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Intersections of Intention and Accident: Exploring Unfinishedness in Art

Unfinished works require careful thought and examination by the viewer, who is inevitably drawn into a dialogue with the artist who created it

The inaugural Met Breuer exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, gives visitors a glimpse into artwork left unfinished as a result of accident, interruption, or other unknown reasons, as well as works left in an intentional state of unfinishedness as a matter of artistic expression. Raising a critical lens to the private practice and techniques of the artists, some works reveal delicate preliminary sketches, vibrant underpainting, or even jarring voids in paintings that otherwise might be viewed as complete.

Comprising nearly 200 works dating back to the Renaissance, the exhibition examines the question of when a work of art is truly considered to be finished. On display are pieces by artists from Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, and Cézanne to modern and contemporary artists including Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Felix Gonzalez Torres, and Janine Antoni. These artists blurred the line between making and unmaking, extending their works into space and time, and in some cases recruiting viewers to complete the objects they had begun to create. The catalogue examines this multidisciplinary exhibition in incredible detail.


Within this innovative array of art, the viewer examines the concept of a non finito or intentionally unfinished work, often addressing concepts of the unresolved and the open-ended. Fragile works intended to decay or evolve over time, like Antoni’s Lick and Lather, comprise seven soap and seven chocolate self-portrait busts created in lifelike detail, which the artist then either bathed with (the soap), or licked (the chocolate) to begin a process of unmaking. Created in 1993, the busts continue to decay while on display, responding to changes in their environment and the breakdown of the materials of which they are made.

This unique exhibition sparks a striking dialogue between the art and its viewer, who is in many cases left to ponder the thought process behind an artist’s decision to consider a work completed or the circumstances that prevented them from finishing the works. Omnipresent across this diverse selection of works by artists from around the world, throughout time and across history, is the hand of the artist. Unfinished works require careful thought and examination by the viewer, who is inevitably drawn into a deep dialogue with each work and with the artist who created it.


The catalogue was authored by Kelly Baum, the museum’s Curator of Postwar and Contemporary Art. It includes contributions from Sheena Wagstaff, our Leonard A. Lauder Chairman for Modern and Contemporary Art; Andrea Bayer, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator in the Department of European Paintings; and others. Separated into three distinct sections, the catalogue begins with “Accident and Intention: The Renaissance and Beyond” focusing on the period from 1435 to 1900. It then moves to “Assimilation and Reinvention: The Modern Era,” discussing art works from 1900 to 2016, and closes with “In the Studio,” a section of interviews with living artists Vija Celmins, Marlene Dumas, Brice Marden, Luc Tuymans, and Rebecca Warren.

Explore this thought-provoking exhibition at our new Met Breuer location on Madison Avenue, or shop the catalogue online here.


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