Works in Progress

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The Art of Unfinished Conversations

This past weekend we visited an exhibit at the Metropolitan Breuer called Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. The works on display examine the subject of when and why a work of art is left unfinished.

In some cases the art is unfinished due to circumstances beyond the artist’s control. In others, the artist has made a conscious choice to engage a non-finito or intentionally unfinished aesthetic that points to the unresolved and open-ended.

This was oddly reassuring.

We are usually not privy to a master’s work in progress. The artist’s inner thoughts and conceptual framework remain private. We see only the polished end product.

There is, of course, beauty in both. But being mostly a viewer of finished art, there was something unexpectedly comforting in absorbing piece after piece that was neither beginning nor end, neither here, nor there.

It seemed to mimic the liminal space of life itself.

A meandering exoskeleton of our journey as humans.

It reminded me of the sea voyage our family took to South America. There was something about being between ports that seemed to mirror how we go through life.

We would arrive places and leave them; but mostly we were at sea.

Between sunrise and sunset. The waves, the clouds, the sky – always in progress of becoming something else, always shifting– open-ended. Never resolved.

Like this painting by Van Gogh.


His sky was never finished.

He took his life before completing this painting, seemingly slipping through the white space he left open.

It is an ongoing dialogue, even after death. I speak as much or more with mother, now that she is gone, as I did when she was here.

It is the art of unfinished conversation.

Isn’t all great art always in process, always in dialogue with its audience, itself, even its’ creator. We are never done.

Usually I am making this observation in a more mundane, domestic context. And usually it is followed by me rolling my eyes, and picking up another sock, doing more dishes, re-scheduling sports schedules or cutting out carbs… again.

There are times I take the higher road. 

The alternative to my sarcastic self-indulgence (which at the time always feels WAY more like piously righteous self-sacrifice) is my shift to extreme gratitude.

As in, thank god we are not done yet, because in fact there will come a point in time when we are done, for good.

I believe we are all artists.

We wake up every morning and must decide how we will build our day, our week– our life. What we will chip away, carve anew and sketch out for the future.

This point of view has given me solace and acted as a great equalizer of all people regardless of external circumstance or experiential history.

However, this exhibit exposed a glaring sadness I wasn’t aware permeated my belief.

It is all a race toward personal best.

There is the competitive angle, which as a product of ambitious, private school training comes naturally.

We are being timed. Those who have not achieved what we have, are not behind. They are merely on an alternate plan. However, those who have achieved more, in whatever area we aspire to, are ahead of us.

Worse than external competition, which thankfully has become more transparently ridiculous over time, is the personal judgment of not good enough. I even apply this delightfully skewering lens toward vacation planning.

What if… we are not being active enough?

Relaxed enough? Fun enough? Cultured enough? Balanced enough? Fiscally responsible enough? Light-hearted enough?

There is an underlying fear I will fail, in big and small ways. And it will not be okay. My plans and goals and dreams will be left unresolved, unfinished. Here’s the obvious part. They will. All of them.

Exhale. And it IS okay. In fact, there’s something somehow freeing about knowing the ultimate goal is NOT to be finished, not to get it checked off, sewed up, wrapped and tied in a fabulous bow.

It is to be in process.

There were many works by Picasso that nodded to Cezanne’s influence, speaking to an emphasis of process, experimentation and sometimes even indecision over and above definitive results.

There is an innate generosity of spirit in this approach, a fundamental kindness to the complexity of what it means to be alive.The idea that we are never done is not about being on the verge of constantly losing some virtual race.

It is about valuing the mystery.

Approaching it with kindness and curiosity. Not a yardstick and toolbelt.


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