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Met's 'Unfinished' Exhibit Offers A Glimpse Of The Artistic Mind At Work


This is FRESH AIR. A new branch of the Metropolitan Museum called The Met Breuer has opened in New York in the building completed 50 years ago designed by the great modernist architect Marcel Breuer by the Whitney Museum of American Art - I mean, for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The inaugural show is called "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible." And it raises the question of what makes a finished work of art. FRESH AIR's classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been pondering some possible answers.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: When you get off the elevator on the third floor of The Met Breuer building, the first thing you see is one of the world's tragic masterpieces, Titian's life-size oil painting "The Flaying Of Marsyas," which has never been shown in New York before. It was the 16th-century Venetian master's very last painting, and it depicts the story of the mythological satyr who had the temerity to challenge the god Apollo to a music contest. He loses, of course. And his penalty is to be skinned alive.

The painting is a kind of crucifixion. Marsyas is hanging upside down from a tree as Apollo tenderly carves into his flesh. A little dog is lapping up his blood. And sitting nearby, the elderly King Midas, wearing a golden coronet, is contemplating this horrific event. Midas is the nearly 90-year-old Titian's self-portrait. He's learned the price of creating art, the price of challenging the gods. And he seems to accept it.

The image of this overwhelming painting reverberates throughout the vast exhibition of masterpieces inside the galleries. The central theme of the show is the question of what makes a finished work of art. Has the artist not been able to complete a work, or has that work been left deliberately incomplete? The texture of Titian's surface, for example, except for a few spots like Midas' glittering crown, is rougher and murkier than his earlier dazzling images. Titian even used his fingers to move some of the paint around. Did he intend to leave the painting looking so unpolished? Or was he still working on it when it was found in his studio after his death?

A work is complete, Rembrandt said, if in it, the master's intentions have been realized. More than 300 years later, Paul Cezanne painted landscapes and still lifes that left patches of canvas unpainted. Today, we've become more suspicious of highly finished works of art. We've come to see the world as a series of disconnected images that are up to us to put together, and art itself has encouraged us to see the world in this way.

In the show, there are some extraordinary paintings that have obviously been abandoned. In a gigantic sketch of a battle scene by Rubens, one of the warriors has three arms, and each arm is holding a different weapon. Rubens clearly hadn't decided yet which arms to keep. Several artists have left faces without bodies. Daniele da Volterra's "Portrait Of Michelangelo" has vividly detailed images of his teacher's face and left hand, which holds a sculptor's tool, but the rest of the painting is barely filled in. If this had been painted in the 20th century, we might actually regard it as complete.

In another case, a portrait of a woman is complete except for her face. For some reason, the artist has scraped away the paint from the sitter's face, leaving only her body. Centuries later, the surrealists did this on purpose. Some of the later paintings are especially revealing. There's an uncanny Mondrian in which this extremely deliberate abstract artist was still figuring out how far apart to space his famous grids. Those not-quite-completely-brushed-out stripes are like seeing an X-ray of the artist's mind at work, perhaps the best embodiment of the subtitle of the show - "Thoughts Left Visible."

Then there's a gigantic Andy Warhol still life with parts of several objects painted in while most of the canvas is blank but dotted with tiny numbers. It's the ultimate paint-by-numbers painting. Warhol is asking us, how would you finish this painting? Even if you're not especially interested in the technical questions behind the selection or what makes a work of art finished or not, there's still an astonishing gathering of masterpieces in this show, from Leonardo da Vinci's ravishing oil sketch of "The Head Of A Woman," whose wild coils of hair make "Mona Lisa" look frumpy to Picasso's mind bogglingly disjointed "Woman In A Red Armchair," a painting that's never been publicly exhibited anywhere before. In some way, what makes this show so exciting is that it, too, seems unfinished. It's one of those rare art exhibits that actually expands your sense of how open-ended or even unresolved great art can be.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and is senior editor of classical music for New York Arts. He reviewed the art exhibit "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible," which continues at The Met Breuer Museum in New York through September 4. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


HUGH LAURIE: (As Tom James) Vice president - take it or leave it.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Selina Meyer) I wouldn't be your veep if there were a grassy knoll full of Jodie Foster fans in the front row at your inauguration.

GROSS: As the political drama unfolds at the Republican convention, we'll talk about fictional presidential politics with the showrunner of HBO's "Veep," David Mandel. He's just been nominated for several Emmys. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.