An Unfinished Museum on the Upper East Side

An Unfinished Museum on the Upper East Side

Braving the threat of opening-weekend crowds, last Saturday I visited the Met Breuer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new outpost for contemporary art. I went mostly to see the building – the former home of the Whitney, and one of my favorites in the city – but also to get a hands-on perspective on how the Met is trying to shake off its stodgy reputation. And while it’s still hard for me to pinpoint a coherent reinvention strategy, I walked away from my visit inspired by the ideas behind the opening exhibition, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.”

A strange topic for a newly-opened (that is, recently-finished – though a renovation crew still occupies much of the ground floor) museum to tackle, the “Unfinished” theme is nevertheless a successful and impressive first show for the Breuer. Comprised of works in various stages of near-completion, the exhibition helps those of us who are untrained in the fine arts to understand, if not inhabit, the perspective of an artist in the act of making, while questioning if anything can actually ever be “finished.”

A murky Titian (clearly masterful, but hard to read) and a half-realized Rubens (featuring a soldier with three still-sketchy arms raised in battle) were my favorites when I visited. They felt more modern in their unfinished state than they would if finished – still sketchy, still weird, still informal. They were less majestic, but no less impressive – an approachable entry point into artists whose grandeur has always intimidated me. If only to grasp the masters more easily, I’d recommend checking out the exhibit before it closes in September.

But beyond that, the exhibit has me thinking more about the concept of being finished. For a few years now, as start-up culture has proliferated, we’ve been obsessed with the value of failure and its role in iterative problem solving and design thinking. To date, though, it seems like that interest hasn’t extended to the role of the unfinished – the aborted idea, the too-divergent thought, the meeting that just doesn’t go anywhere at all.

If we don’t embrace our fits and half-starts, how can we hope to grow? Our words and ideas can never actually be “finished,” after all; they are living entities, absorbed, reformed, passed along – twisted and shaped by time. I think it’s about time that we embrace this – that we think of our work not as something we finish, but something that persists, in a state of never-finished, belonging to the world as much to us.

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