NEW YORK — Unfinished works of art interrupt, often in the most poignant, excruciating way, the normal relationship between art and life.
Ordinarily, life is here while great art is over there: neatly framed, cordoned off from the flow of events behind the walls of museums, and prodded reverentially toward timelessness.
With unfinished art, it's different. Somehow, the work's lack of resolve pours back into life.
It draws us in to the very quintessence of art — the act of creation. But it also pulls us out of the illusion of art's timelessness, into all the many mysteries of motive, biography, and mortality. Why, we suddenly need to know, was this exquisite thing abandoned? Death? Politics? Love gone sour? The sack of Rome?
All these explanations, and many more besides, are called on to explain the unfinished state of dozens of works in "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible," the inaugural show at a new uptown Manhattan outpost of the Metropolitan Museum, dubbed the Met Breuer.
The show is installed over two floors of the Marcel Breuer-designed building that was vacated by the Whitney Museum when it moved to its new building in the Meatpacking District.
The exhibition — as philosophically rich as it is aesthetically rewarding — arrives in the context of much chatter about the Met's attempts to liven itself up, with not only a new logo but an amped-up commitment to modern and contemporary art.
This push, which seems to have more to do with the frenzied competition for philanthropy and attendance than any deeper rationale, fails to interest me. (New York already has the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the New Museum, and the Guggenheim all chasing modern and contemporary; the Met has a different, deeper mission).
But the show itself grabs me by the throat. Colonizing two floors of the Breuer building, "Unfinished" restricts itself to art in the European tradition from the early Renaissance through the present. One-third of the works are from the Met's own collection; the rest are loans.
Many — too many to list — are stupendous. With great things by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Rodin, Degas, Matisse, Pollock, Bourgeois, Dumas, Celmins, Warhol, Richter, and many others, it is an exhibition perhaps only the Met could pull off in this way.
Every work was included for one of two reasons: Either it was left unfinished (because the artist died or abandoned it), or it fits into the special aesthetic category of the "non finito." The Italian term refers to works of art that, in the context of their time and to varying degrees, boldly withheld conventional "finish," leaving brush strokes visible, details fudged, bare canvas still showing, and so on.
The line between these two categories is often unclear. What are we to make, for instance, of Van Eyck's rendering of the Christian martyr Saint Barbara? It is almost impossible to say whether the work is an exquisite under-drawing for a painting the artist never completed, or a very fine finished drawing that just happens to utilize loose-looking touches of background paint.
The first category — works that were left literally unfinished — includes an unfinished portrait of Michelangelo (the patron saint of "non finito"; think of his smooth figures emerging from rough blocks of marble) by his close follower Daniele da Volterra, as well as a haunting portrait by Rosso Fiorentino, possibly abandoned when Rome was sacked by Charles V's troops, forcing the artist to flee.
Extraordinary, too, is Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Bara," a rendering of the French Revolutionary martyr as a naked ephebe in his death throes. The boy is depicted against an almost undifferentiated brown-gray background, with only a flag at far left evoking the battlefield. In the year David painted it, 1794, he was thrown in prison, mere months after the execution of his friend and supporter Maximilien Robespierre.
If prison bars will put a stop to creativity, so will illness and death. The show includes an unfinished landscape by Caspar David Friedrich from the year he suffered a stroke, limiting his ability to use his painting hand, and the large painting Lucian Freud was still working on when he died. He was willing to have it shown publicly, he told the painting's model, his friend David Dawson, because "if there is enough life in the painting" the question of finish is irrelevant.
Of course, the life in a painting can be arrested by grief, making it hard to go on. Manet's depiction of his friend Charles Baudelaire's sad, high-summer funeral was clearly abandoned, presumably for something like this reason. The painting is certainly not lifeless (Manet wouldn't know how), but it does feel distant and bruised.
Picasso's "Woman in a Red Armchair," which has never previously been displayed in a public exhibition, is unfinished in a more dramatic way, suggesting the self-imposed pressures of his labyrinthine love life. It is a neat, curvilinear, full body portrait of his lover Marie-Therese Walter. But the artist, working on Christmas Day, 1931, dramatically erased her features with an anomalous, brushy scrawl, like delinquent graffiti.
Where the works in the show that are literally unfinished seem to invite us into the artist's life, its "non finito" works raise issues of style and technique. "Non finito" encompasses everything from Tintoretto's skittering brush strokes and Velazquez's tonal soft-focus to Cezanne's incomplete patchworks of color lozenges and Richter's late-20th-century blur.
Conventions of finish, and of what is appropriate for public display, have always changed. Works by Titian, Rembrandt, and even Turner may look finished to our eyes. But as curators Kelly Baum, Andrea Bayer, and Sheena Wagstaff point out, these artists were all knowingly flirting with varieties of incompletion, often in the hope of giving their work more life.
Whenever a new approach to "non finito" appeared, it usually took time for eyes and expectations to adjust. But again and again, the approach caught on. So part of the show's purpose is to trace the history of attitudes toward "finish."
The idea of devoting an exhibition to unfinished art over the centuries is not original. The Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, for instance, hosted a similar show, "In-Finitum," in 2009. In that crumbling building in that sinking city, the juxtaposition of the not yet realized with the long since overtaken — the "past finished," if you like — was almost unbearably moving. What it made clear was that the idea of "finish" is an illusion, a mere dot, or really a blur, on a very long continuum.
Both that show and the Met's "Unfinished" reminded me of the final lines in the last of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies": "And we, who have always thought of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls."
Those lines were beloved by Cy Twombly, who reproduced them, in his barbaric scrawl, in more than one work. So it is interesting to learn that it was Twombly (who died in 2011) who originally proposed "Unfinished" to the Met. There is a sense in which the whole exhibition functions as a tribute to his incomplete but elegiac sensibility.
A series of Twombly's conspicuously unresolved, brushy green-and-white late paintings, evoking forests in the gloaming, conclude the show. They harmonize perfectly with the painting that opens the show, to heart-stopping effect: Titian's very late masterpiece, "The Flaying of Marsyas."
It shows the satyr Marsyas, who foolishly challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest, being punished for his hubris. Suspended upside down, he is skinned alive. A dog licks at the blood beneath his head.
The work, on loan from an archbishop's palace in Kromeriz in the Czech Republic, is a prime example of Titian's shimmering, Shakespearean late style. His trembling, penumbral brush strokes describing (or really, failing to describe) the spaces between his figures are somehow as real, and as charged with emotion, as the figures themselves.
Rather than feeling short of completion, the whole work seems to arrive at a point weirdly past completion, as if it verged on being overtaken by nature itself, like a ruin in a landscape.
A similar impulse — to push art back toward life, nature, and the flux of history — is behind most of the contemporary works in the show. In many cases, these works, like the Titian, carry a suggestion of having been pushed past completion.
Zoe Leonard, for instance, is represented by two decayed orange peels, scraped out and dried, and repaired by stitching. They function as tributes to her dead friend, David Wojnarowicz. They speak truth to the lie of timelessness, the false promise of immortality.
Works by Giacometti, de Kooning (whose masterpiece "Woman I" has been loaned by the Museum of Modern Art), and Robert Smithson all dance in different ways with this same urge to push works past completion — not to shuffle off the mortal coil but somehow to embrace it.
Contemporary artists' ever-strengthening preference for the flux of life over the finished masterpiece poses an obvious challenge to museums like the Metropolitan — or indeed, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
"It is not our intention to fill museums," said Josef Albers, in one of the more famous articulations of this thinking. "We are gathering experience." Huge numbers of contemporary artists have made work in deep sympathy with this idea. So how should museums respond?
"Unfinished" has no specific answer. But it does suggest a line of honest philosophical inquiry that I find heartening in such an established institution.
Its theme is not one of those specious curatorial conceits that herd disparate works from different periods into a confining stall, only to drain them of all their life force. Rather, it inheres in each and every work. In this sense, "unfinished" is not so much a theme as a description.
It is also, as I read it, the Met's attempt to show us that, although it may be filled with works by dead people, and groaning with skulls, crucifixes, burial poles, mummies, memento moris, sarcophagi, and so on, it is not a place where creativity goes to die.
Rather, it is a living place, crowded with poignant beauty, and proud to call itself unfinished.
Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible
At the Met Breuer, New York, March 18-Sept. 4. 212-731-1675, www.metmuseum.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.