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Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible

James Hunter Black Draftee

Oil on canvas, 1965

By Alice Neel

This picture is a prime example of the power that unfinished art can have to express the personal relationship between artist and sitter. This portrait is clearly and unintentionally left unfinished by the artist, seeing that a majority of the canvas is blank except for a painted face and sketches that imply a body. The original intention behind the portrait was to reflect the communities of Manhattan, but the incompleteness of the portrayal works to reflect the artist’s left-wing, anti-war social consciousness. Neel accidentally met the man in the painting, James Hunter, and asked him to pose for a portrait, unaware that Hunter had just been drafted for the Vietnam War and planned to leave in a week. When Hunter did not return for a second session, Neel left the portrait with only the body outlined and partially painted, demonstrating how war can adversely affect life. It seems as though this unfinished portrait expresses opposition toward the Vietnam War, especially Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to increase forces in South Vietnam.

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III

Oil on canvas, 1917-1918

By Gustav Klimt

This piece demonstrates a second way in which artwork can be regarded as non-finito: by actually being unfinished by the artist. Though the face and some of the flowers are painted on, much of the body’s tentative charcoal sketch marks are still visible, which allows insight into Klimt’s artistic process. Many times when a piece of art is “half-done” like this, the situation is entirely accidental, which is the case for this portrait. Death surrounds the creation and conclusion of this portrait. The young woman in the picture, Maria Munk, committed suicide after her fiance called off their engagement, so Klimt was commissioned to paint her posthumous portrait. However, Maria’s family did not approve of Klimt’s first two attempts at the painting. While continuing to struggle with his third attempt with the project, Klimt himself died, explaining the incomplete condition of this piece.

Piscine Versus the Best Hotels (or Various Loin)

Acrylic and oilstick on canvas, 1982

By Jean-Michel Basquiat

This piece exhibits one way in which artwork could be considered non-finito: by deliberately looking incomplete. Even though Basquiat finished working on this piece, the appearance of hastily adhered photocopies and irregular, disjointed canvas panels makes it still seem undone. As he does for many of his other works, Basquiat purposely manipulates the materials with intentional recklessness to make the artwork appear to be falling apart at the seams, like a page carelessly ripped from a notebook. Additionally, he erratically combines arbitrary words such as “venus” and “leeoa” with bold abstract images to suggest a feeling of haphazardness and disorganization and to provoke discussions about incompleteness.

Photos taken by Annie Zhang
Captions written by Annie Zhang

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