Questions about when a work of art is finished have circulated recently in print and social media with a range of intriguing artists weighing in on the matter. “How do you finish a painting?” appeared on LinkedIn three months ago and has generated 204 responses to date. The discussion shows little sign of ending soon. If this question is predicated upon technique, the artist’s answers nevertheless touch upon notions of creation and revision featured in the larger magazine articles. While there is little consensus among these artists, many agree that the question is difficult to answer.
A portrait of the artist as a person who, like God, creates something where once there was nothing, appears in the discussion. The work of art is born and animated during the creative process. In the February edition of ARTnews, Ann Landi examines a sampling of artists who speak to this notion. Rosemary Castoro is a choice example. She relates that at the completion of one of her projects, her art “said I’m alive, I give up. They spoke to me and told me to go away.” The work of art came to life with a mind of its own. Castoro’s sense of discernment is impressive.
I’m constantly reminded of Picasso as I read through these artist’s answers. His first breath symbolizes the myth of creation. The infant who miraculously came to life when his uncle blew cigar smoke into the stillborn child’s nostrils survived to produce a legacy of innovation that is difficult to match. Yet, as a mature artist, Picasso fretted over his work. He didn’t want to get out of bed mornings so sure was he that his art was absolute junk. While Picasso lay in bed grumbling that his work was going badly, dealers waited outside ready to buy.
Creating a masterpiece apparently requires more than blowing smoke. The struggle for perfection is another theme that dominates the conversation. Like Picasso, many of these artists are uneasy with the fact that their work could always be better. In Landi’s article, Ellen Harvey recalls once working up until the last hour before a show was set to begin, stopping only after the director asked her to. Rona Pondick spent a tedious five years tearing apart and remaking one of her pieces. Many of the LinkedIn participants are obsessive in their quest for perfection. They scrutinize photographs of their paintings, study mirror reflections, they look from any angle that might tell them where there is room for improvement.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo da Vinci
The answer is actually simple, I’ve decided. A work of art is never finished. Mind you, there are some exceptions. Yet, for many, revision, for one reason or another, is an open ended prospect. The quest for perfection with its attendant angst appears to be a basic human concern.