An exhibition celebrates unfinished art

The new Met Breuer museum

Now: some unfinished works of art ... at a just-finished branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Anna Werner is our guide:

It’s a new face for one of the nation’s oldest and largest art museums -- and a new calling for a familiar New York City cultural landmark. Welcome to Met Breuer. 

So why did the Met -- one of the world’s most-visited museums -- need ANOTHER location? 

“The Met has actually been collecting modern and contemporary art since its inception,” said Thomas Campbell, the Met’s Director and CEO. “We want more space, we want to be more exploratory, we want to do more.”

And with that in mind, the Met went looking for a modern locale to expand its contemporary offerings, and found a perfect fixer-upper just around the corner -- a brief stroll away. “Really, it was a great gift,” Campbell said of the new space.

The Met Breuer museum in New York City. CBS News

Frequent museum visitors will recognize it as the former home of the Whitney Museum, which recently moved to a new space in downtown Manhattan. It’s a landmark structure designed by architect Marcel Breuer, which opened in 1966.

The Hungarian-born, German-trained Breuer became well-known for his heavy, sharp-edged, box-like designs  -- part of an architectural style that’s come to be labeled Brutalist.

Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s Chairman of Contemporary and Modern Art, had the job of taking this older, familiar space, and making viewers see it with fresh eyes. “I’m absolutely in love with this building,” she said. 

“We wanted to take the building back to the way that Marcel Breuer designed it,” she told Werner. “And that meant taking off exposed cablings, all sorts of attachments in the walls -- even taking the gum out of the concrete, which was a highly meticulous job.”

The result is a stripped-down, cleaner space: A building that lets the art speak for itself -- just the idea behind the Breuer’s first major exhibit, called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.”

“Madame Édouard Manet” by Édouard Manet (ca. 1873). Met Brauer

Andrea Bayer and Kelly Baum are the co-curators of this exhibit featuring works left unfinished unintentionally, or given an unfinished look on purpose. Together they collected 200 pieces from the Renaissance through today, from artists including Da Vinci, Cezanne and Warhol.

“They allow us to see beneath the surface to the earlier layers to the earlier version,” Baum said. “They give us profound insight into the artistic process and allow us to create the way in which the work of art was made.”

One work is a 1965 portrait by artist Alice Neel of James Hunter Black, a Vietnam War draftee.

“She got as far as his face, neck and one of this hands; the rest of the picture, she only sketched in,” Baum said. “The sitter never returned for a second sitting. He had been deployed. He went off to war. And yet, Alice Neel signed the painting on the back, and exhibited it during her lifetime, because she deemed this incomplete painting finished. Perfect.”

Their unusual search for incomplete works took the curators around the world. “We were looking at things, we had heard about things, and we went and investigated them,” Bayer said. “And when they grabbed us with their story, then we went forward with them.”

“Sounds like a fascinating treasure hunt -- art hunt for you,” Werner said.

“It was.”

Some of their discoveries tell historical stories, like a painting by the 18th century French artist Jacques-Louis David.

“David began this portrait of this young woman, Madame de Pastoret,” Bayer said. “The Revolution came to France. She and her husband were on the monarchy side, and David was a strong revolutionary. And so the portrait could not be finished. And there are certain details in it that, in fact, are missing, one of which is that she’s not really sewing, because there’s no needle and thread there.”

Alas, “A political upheaval interrupted a work of art,” Breyer said.

The newly-refinished Met Breuer museum in New York City opens with a show of artworks left - intentionally or not - incomplete. CBS News

So what do we learn from looking at unfinished works of art?

“They allow us to imagine ourselves alongside the artist working in his or her studio painting, scraping, editing, correcting literally unfinished works of art,” Baum said. “They allow us to recreate the way in which the work of art was made.” 

Bayer added, “The person who is making the work has to decide when it is finished. How they want to finish. Can they finish it? Are they capable of finishing it? These are questions that are at the heart of the making of any kind of art.” 

Because art -- and sometimes even the museums that house it -- can be a work in progress. 

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