir "Spotless," works in progress, I call it finished when I stop working on it yet it feels unfinished because in a few days, months, or years, I will have more to say, or wish to correct a thought or alter a judgment or a line or a lyric. I have always felt that "certainty" is the enemy of all art and all politics. There are artists who are similar to religious fundamentalists -- who feel that their artistic view is so complete that their mind and their art makes a prison of itself, having found their one true answer from which there is no escape. Picasso was the opposite of that, and some of his unfinished work in the exhibition is just plain thrilling. He guides us in the details to what is important to him -- and lets us breathe in the unpainted surfaces. The unpainted surfaces could be taken for the infinity that we all face -- our lives being the details that are set within it.
In 1953 the artist Norman Rockwell -- the father of my college friend -- invited my wife and to spend the early days of our honeymoon at his place in Arlington, Vermont. I have a passion for story telling art so I loved that narrative quality in his work, but what I loved most of all was the unfinished nature of the pictures as he worked on them -- those yet to be completed -- the way the fully realized figures stood out against the raw white canvas. If he had stopped at any point the paintings would have been enough for me. And so instead of regretting that we cannot finish our work or our relationships in our lifetimes, I figure that we should celebrate the way our realized lives stand out against the unknown. Go see this exhibition if you can, or if you cannot, get close to it by checking it out on the museum's website -- but after seeing it -- I wish all of you some beautiful details in your unfinished lives.