Musings about the Non-Finito
As is often the case in my curatorial journey, it is a specific aspect of the oeuvre of an artist that sparks in my mind a connection with other works of art. This usually compels me to explore the subject further, and at times inspires me to actually pull together a whole exhibition in order to see with my own eyes the manifestation of my thoughts.
Early in 2023 I flew to New York to see Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery that featured four major installations —two of which had never been realized in the manner envisioned by Gonzalez-Torres before his untimely death in 1996. I will leave it to the excellent Helen Molesworth to explain in the below video the manner in which the artist approached the age-old genre of portraiture, but suffice it to say that I was literally thunderstruck by how “Untitled” (Portrait of the Magoons), 1993 was made to exist simultaneously in different times, thus allowing the artist's work to take-on other forms -beyond Gonzalez-Torres's earthly existence....
Please allow me to pause for a minute to acknowledge my indebtedness to Andrea Rosen for bringing the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres to a wider audience, and indeed for eventually moving-on from her exceptional gallery in order to dedicate her life to the legacy of this great artist. I myself have the good fortune to interact "from within" with the oeuvre of Auguste Rodin, so am very sensitive to the motivation prompted by the enormous task of properly disseminating the work and thoughts of a pillar of art history. Having met Andrea a few times, I am not in the least surprised by the minimal elegance of the website of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, and I am thrilled about the foundation's association with David Zwirner, who through his powerful platform is able to present the artist's work in an unparalleled manner.
Let me also say from the outset that although there are in my exhibition some "bits and pieces" from the Zwirner show, and more importantly sheets gifted to me from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Paper Stack ("Untitled" 1989/1990 GF1990-041) in the de la Cruz Collection in Miami (more on this later), I own no "real" works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Contrary to the people who offer for sale the "traces" of Felix Gonzalez-Torres works, in the form of sheets from Paper Stacks or candies from Candy Works taken from exhibitions, I believe the intrinsic value of these objects lies in the interaction they foster with the oeuvre, rather than in the materiality of these "bits and pieces."
In fact, it is precisely the realization that these objects are "not" works by the artist, but bridges of sorts -to another dimension, that instinctively made me think of the Non-Finito.
Non finito is an Italian term that means "unfinished." In the context of art, it refers to a work of art that is intentionally left unfinished. This can be done for a variety of reasons, such as to capture the creative process, to suggest a sense of movement or energy, or to leave the interpretation of the work open to the viewer.
The concept of non finito has a long history in art. It can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who often left their sculptures unfinished in order to suggest a sense of movement or energy. The Renaissance artist Michelangelo was also known for his non finito sculptures, which often appear to be struggling to emerge from the blocks of marble from which they were carved.
The concept of non finito can be seen as a way of challenging the traditional notion of art as a finished product. It can also be seen as a way of encouraging the viewer to participate in the creative process.
A Hellenistic Pergamene Marble Torso of Satyr, second half of the First Century BC - 11 in | 28 cm
Although the exquisite marble in the present exhibition was most likely complete when it was carved towards the end of the Hellenistic Period -over 2,000 years ago, its appearance as "Non-Finito" in its present state makes it exactly the type of work that would have greatly appealed to Michelangelo and to Rodin.
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Model of a slave, dark red wax on a metal armature (British Museum, London)
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) Wax model of The Inner Voice (Fonderie Susse, Paris)
Each of the galleries also present distinct versions of “Untitled” (Portrait of the Magoons) (1993), one of Gonzalez-Torres’s word portraits. The portrait works are the only body of Gonzalez-Torres’s work that were made in collaboration with the initial owners. When an owner manifests or lends a portrait, they may determine the version or versions that will be installed, or they may choose to extend the right to make a version to another individual with the knowledge of the specific, yet open-ended parameters of the work.
The presentation of three versions of the work highlights its ability to exist in more than one place at a time, underscoring the fact that at the core of the portraits is Gonzalez-Torres’s intention that each manifestation be an opportunity for a new version, in which content could be added, removed, changed or rearranged, that is, to be perpetually mutable. The shifting content/authorship of the portraits over time also conveys a nuanced critique of representation and the perspectives from which histories are written.
"...intention that each manifestation be an opportunity for a new version, in which content could be added, removed, changed or rearranged" is a sentence that very accurately describes Rodin's working practice.
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) Pierre de Wissant, nu monumental sans tête ni mains (Private collection, London)
Take for example Rodin’s Pierre de Wissant nu, sans tête ni mains. Although this work was cast at a stage during Rodin’s creation of the Monument for the Burghers of Calais in which one of the models in course of elaboration was still in need of a head and hands, as well as clothes -which Rodin created by dipping cloth into plaster, and applying the cloth onto the pre-existing naked model, Rodin considered this work to be complete, in its Non-Finito state -so much so that he gave it a place of honor in his pivotal exhibition at the Pavillon de l’Alma in 1900.
To coincide with the Exposition Universelle of 1900, Rodin decided to mount a 'self-organised' retrospective exhibition, in a pavilion specially built for the occasion on the Place de l’Alma. Note in the entrance the plaster version of "Pierre de Wissant nu, sans tête ni mains."
With this in mind then, Rodin’s practice of allowing a model to exist simultaneously in different incarnations, precisely through "content [that] could be added, removed, changed or rearranged" is analogous to the aspect in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work that allows his portrait of the Magoons to exist simultaneously in multiple incarnations.
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) The Burghers of Calais (Kustmuseum, Basel). Note on the left the final version of "Pierre de Wissant” -with head and hands this time, and clothed.
Shortly after visiting the Felix Gonzalez-Torres show in New York, I reached out to my friend Alina de la Cruz, whom I had met in early 2020 in a very magical place, Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia, a mountain pass on the ancient trading route between Medina and Damascus. There, during the opening of the inaugural edition of the Desert X outdoor exhibition of contemporary sculpture, Alina shared with me some details about her mom and dad’s friendship with Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Talking about the legacy of this artist in the deeply spiritual setting of Al-Ula was very moving.
Alina de la Cruz is 4th from left, and I'm 6th from left, with artist Lita Albuquerque in the 7th position.
Alina and I kept in touch over the years, and having shared with her my impressions of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres show in New York, I told her I would be in Miami a few weeks later and wanted to visit her parent’s museum, the de la Cruz Collection. Alina announced my arrival, and I was greeted by Carlos de la Cruz, Alina's lovely father.
Carlos de la Cruz and myself in the atrium of the de la Cruz Collection.
What a collection! Oh, my lord!
Rosa & Carlos de la Cruz generously built an entire museum in the Miami Design District to share their collection with the public. Among the treasures there, are a Candy Work and a Paper Stack by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The works were installed right next to a vitrine where are displayed letters, sketches, images, all exchanged by Rosa de la Cruz and the artist. The intimacy one feels upon engaging with the artist’s work when taking one or more candies from the Candy Work was almost unbearable to me, considering the obvious closeness between Rosa and the artist; I didn’t dare take a sheet from the Paper Stack - perhaps in fear of intruding in a sacred relationship.
When I came down the stairs to bid farewell to Rosa & Carlos, I timidly asked if I could take a sheet from each of the two stacks.
Print on paper, endless copies
26 inches at ideal height x 29 x 56 inches overall (original paper size: 29 x 23 inches)
The text on each sheet reads "Somewhere better than this place" and "Nowhere better than this place," depending on the stacks they are in. Because visitors are invited to take printed sheets of paper from the stacks, the conceptual feature of these works is that they are designed for disappearance, but equally, the official caption of the work designates the copies as endless...
Felix Gonzalez-Torres "Untitled" 1989/1990. Paper Stack work in de la Cruz Collection.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
I cannot help thinking about the eternal question so eloquently posited by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Must we live and endure -fight and survive, or is there a better place elsewhere? What is clear though is that this intellectual question soon became existential for Felix Gonzalez-Torres; following in the footsteps of his longtime partner Ross Laycock who in January 1991 lost his life due to AIDS-related causes, the artist died five years later in Miami, at age 38.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres "Untitled" 1989/1990 (details). Photographer: Grant Schofield. www.felixgonzalez-torresfoundation.org/works/untitled49. Accessed 21 May 2023.
My son Aytan was with me when I returned the next day to quietly take-in the exceptional Ana Mendieta room on the top floor of the museum (it was too much for me on the first day). Upon sharing with Melissa Wallen, the director of the collection, the gist of my observations about the Non-Finito, and the nexus I see between Rodin and Gonzalez-Torres, Aytan mentioned the term Kleos.
I heard it then for the very first time...
Reading about Kleos, I soon realized how profoundly insightful it was of my son to invoke Kleos in this context. The internet is full of definitions and explications of Kleos, some accurate and others fantastical. The one that most stuck with me is this:
The ancient Greeks honoured the concept of Kleos (κλέος) aphthiton, eternal renown. An ancient Greek hero earned Kleos through great deeds, up to and including his own death. However, the Greeks also believed that Kleos could be earned through feats of intellectual procreation.
I very much see Felix Gonzalez-Torres as a modern-day hero who "earned Kleos through great deeds, up to and including his own death…." and equally as one who did so "through feats of intellectual procreation." I must say that although I don’t know Felix Gonzalez-Torres's oeuvre as well as others might, my somewhat romantic approach to his work strikes a deep chord in me -one that I feel rings in a place that binds me to an ancient and wise past, one that occasionally graces me with a glimpse into eternity.
Auguste Rodin famously said:
Antiquity for me is supreme beauty: it is the initiation to the infinite splendour of things eternal.
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) Walking Man on a Column, 1900 (detail). Bronze. 11 feet 7 3/8 x 23 5/8 x 15 3/8 in. 354 x 60 x 39 cm. (Musée Rodin, Paris & Meudon).
Rodin created L’homme qui marche – “in my opinion,” he later declared, “one of my best things” –around 1899 by combining a torso and a pair of legs that he had modeled two decades earlier in connection with his statue of Saint John the Baptist. Rodin had re-discovered the clay torso, by then cracked and fissured like an ancient statue, and had cast it in bronze as an autonomous sculpture, powerfully expressive in its fragmentary form. Now, he mounted the torso atop the forked legs, the juncture of the two pieces representing the very fulcrum of the body in motion. Stripping away all anecdote and rhetoric, Rodin achieved an expression of pure movement–the powerful forward stride of a seeker, a striver, a prophet, a visionary.
Rodin scholar Albert Elsen has written:
Absence of a head eliminated specific identity and psychological or emotional display, and being without arms as well, the figure totally lacked the means of traditional expression, the Walking Man strode into the twentieth century like a newborn.
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) Walking Man on a Column, 1900. Bronze. 11 feet 7 3/8 x 23 5/8 x 15 3/8 in. 354 x 60 x 39 cm. (Musée Rodin, Paris & Meudon).
Returning to the Non-Finito, if this concept can be seen as a way of challenging the traditional notion of art as a finished product, and of encouraging the viewer to participate in the creative process, then it might be our responsibility to complete the unfinished work by honouring the pantheon of tragic figures such as Vincent Van Gogh, E. L. Kirchner, Yves Klein, Robert Smithson and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose lives were truncated early by circumstances -mental or other, but who nevertheless gifted us with paths to -in Rodin's beautiful words, the "initiation to the infinite splendour of things eternal."
In this way, by invoking the ancient ideas of Nostos & Kleos in the context of the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, my wish is to contribute to his walk into eternity, and so help to give this man who so valiantly earned his Kleos, the Nostos he so deserves.
Nostos (Ancient Greek: νόστος) is a theme used in Ancient Greek literature, which includes an epic hero returning home, often by sea. In Ancient Greek society, it was deemed a high level of heroism or greatness for those who managed to return.
Ernst Ludwig KIRCHNER (1880 – 1938) Drei Akte im Walde (Three nudes in the forest), 1933. Color woodcut on chamois China laid paper. Trial print in yellow and dark green alone. One of approx. 27 known prints pulled by the artist. 20 1/2 x 24 7/16 in. (52 x 62 cm). With the estate stamp and numbering “H Da/Bf 9 VI” in ink and "K 5622" in pencil on the verso.
WELCOME HOME FELIX!