This weekend, head uptown to visit the new Met Breuer, which is opening with a huge new show of unfinished work from the last seven or so centuries of western art. While you’re there, be sure to hit up the Blue Bottle Coffee bar on the fifth floor and stay for some jazz in the performance space in the lobby.
The Met Breuer – the new outpost from New York’s largest museum in the old Madison Avenue home of the Whitney – is kicking things off with “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a blockbuster show of unfinished art dating back to the Renaissance. By spending time with these incomplete pieces – unfinished because the artist died, maybe, or got bored with it, or was paid more by some pope to work on something else – we want to do more than “just” see something beautiful. The goal here, laid out in that subtitle, “Thoughts Left Visible,” is to learn something about the art-making process and (we hope) the minds of the artists themselves.
Immediately confronted by a series of massive, breathtaking Renaissance-era paintings like Titian’s haunting “The Flaying of Marsyas,” we understand that this will not just be a show of pencil-and-paper sketches and barely-considered rough drafts. There is big, ambitious work here, from Peter Paul Rubens’ “Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry” to El Greco’s “The Vision of Saint John,” and the smaller stuff, like Leonardo’s ghostly “Head and Shoulders of a Woman,” is worth putting on your reading glasses for.
A few of the featured artists, including Lucien Freud and J.M.W. Turner, whose rough, abstracted seascapes get a gallery of their own here, seem like they were born to exhibit unfinished work. (The Turner room reminded me of a line from the 19th century’s other famous ocean-loving artist, Herman Melville: “God keep me from ever completing anything!”) Other pieces pull you in with the story of their creation, and the reasons why they were never finished. For example, Gustav Klimt died with his “Portrait of Ria Munk III” hanging on his easel, and the subject of Alice Neel’s “James Hunter Black Draftee” never returned to her studio for a second sitting. A gallery centered on printmaking, including pieces by Rembrandt and Munch, is especially exciting, as that medium’s dependence on process and layers makes it perfect for this kind of exploration.
The second floor of the exhibition, devoted to more recent work, is less consistently effective. In many of these galleries, it seems the artists themselves chose to leave their pieces just as we see them now, in a purposely-“unfinished” state. This conceptual engagement with the idea of completeness might be a valuable exercise, and the lack of formal polish is certainly a marker of tons of great modern art, but here it is somewhat of a letdown after spending an hour or so imagining ourselves in the studios of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo. There are still a few highlights, though, including an unsettling series of large Cy Twombly paintings that made me think of nuclear disaster, and Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled.”
When we go to museums, we go to look at beautiful art objects, yes. But we also go because it’s as close as we are going to get to having conversations with our favorite artists. The work in this show is not only beautiful – and it is beautiful; you could ignore the whole theme and just walk around in awe – it also provides a consistently-rewarding space for those imaginary conversations we seek, where we see ourselves looking over their shoulders of the artists as they put brush to canvas, seeing the world the way they see the world.
WHAT TO DO AFTER
On the fifth floor of the museum you’ll find a Phaidon bookstore, where you can pick up the catalogues for the “Unfinished” show, plus a café and lounge with a Blue Bottle Coffee bar, whose pour-over coffees are pretty much my favorite caffeinated anything on the island of Manhattan. And if you’re looking to catch some live music, the performance space on the ground floor is home to “Relation,” a performance residency by Vijay Iyer this month. Iyer is one of the world’s best jazz pianists and composers working today, so be sure to check the performance schedule and plan to stop for a concert. There are plenty of other great groups on that schedule too; I saw a trio led by Tyshawn Sorey, a Newark drummer and composer with world-class chops and an avart-garde bent.