The Upside of Unfinished Art

San Xavier Unfinished

The subject of a recent radio segment on NPR’s Morning Edition was an ongoing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s titled “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”, and features some two hundred pieces of artwork which were never completed: paintings, sculptures, bronzes, reliefs.

The subject struck me perhaps because, I too, have hanging in my office an unfinished and unframed painting.  It is of San Xavier del Bac, the historic Spanish mission just south of Tucson, Arizona. The piece was abandoned, I suppose, when the artist became ill or died or just lost interest and moved on to other projects. It’s neither signed nor dated. I acquired it at a local estate sale, and didn’t pay much for it at all.

The strength of the artist’s colors draw me in: the rich, deep and variant blues of an active, stirring sky; the intense red ochre of the central façade; Burnt umber for the stone wall that surrounds the structure; the two white towers in the pink light and purple shade of a late Southwest evening. The west tower (the domed one) is more finished than the other, upon which the painter’s sketch lines are still visible.

The façade, though strong in color, is absent the filigree of its details. The finer brush strokes were yet to come, and now never will.  Some of the proportions are not quite right, and one can sense the artist trying to work them out.

Unfinished, yes, and yet it draws me in even several years later. What I acquired that day is not a painting so much as a window into the artist’s mind–a view not only of where he’d been with the piece, but an indication (but not a promise) of where he (or she) was going. A glimpse of creation in the happening, of working out problems on the fly, the wonderful struggle among mind and hand, eye and brush, to bring into the world what had been merely a concept, a plan.  An idea.

It’s said that each of us sees in paintings (or any art form for that matter) not only the artists’ work but in a sense ourselves.  We interpret their work through our own lives and histories and perspectives, and thus our experiences with art are unique to each of us.

Art that for some reason remains unfinished, it seems to me, sharpens and enhances that experience.  Each of us gets to formulate its completion in our own way.  We become the artist, if even for just a moment.

Therein lies fascination.

(Click on the Photos page of this website to see photographs of San Xavier del Bac.)

See info on the MOMA exhibit here:

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