Kristin Qian

Recently, I was in New York City, interning at a computational genomics startup.

I had visited New York a few times before, but no longer than a week each time, mostly staying indoors for rehearsals and performances, or exploring the eats of the city and seeing iconic tourist attractions.

This summer, I had a different agenda. Outside of work, my primary goal was art.

The first museum I went to and the one that left the deepest impression on me was The Met Breuer, the contemporary arm of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened in March of this year. A humble space located south of Museum Mile on Madison Ave., The Met Breuer houses a light but growing collection of modern art from the 20th century onwards. The current exhibition, titled “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” was striking and incredibly thought provoking. It was an exhibit like nothing I had ever seen before. “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” was co-curated by our former Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Kelly Baum.

The exhibit began with an eye-catching collection of earlier works, from the 15th century, and slowly moved through present time.


Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti). “Doge Alvise Mocenigo (1507-1577) Presented to the Redeemer,” painted probably in 1577. Oil on canvas. The Met Breuer.

Typically, museums or galleries present works that are complete and polished. Those works would have traveled to multiple other museums for showing, with scholars inspecting every inch of painted canvas for meaning and answers.

In these pieces of “unfinished” art, we are looking at blank areas, missing brushstrokes, and beginnings—sketches and outlines. In these empty spaces, we ask new questions.

The exhibit explores the significance of the term “unfinished” and what it means for artists to leave a work in that state, whether intentionally or unintentionally.


George Romney. “George Romney.” 1784. Oil on canvas. The Met Breuer. This painting was supposedly sent “as is” by the artist to his recipient.

On the wall panel at the entrance of one of the floors was a quote by Rembrandt: “A work is complete if in it the master’s intentions have been realized.”

Throughout the exhibit, the viewer examines the subtleties between preparatory sketches, portraits and landscapes left deliberately incomplete, and uncertain finishes on works. Boundaries between intentionally incomplete and complete start to merge, and we are thrown into the minds of the artists, following their artistic process, and observing their “finished” products.

Moving into the 19th century, the exhibit features several works by Picasso (many of which are shown for the first time in public through this exhibition) and Cézanne.

Cézanne was of course the star of the “Cézanne and the Modern” exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum this past year, so it was interesting to see his work examined in this context.


Paul Cézanne. “Gardanne” (1885-86). Oil on canvas. The Met Breuer.

Above is a painting of Gardanne, shown at The Met Breuer. According to its accompanying plaque, Cézanne himself deemed it ready for display, but scholars continue to question the unfilled parts of the canvas. Were the blanks left there intentionally, or was the work actually unfinished? Does the entire canvas have to be painted for a work to be considered finished?

Other plaques describing Cézanne’s oeuvre suggested that the artist chose to leave some works unfinished, or non finito. Another panel wrote that Cézanne had his own measuring stick for completion, a concept he termed réalisation, which was not based on a filled canvas, but rather on an appropriate balance of colors and structure.

Below is a work by Cézanne that was on display at Princeton.

puam cezanne

Cézanne. “Mont Sainte-Victoire” (ca. 1904-06). Oil on canvas. Princeton University Art Museum, “Cézanne and the Modern.”

The Met Breuer was definitely an eye-opening and unconventional experience. I did not expect to see so many works of art that were either in progress or purposely incomplete. It made me think about how an artist approaches a work, and how finishing a work may be the most challenging part.

The masterpieces in museums around the world, including the ones we have at the Princeton University Art Museum, all began somewhere. Behind each painting was a process; thoughts conveyed through brushstrokes, etchings, or calculated dabs of color. It was where they ended that was left up to the artist, endings that even the artists may have not been so sure about.