Alice Neel, Patron Saint of the Met’s ‘Unfinished’ Show

THE DAILY PIC: Like the Met, Neel declared incomplete work to be worth showing.

Alice Neel, Black Draftee (James Hunter) (1965). © The Estate of Alice Neel.

THE DAILY PIC (#1559): When she started this portrait in 1965, Alice Neel didn’t have any notion that it would end up looking the way it does. Her sitter, the black draftee James Hunter, simply walked out on her after a single sitting and, instead of trashing the picture or filling it in from memory or adding it to her storage as an incomplete piece, Neel exhibited it as a signed, dated and titled work that expressed her intentions and tastes as an artist.

That makes it the signature piece in the “Unfinished” show now at the Met Breuer in New York, where the Daily Pic has been wandering all week.

More than any other gesture, the act of taking non-art and viewing it as fine art is the defining act of modern creativity. Treating airplane propellers, tribal artifacts, pictures by children – and of course urinals – as subjects of artistic contemplation is what makes modern art modern, and definitively sets it off from earlier European traditions. It is also what allowed Alice Neel to declare a barely sketched-in portrait to be display-worthy, and the Met to put together an entire show that happily mingles finished works that have an unpolished look and the accidentally incomplete.

When I launched this week’s series of Daily Pics, I complained that the Met’s “Unfinished” show wallowed in the sin of pseudomorphism – the mistake of equating two things that happen to look the same but in fact have different origins and meanings. (The non-finito style invented by Titian, for instance, and the preparatory sketching of Michelangelo.) But like a rather more famous original sin, pseudomorphism turns out to have been fecund: Its progeny includes most of modern art.

I guess it’s appropriate for it to be the guiding principle behind the first venture in the Met’s new home for modernism.  (COMMA Foundation, Belgium, ©The Estate of Alice Neel)

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