‘Nonfinito’ or the Art of Incompletion


Nonfinito or the Art of Incompletion

“Infinity, though of another kind, causes much of our pleasure in agreeable, as well as of our delight in sublime images. The spring is the pleasantest of the seasons; and the young of most animals, though far from being compleatly fashioned, afford a more agreeable sensation than the full grown; because the imagination is entertained with the promise of something more, and does not acquiesce in the present object of the sense. In unfinished sketches of drawing, I have often seen something which pleased me beyond the best finishing; from the cause I have just now assigned.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Edmund Burke, ‘Infinity in Pleasing Objects’,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxA Philosophical Enquiry, p. 70)

Completion amounts to the ideal of homeostasis: a condition relieved from tension, all its parts being in equilibrium with each other. It is the goal of the pleasure principle. The work of art is perfected, and by being so perfected it is finished. However, in human terms, homeostasis is never more than a transient state. We satisfy our hunger, but very soon we begin to grow hungry again. We take our dirty clothes to the wash. But that night another pair of socks gets tossed into the wash-bag. Homeostasis averts tension, but only death can rid us of stress altogether. Certain religions take a dim view of too much completion, too much closure in art. Oriental carpets always contain a flaw, something that renders them incomplete, unlike the creations of Allah which are perfect. If a rug should happen to be perfect, on judgement day it would have to get up and walk!

Matter is for the most part inconsistent. As Descartes pointed out, wax is difficult to describe since what is hard and of a distinct shape one moment can become malleable at another moment or even fluid. One of the eternal polarities is that of repetition and inconsistency. Repetition seeks for a perfected object, its reiterations are rehearsals. Freud maintains that we repeat in order to get something right, something we can never get quite right. Inconsistency abandons the task before completion, recognises the unassailable flaws in any bid for perfection, moves on to another subject, a more likely subject, one which suggests initially that it can be perfected, only to reveal its own limitations as it is engaged, so that eventually this too gets abandoned, as was the previous subject.

The cave paintings of prehistory were never completed. There was no overall design as there was for the Sistine Chapel. Since there is no evidence of the soot from torches on the roofs of the caves, it is entertaining to hypothesize that the paintings were executed in the dark, perhaps by artists holding drawing implements in both hands, creating the image by feeling the process of making it, just as great dancers have little need to look in the mirror, since they retain an image of themselves through the sensations they experience in their bodies. The drawings in the caves were part of a larger process, the process of hunting and eating, and of making use of every commodity the prey afforded. A new hunt may have meant that a new drawing needed to be added to those already created. The caves were never completed. They were simply abandoned, perhaps when rockfall blocked an entrance, or simply when times changed and humans chose to live in different ways.


Incompletion admits to being part of a process. In its very failure to perfect the image, it lets us to see how the image has been constructed. The archeology of that image is revealed, how it came about. With the twentieth century’s emphasis on the materiality of the medium, it is clear that for many modern artists engagement with a process is more important that the completion of some pre-ordained blue-print. Jackson Pollock would work on a drip painting until it was time to abandon it. There was nothing to perfect except the process. But artists have been aware of the power of incompletion for many centuries. It is by no means a merely contemporary phenomenon.

No dominant imperialist society can tolerate any culture other than its own. Thus in periods of triumphalism, and I speak for today as much as for yesterday, the sites lesser nations find sacred get demolished by the prevailing juggernaut. Out of such upheavals comes the detritus of fragments. The generic image for a piece of ancient sculpture might be that of some god bereft of his head or goddess bereft of her arms. Yet our search for the rare and the unobtainable cocoons such fragments in value – for in the fragment we may discover the modalities, the terms by which the masterpiece is made possible. And so the Venus de Milo achieves perfection in our eyes – even in her armless state. In her incompleteness she demonstrates the rules of her composition.

One part of the Roman empire was turning the marbles of rival kings to quicklime while another part of it was busy acquiring what fragments remained of some previously vanquished kingdom. That age was no more wilful than our own. The shards of antiquity are as highly regarded today as they were in the palaces of Rome and in the sophisticated courts of the renaissance, and at the same time we allow temples to be vandalised while our bombs bring about the destruction of frescoes. At no time have we simply been vandals. Contrary forces are at work in us. We appreciate perfection, yet a great deal of revolutionary art has only come about by its use of destructive strategies. Things can be left incomplete. Things can be fragmentary. Things can be destroyed.

Here we should recall the opposition of Dionysus to the harmonious rule of Apollo. Apollo is the sun, the supreme organiser of life: his products are well balanced, homeostatically sound, and reason supports their existence as complete entities. He is master of the mainstream. His creations lie below him like objects that the late Stuart Sherman, an American performance artist, might have manipulated on a small table. He presides over stately tragedies. Dionysus, on the other hand, composes in fits of intoxication. His followers tear the oxen limb from limb. His creations are free-wheeling, often farcical. He presides over satyr plays with their knockabout humour, and over mysteries and demented chanting. Apollo blesses construction. Dionysus inspires process. His followers are abandoned in their revels. In satiety, the wild pipes are simply thrown aside.

But incompletion has its own emblematic story. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope faithfully awaits her husband’s return. However, she is beset by importunate suitors who are all convinced that Odysseus has perished at sea. Penelope is an astute ruler of the court of the island of Ithaca, and she realises that she needs to be diplomatic, so she tells the suitors that she will marry one of them as soon as she has completed the tapestry she is working on. Every day, she sits working at her loom. But every night she creeps downstairs and unravels the work she has done the day before. Thus the tapestry is never finished. Penelope assuages her loneliness, dulls her longing for her husband’s not-very-likely return, by immersing herself in the process of weaving, abandoning herself to this process not only for its own sake, but also for the sake of fidelity to her “lost cause”.

The implications of process, both in life and in art, were first understood in philosophical terms by the pre-Socratic thinker Heracleitus (500 AD). The few fragments that survive of his thought are well worth studying, since they are as relevant today as they were in his own distant time. Though fragmented, they often read as aphorisms rather than fragments, providing the reader with the kernel of an idea. Rarely has such a small oeuvre exerted such a vast influence over succeeding generations. Both Hegel and Nietzsche have drawn on Heracleitus. It is difficult to close in on his thought, since enigma saturates his often terse statements. He loved paradox. For instance, he says that “The thunderbolt steers the universe.” On a simple level, this could mean that God, Zeus with his thunderbolt, rules the universe. It can also mean that fire causes everything to come about. Another fragment states that “This ordered universe, which is the same for all, was not created by any one of the gods or of mankind, but it was ever and is and shall be ever living Fire, kindled in measure and quenched in measure.”

Fire consumes, but it is also the source of heat, which is energy. This notion has implications for the grotesque view of life as epitomised by Mikhail Bakhtin in his book on Rabelais and the Middle Ages (Rabelais and His World): a view of nature – man, animals, plants – as entities continually dying yet springing to life at the same time. Heracleitus perceives of life as a continuum, “No man ever steps twice into the same river,” he says of this state of flux.

He also noted the energy to be derived from opposing forces. “All things are born through strife,” he says, and “From notes at variance comes the finest harmony.” He realised that sometimes concepts and things have more in common with their opposites than with some other pairing. As one fragment simply says: “Joints: whole and not whole, connected-separate, consonant-dissonant.” He seems indeed to be attempting to arrive at some point of balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian positions, for he is not entirely of a Dionysian frame-of-mind. “If it were not in honour of Dionysus that they conducted the procession and sang the hymn to the male organ (the phallic hymn), their activity would be completely shameless,” he says. “But Hades is the same as Dionysus, in whose honour they rave and perform the Bacchic revels.” What he grasps is that the harmony favoured by Apollo requires something inappropriate to set it off and to bring about its greatest felicities. Structurally, the well-balanced bow and the well-tuned lyre are both products of opposing tension. “That which differs with itself is in agreement,” he says. And this is why the joint: whole and not whole is of such relevance to the understanding of nonfinito.

Nonfinito is not merely drunken rambling, or shoddy work someone has given up on, rather it is incompletion raised to the status of a completed thing.

A good case could be made for supposing that some of the greatest artists of the renaissance and their patrons were aware that a certain magic clings to the incomplete work. Sketches and drawings were valued even then: they were not dismissed as mere preparations for some airtight masterpiece. By 1520, collectors were prepared to purchase anything by a ‘name’ artist, as John Shearman points out in his book on Mannerism: “for no other reason than the desire of the patron to have, for example, a Michelangelo: that is to say an example of his unique virtù, or his art; the subject, size or even medium do not matter. This is the birth of the idea of a work of art made, in the first instance, to hold its place in a gallery.”(Mannerism, p. 44)

Referring to Raphael’s Transfiguration, Shearman goes on to say, “…there must also have been an interest in the creative genius that was totally isolated from other considerations such as subject matter. It would have been one thing for an engraving of the Transfiguration to be published; but it is surely startling when one appears, as it did about 1520, of a preparatory stage at which all the figures are drawn nude.” (Ibid, p. 48)

Drawings and sketches enhance an understanding of the artist’s method. In one study of a young girl’s head by Leonardo, we can see how the artist began a drawing with light brush-strokes of well-diluted ink and how he ended with precise lines made with a sharper instrument. Beginning and end are present in the same space. In this respect, incompletion is a process which echoes the figurative aims of the grotesque: “nothing completed, nothing calm or stable,” as Bakhtin puts it.

Leonardo head-of-a-girl

There’s debate about whether Piero della Francesca’s Nativity in the National Gallery is incomplete or not – perhaps it has simply been subject to the ravages of restoration. What it does do, certainly, is utilise the notion of incompletion. The Virgin kneels on a yellow ground which does not partake of the grey stone of the surrounding landscape. This allows her silhouette to become more distinct. Under the pointing shepherd there are traces of a nude roughly sketched in as an indication of structure. Piero seems to have enjoyed a look of incompletion in the completed work. This is true for an earlier work, The Baptism of Christ, also in the National Gallery. A fragment of sky is reflected in the water behind Christ’s feet – similar fragments of sky are to be found in the puddles on the ground in Piero’s frescoes at Arrezzo. The composition of The Baptism is punctuated by pale figures and a pale tree – it is as if the merely-drawn rubbed shoulders with the painted, or as if some of the figures were turning into sculpture.

A similar strategy informs The Flagellation of Christ in Urbino, where only three of the eight figures seem complete. These stand to the right, in the foreground, in front of a building so lightly sketched in it remains a drawing, a drawing inhabited by the figures central to the story – Christ and his tormentors – but since these figures are sketched in lightly as well, the incident remains a myth – with none of the tangible reality of the three figures to the left. Now the fall of Constantinople occurred in 1453 – just a year or so before Piero began work on this painting. One figure may represent a Byzantine emperor, one looks very like any of the angels we find everywhere else in the artist’s work (Piero loved to repeat themes and visages), and the third figure is richly dressed and may represent a powerful Italian prince. Is the angel attempting to mediate some termination of the rivalry between eastern and western branches of the church in the light of the disaster which has overtaken Byzantium? These are the key players, informed by Christ’s flagellation as a symbol for the tribulations of the church, but the incompleteness of that more distant scene relegates it to the dimness of history, and gives it some value as an emblem but none as a reality.


I like to think of Leonardo as the Andy Warhol of the Renaissance – restless, innovative, as keen on his image and on his social milieu as on his work – indeed, like Warhol, he seems to have seen his cosmopolitan image as his work. Eager to be considered an inventor as well an artist, he experimented with an oil-based method of painting on walls. All the results were failures. Much of what has not failed in his oeuvre is nevertheless far from completion. A massive horse he made in clay no longer exists. He took so long trying to hit on the perfect method for casting the thing that in the end the bronze allocated to the task was used to make cannon for the defence of Milan. Yet we prize his cartoons and his unfinished pictures. The cartoons show a deepening of psychological power achieved by the process of drawing. His notebooks are as satisfying as those pictures which he did complete. On any page in these notebooks, we can follow the artist’s thought, from a complete view of a baby’s body to the detail of a baby’s foot, from a cat to a chimera. His was a technique of nonfinito – and his Adoration of the Magi, in the Uffizi, is intended to look incomplete. As Jean-Claude Frère puts it in his book on Leonardo:

“The figures and architectural elements boldly delineated and filled out in earth colours on the five boards that make up this panel anticipate the type of sketchwork that will characterise modern art. The picture is remarkable for its extreme concentration and power. Leonardo’s contemporaries erroneously assumed that it was unfinished.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Jean-Claude Frère, Leonardo – Painter, Inventor… p. 61)

This is the beginning, then, of subjectivity – the elements completed are those which the artist wished to focus upon. In this case, the most tangible elements are the leaves on the trees. Trees remain where they are. They are rooted. Humans may recline beneath a tree for a while and then move on. Their image fades from the grass and from the earth. In their rootlessness they are insubstantial. Nature prevails where our posturings and even our adorations prove ephemeral.

Michelangelo’s Entombment in the National Gallery is another work which demonstrates incompletion; and when put together with Leonardo’s Adoration and the earlier works of Piero, one begins to wonder whether or not there was a fad for nonfinito in the Florence of the Medicis. We should never suppose that earlier generations have been less mature in their appreciation of artistic processes. The painter of the Lascaux cave is not some toddler compared to the stripling of Greece and the mature figure of the Renaissance. Such an argument for progress renders us geriatric!


In the Entombment, Michelangelo has only painted objects which fulfil some function in the overall schema. Christ’s head is the distinct focus, distinguished by being viewed in outline only because the mantle of the figure supporting him has not been painted. A figure in the foreground has been left completely blank – thus it merely expresses the notion of a foreground. At the same time, art historians can deduce that this was intended for an image of his mother. If so much can be deduced, what need is there to fill her in? Elsewhere the non-painting creates diagonal and horizontal stripes which provide a counterpoint to the painting’s essentially vertical composition. Colour leaps out of context in the most modernist way: thus the red garment worn by Saint Peter is an element second in importance only to the bloodless figure of Christ. Saint Peter is the image of sanguinity; muscular, supporting Christ: the scarlet gown he wears emphasises the fact that he will become the life-blood of the Church.

Nonfinito is defined as a quality of suggestion implied in an unfinished work of art. According to my Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, “it is usually applied to sculpture, and the two leading exponents are Michelangelo and Rodin: the difference being that Michelangelo leaves the forms implicit in the stone, so far unrevealed by the sculptor’s awakening chisel, whereas Rodin (who was essentially a modeller, in spite of his training as a mason) imagines an ‘unfinished’ form which is then patiently carved by a mason or else he employs the torso as an emotive fragment, not wishing to realise the figure as a whole.”

Michelangelo’s Slaves draw attention to a “transitional” area. D.W. Winnicott speaks of transitional objects. These are objects which are neither entirely subjective nor entirely objective. In that period when the child is learning to differentiate itself from the mother (symbol of all ensuing differentiations), the breast of the mother may become such an object, both internalised and at the same time external. Similarly, the sculpted slave seeks to escape from the material out of which he is composed. Where does the stone end and the slave begin? Like the slave, in infancy, we attempt to emancipate ourselves from the very material which has engendered us. The slave is in the process of liberating himself from the material demands of ‘the other’. The matter of the stone is his master. Here the incompletion cannot be resolved, or not without a fundamental alteration of meaning – for a fully carved slave would effectively be free of the rock. As a finished work then, it would fail.


* * * *

What about the notion of nonfinito in literature? The Satyricon of Petronius (written in the latter half of the first century AD), exists only in fragmentary form. In essence it is a novel that describes the louche and loose living of the society of his time; its banquets, parvenus and creatures of the night. The fragmentary form of the work, as we know it, may be due to historical decay; but the book’s freewheeling style, its loose patching together of anecdotes and asides suggests that it was always in the process of being written, never emphatically completed. Something rather similar can be said of Petronius’s rather peculiar manner of dying. Instructed by Nero to commit suicide, this bon viveur duly opened his veins, but then sealed them up again with bandages and went around socialising for quite some time, every so often dying a bit more if he happened to be in the company of the emperor’s cronies.

Another equally open-ended classic is Gargantua and Pantagruel – published between 1532 and 1552 – a work of monstrous and grotesque genius which was never finished by its author Rabelais but “completed” by someone else.

The free-wheeling, discursive essays which Montaigne wrote in the 16th century were much appreciated by the authors of the Enlightenment, and, via Pascal’s Pensées, these essays helped bring about the romantic penchant for the fragmentary. Indeed the essays were considered to be extended fragments: reflective portions of thought, passages which remained from some unfinished meditation. After all, what is an essay but what the word implies, an attempt?

Is Tristram Shandy a book one could ever consider complete? And wasn’t James Thomson forever tinkering with The Seasons?

In 1798, Friedrich von Schlegel founded the Athenäum, a literary quarterly, with his brother August Wilhelm. This quarterly published the work of a circle of writers known as the Jena romantics. Influenced by Pascal – and by Champfort, another author of occasional observations – Schlegel developed a theory of literature which was at the same time all-embracing and fragmentary. An ironic tension seemed to dictate that the only way to express the ultimate unity of philosophy, art, mythology and religion was through piecemeal flashes of insight. Such a unity was sought for in the wake of Kant’s conception of philosophy “as the total and reflective auto-production of the thinking subject,” according to Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, co-authors of The Literary Absolute. They consider the theory of literature developed by German romanticism to be crucial to an understanding of many of the pressing issues of contemporary theory.

Schlegel was the first writer since the latter days of Rome to see theory itself as literature – and vice versa: that the theory of the novel, for instance, must also be a novel. At the same time, he was averse to the stylistic unity of a coherent system. Philosophy, as demonstrated by Hegel or Kant, seemed a genre in itself, a machine for making philosophy. But each and every recognisable genre was limited to some specific purpose, when the romantic aim was to consolidate a variety of purposes into a unified endeavour, an all-embracing bible of science which was also to be a fusion of Homer and Goethe, a compound of art and life, of system and dialogue. Call it the ultimate visionary product.

This alchemical work was to bring about the union of Apollo and Dionysus, the marriage of calculation and ecstasy, ethic and aesthetic. It was Schlegel’s impulse to pursue the philosophical ideal within art but also to pursue the artistic impulse in philosophy – to live art, as it were. One needed to become one’s own paradigm. The goal was subjective fulfillment as much as artistic fulfillment.

In the same era, Lord Byron might assume the romantic persona of his own poetic characters, while Jean Jacques Rousseau might turn his life’s often sordid confession into enthralling literature.

Ultimately a striving for totality – the achievement of an apotheosis on earth – constituted the content that was destined to inspire the organon, the ultimate product of an absolute act of writing; but since life is incomplete while being lived, so this ideal literary act could never be completed. It is worth noting here that when the ‘grandeur‘ of our conception is pushed towards this absolute, when it attempts to become the sublime, when it strives to grasp that which is beyond reach, when it proves eager to grapple with that for which we may aim in our becoming but can never ultimately attain, then we are obliged come to terms with a work which must remain imperfect.

When our efforts aspire to unconditional idealism, their impulse toward the sublime is brought, by the very enormity of the undertaking, ineluctably towards nonfinito and incompletion.

It is the concept of a project so grand that it must remain unfinished which proves most appropriate to the notions of the sublime developed by Burke and by Kant. Sublimity bathes at the confluence of two of my rivers of art: grandeur and nonfinito.

A train of thought similar to this led Schlegel to produce and to promote the notion of the fragment. The fragment is a formless form, but, at the same time:

“A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself, like a hedgehog.”
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Schlegel, Athenaum Fragments, p. 206)

Here we can sense an almost Heracleitan irony in the attempt to bring opposites together. As the authors of The Literary Absolute put it:

“…the detachment and isolation of fragmentation is understood to correspond exactly to completion and totality.”                                                                                                xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(The Literary Absolute, p. 43)

However, the fragment quoted misleads us as to the nature of the fragment – for it suggests the homeostatic unity of an organism, or of an aphorism such as those written in France by La Rochefoucauld, more than a century earlier; the perfectly turned epithet which is at the same time a model of what a sentence should be – “It is a great act of wisdom to be able to conceal one’s being wise.” – (Moral Reflections, CCXLVI).

In its English version, this is only a couple of syllables over a haiku, and nothing could be stricter than that tiny, seventeen-syllable Japanese form. More pertinently, elsewhere, Schlegel says of the fragment that “with all its completeness, something must still appear to be missing, as if torn away” – (Athenäum Fragment 383).

Fragments are ejaculatory splashes. They resemble cells: the DNA in them should enable one to construct a whole, if only by hypothesis. They are brought to life by a lightning flash of wit. Fragments can be strung together like disparate jewels on a necklace, touching on a variety of subjects, and setting up dialogues with each other. Schlegel indeed perceived the dialogue as a fragmentary form. He admired the bantering dialogues of Plato more than the methodical systematisation of Aristotle. His Dialogue on Poetry describes a sort of ‘Last Supper’ of the Jena circle at the same time as it suggests an updating of Plato’s Symposium. Fragmentary snatches of dialogue, fragmentary descriptions and comments turn this into a conversation of fragments.

In 1797, one year before Schlegel founded the Athenäum, Samuel Taylor Coleridge produced an astonishing fragment, the result of a drug-induced dream or vision. This was his wonderful poem Kublai Khan. The story goes that his inspiration foundered when a servant knocked on the door to announce the arrival of “a person from Porlock.” However, Coleridge was the most axiom-driven of the English romantics, and well aware of the trends of thought current in Europe at the time. He may well have intended that his poem should exist only as a fragment. As such, it was, at the time, theoretically as it should be.

Fragments are literary seeds, according to the poet Novalis, another member of the Jena circle who wrote a series of fragments called Grains of Pollen. As a term, it also mediates between past and present, for we can trace the fragment back to Sappho. Hers are some of the finest shards of poetry. Thus the fragment can be a morsel of antiquity, a piece of a relic. However, it can also be a contemporary thumbnail sketch, a working, an item in the margin of a work that is to be.

F. T. Prince has written a fine essay in verse on Fragment Poetry. Appended to this poem is a small anthology of poetic fragments. Prince points out that there is a difference between a fragment and a short, finished poem. Here is Shelley’s fragment To the Moon:

xxxxx“Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
xxxxxWandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth –
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?”

And here is Prince’s comment:

“Shelley’s question to the Moon
xxxFloated up free on paper
First, in the Golden Treasury.
xxxLike a melting wisp of vapour
Two broken lines were dropped
xxxand left below. Tennyson
Or Palgrave saw what Shelley
xxxhad done, and cut the comment
He should never have begun -“

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(F.T. Prince, Fragment Poetry, p. 1)

But the fragmentary may not simply be the result of such pruning. Fragmentary enterprises may be massive undertakings. In the twentieth century, we should consider the jumbled, jangling heaps of phrases assembled by Ezra Pound, whose Cantos amount to something different to the sum of their parts. Pound promoted Imagism. Imagist poems concerned fleeting impressions. To some extent they were inspired by the haiku, but they paid no heed to the seventeen-syllable rule its specific form demands. The imagists owed much more to fragment poetry. Perhaps one of the most famous of all such poems is Pound’s In a Station of the Metro:

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, p. 113)

Written with the impetus of imagism, and employing the same technique of accumulating fragments as T.S. Eliot used for The Waste Land – a technique they pioneered together – Pound’s practically interminable Cantos represent a vast poetic junk-heap:

“As a lone ant from a broken ant-hill
from the wreckage of Europe, ego scriptor.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Ezra Pound, from the Pisan Cantos)

Thus intones the poet in 1945, some twenty years after having embarked on this poetic Odyssey. By now he is writing from his prison hut in Pisa, where he was incarcerated for treason after World War 2, having broadcast for the Axis in Italy during the war. These later cantos are practically “outsider art”, since Pound was more or less a lunatic by then – though the first sixteen cantos – which appeared in 1925 – are bravura manifestations of his skill. Pound’s process of becoming, in the romantic sense, was unfortunately a process of becoming more and more unhinged.

Junk-heap it may be, but to my mind there is much that is good in The Cantos. This vast rambling epic may have its longeurs, but it still comprises some of the finest poetry of its age. Firstly, because of its sense of a voice. The tone is of a fine sung timbre throughout, and though Pound takes off the voices of gods, goddesses, sailors and whores, the tone of the narrator never stumbles. It is said that the key to story-telling is that the narrator’s voice must always be convincing, for if we believe in that we can go along with any character the narrator may describe. Pound’s stories are broken snatches of stories. All the more, therefore, we require this sense of a voice. Here is part of Canto LXXIV:

“…eater of grape pulp
xxxxxxin coitu inluminatio
Manet painted the bar at La Cigale or at Les Folies in that year
xxxxxxshe did her hair in small ringlets, à la 1880 it might have been,
red, and the dress she wore Drecol or Lanvin
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxA great goddess, Aeneas knew her forthwith
by paint immortal as no other age is immortal
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxLa France dixneuvième
Degas Manet Guys unforgettable
a great brute sweating paint said Vanderpyl 40 years later of Vlaminck
xxxxxxxxfor this stone giveth sleep
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxstaria senzu più scosse
xxxxxxxxand eucalyptus that is for memory
xxxxxxxxunder the olives, by cypress, mare Tirreno,
xxxxxxxxPast Malmaison in field by the river the tables
xxxxxxxxSirdar, Armenonville
Or at Ventadour the keys of the chateau;
xxxxrain, Ussel,
To the left of la bella Torre xxxxxthe tower of Ugolino                                                              in the tower to the left of the tower
xxxxxxxxxxxchewed his son’s head
and the only people who did anything of any interest were H., and
xxxxxxxFrobenius der Geheimrat…”

Associations are established, then abandoned. The voice is the voice (or voices) in the mind being spoken. Names which mean something to us are mixed with names which mean nothing to us. We know the impressionists Pound mentions, and Ugolino was I believe imprisoned with his children without food – with the result that he ate his own offspring. There are references to the country of the troubadours, and a groundswell of mythic Mediterranean lyricism, but we can put little together. This is not some puzzle whose pieces will eventually make a unified picture. The picture is that of reflections in a broken glass. Its vision is one of collapse, of atrophy. The references simply pile up like books and then topple over. No canto is complete: each accumulates its own dross and is then abandoned, as the poet shambles on to another pile of detritus. All we have are the poignant cadences of the poem’s continuity, the wavering voice that cannot help but find the right pauses, the measured phrases of poetry, because the voice is steeped in the way of its verse.

Pound was a pioneering modernist. His battle cry was, Make it new! Other pioneers also immersed themselves in huge projects which could be wrestled with but never definitively completed – one such project is James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. At a later date, we find a similar spirit of nonfinito informing the work of William Burroughs. Fold-back techniques and textual collage open one out to a process of making writing – a writing for which one need claim no responsibility. Burroughs has compared himself to a wireless below some antenna: he is simply an apparatus emitting signals picked up from air, relaying the messages on the waves. Christopher Isherwood had a similar notion when he titled one of his books, I am a Camera.

* * * *

The modernism of the late nineteenth century was innovative and inclined to obscurantism. Early modernists liked to modify or extend existing forms – as George Meredith extended the sonnet form from fourteen to sixteen lines in his excellent sequence Modern Love, published in 1862 – or at least Swinburne referred to these lyrics as sonnets. The modernism that came after the first world war was more savage. By then it had become a movement determined to overthrow old values and to seek for some Utopian alternative. The “closure” of completion indicated a world locked into its old ways, immutable, resistant to change. Thus, the varnished finish of pre-Raphaelite painting was anathema. Such perfected surfaces only served to convince viewers of the plausibility of windows which looked out onto illusions – dangerous illusions such as, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Prompted by the sketchy impressionism of artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s, incompleteness kept gaining adherents.

An impression cannot be completed. Many of the best works by minor painters of this period, such as the Norfolk painter Arnesby-Brown, are oil sketches executed al fresco in preparation for some finished canvas later. Such sketches, whether done in water-based media or in oils, go back far further than the epoch we associate with the impressionists. Chinese masters prided themselves on the spasm of energy that did no more than suggest a landscape of mist, willows and mountains in a swiftly-realised ink painting. Claude Lorraine made vibrant impressionist sketches in the seventeenth century. Fragonard dashed off a marvelous series of Portraites de Fantaisie: in these he would dress up his friends in theatrical costume and do the picture in one sitting, never taking longer than an hour. Was it a completed thing when the hour was up? In these works there are no deliberately uncompleted areas, but they do without the worked-over smoothness and the cold glazing of a “finished” subject. Each canvas epitomises painting con brio, executed with éclat in a fit of inspiration. Each is an impression – and each has a freshness of brush-stroke and a speed we might associate with Frans Hals, painter of The Laughing Cavalier.


Even so, I doubt whether one can insist that a “dashed-off” portraite de fantaisie is incomplete. Among figurative modernists, Alex Katz is said to complete his canvases in a single day – and sometimes these canvases are pretty large: so here is a method which echoes that of Fragonard. But however thin it may be, a uniform layer usually ends up covering the surface. I think artists learn to cater to their own needs in the time allotted.

Perhaps the time-limited painting constitutes an answer to the problem of completion, but somehow I doubt it. With practice the artist learns to cover the whole surface at least, and develops some method with a beginning, a middle and an end.  But a specific time-limit (an hour, a day) rather militates against the open-endedness which is a pre-requisite of sublime nonfinito.

Willem de Kooning’s work seems less complete, although he might have spent far longer than Katz on getting the painting the way he wanted it. Take Woman on the Dune, painted in 1967. Is it the way he wanted it? The work abounds in ambiguity. It is abstract expression with strong figurative suggestions in it, but which way are we to read the two humps which could be steep dunes, could be knees, could be a raised knee and a raised torso, the figure seen in profile now? Then the red smear above these humps could be the smear of lipstick, lipstick adorning a loud grin below a fuzz of ginger hair, but another shape veers off from this, sucks down demonically at the upturned face of the woman supposedly in profile. The two readings are in conflict, and meanwhile the painting is all about the vigorous action of actually painting it. Blue stain, red gash, pink slippage, yellow ground. How many times have things been rubbed out, scraped off, re-applied? Could the artist resolve these readings in conflict, or is the work about conflicts, conflicts in ourselves when we look, dazed by intense sunlight on the dune? Ultimately, the painting seems abandoned in this condition of conflict. And that seems precisely the right time to “let it go”.

Woman on the Dunes, 1967 (oil on paper & canvas)

In the twentieth century, incompletion moved rapidly through impressionism and then entered abstract impressionism via the intense, compacted fields of late cubism. When we are moved by things other than matters at hand then we are said to be abstracted, under the spell. There is a trance-like aspect to action-painting. But then, a more conservative artist, Francis Bacon would have said that a painting was only as good as its last mark. One mark too many and it may be ruined. Could Jackson Pollock have said the same? Quite possibly, but in his case, it would still be a matter not of deliberation, but rather that the fit of actions should last no longer than seems right. Time seems a more urgent factor to wrestle with than some notion of perfection – the sense of how long can I let this work go through a process of becoming, how long can I afford to, how soon am I going to meet with some accident, not be here any longer to carry on?

Pollock’s negative desire, his wish never to see the curve and flurry of a drip take on a shape, might be contrasted with Richard Hamilton’s knowing nonfinito, which is a sort of nonfinito effect, and the comparison is similar to that already made between Michelangelo and Rodin. For Rodin to model a broken stump of arm in bronze is a form of finished unfinishedness. It’s arch, a species of mannerism, almost. Hamilton epitomizes the use of nonfinito in this ironic way. This makes him no less significant. For in this respect he seems closer to the notion the masters had of leaving a work in a knowing state of incompletion – as demonstrated by della Francesca, da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Perhaps there is a species of completion obtaining to the work of Pollock and other abstract expressionists. Their works are fields, after all. Field painting demands an all-overishness – it harks back to Cezanne. Unlike the designed compositions of a Poussin or, later, a Courbet, in the fields of modernism there are no subsidiary sections, no central incidents. Every part of the canvas is as important as every other part and has the same urgency and strength of texture. All-overishness informs the very notion of matière. In fact we find a preoccupation with matière long before modernism – in Chardin, for instance – and it persists; for we find it also in Morandi. As a modernist factor, it chimes with the non-hierarchical manifesto of Communism. There are no privileged areas, no merely servile backgrounds. So when the drips are everywhere on the canvas at an equal intensity, the canvas could be said to be complete. Thus a sense of there being some resolution can be confirmed in the field paintings of Pollock.

Jackson Pollock in action

With nonfinito we are pitched into the problem of resolving the work, but the problem is left open, our wrestling with it becomes the subject. This is most apparent in the work of Larry Rivers, who is a master of the incomplete. On a canvas of his we may see his many “stabs at the subject”, his erasures.


Mistakes make for energetic incidents. As opposed to the all-overishness of field-painting, here we find stretches of raw canvas, words drawing our attention to specific locations, splotches which become incidents, fragments of material, faintly drawn workings, scribbles. Another American, Cy Twombly, seemed, in his earlier work, to be inspired by blackboards, and the vestiges of previous exercises, rubbed away for the most part but with the fragment of a word still clinging to the chalk scuffed surface. The mind’s internal screen is often thought of as a sort of tabula rasa.

Since moving on from this series of works using thin, very much ‘hand-drawn’ white lines in a wide variety of configurations on black and grey smudged grounds, Twombly has developed a conditional style. It seems that he teeters in his drawings between articulation and depiction: letters fail to realise themselves and become shapes that are never quite resolved, as if the artist started out to spell a word and ended with the faint suggestion of a pine-forest. This seems a meditation on how things are in the mind; played out in sketch-books and on large spacey canvases, and tackled in a way that could not be more different to the way David Salle might deal with a similar issue. For Twombly, things seem to enter the mind as “wimages” – to coin a term by using Lewis Carroll’s method of creating one word out of two. Twombly’s letter-ish near-shapes are word/images; neither fully realised, and liable to float away before their sense or significance is grasped. This evokes a sort of visual day-dream. And then sometimes, the ghost of a phrase will threaten to emerge, like a line of poetry or a phrase out of a song that keeps coming back to one. The viewer gets a strong sense of process from the work, of tensions the artist struggles to resolve, of jottings on vast telephone pads, of tentative thought and abandoned journeys.


Though dead of an overdose by 1988, Jean Michel Basquiat, who progressed from graffiti scrawled on the “D” train in 1976 to international art stardom, was influenced by Twombly; and by Jack Kerouac, the master of a sort of free-wheeling writing that drifts like the drifter he was. There is a “left-handedness” about Basquiat’s paintings, a maladroit forcefulness that chucks things together, sprays over them, adds words, loses them, adds more, crosses them out. He said in 1984, “I cross out words so that you will see them more: the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.” Basquiat understood defacement. In their violence, energy and crudity his pictures capture a sort street-life in two dimensions. Sometimes the work is grotesque, exuding intestines, teeth-bared, rising out of darkness, but I include it in nonfinito because the activity on any one canvas goes on only for as long as it feels like it should. One senses that the work has been created in a spasm of creativity – energetic scrawl sufficient to read as figure: add paint here and here. Enough! Basquiat had Haiti in his ancestry, and the sanguine ‘vodou’ art of that island informs his work, I feel. A last brooding photograph of Basquiat’s black face is as haunting as any image of the young Rimbaud. He’s holding Jack Kerouac’s novel The Subterraneans which was written in a “three day and three night Benzedrine-fuelled burst,” according to Kerouac’s biographer, Ann Charters.

Even today the spirits of Apollo and Dionysus preside over a fundamental division in the arts. We might call this the division between classicism and romanticism but this could prove misleading. The romantics of the seventeenth and eighteenth century were often perfectly classical when it came to finishing symphonies, novels and paintings. From an Apollonian height, they imposed their will on their material, and insisted that the material should reflect the human spirit. Art was pressed into the service of the emotions, and all the world’s surface served as a mirror for humanity. Thus the grand romantics rendered nature as matter imbued with pathos:  pathetique, as in Beethoven, or bathetic, as in Landseer.

For the modernists who came after them, material is nature: and in the twentieth century people thought a lot about the nature of sound, the nature of colour, of paint even, or the nature of language. This led to abstraction, but, actually, abstraction is a misleading term. It fails to point to the underlying reality, for there is a concrete reality about painting a white picture in white paint, as does Robert Ryman. Abstraction is material. And that material is the latent imagination of the artist in that particular medium. Language is the logos, the imagination of the poet; stone, or clay or bronze is the imagination of the sculptor. Action is the imagination of the performance artist. It’s what we believe we can get the material to do. A painter day-dreams in paint-tubes and linen: a video artist in key-edits and projectors. In other words, the imagination is the real, the as-yet-unformed and unexpressed that exists within the action, within the stone, within the language.

Prior to the twentieth century, big-time successes among the late romantics, had, while preaching spontaneity, set out to harness the imagination to human interest, while equating the human moods to the “moods” of nature and eliciting much popular applause. Some licence was accorded to Dionysus, but Apollo’s regular metres shaped each sentiment-laden project. And Apollo dictates that the will shall preside over the imagination, even when he sings about his feelings.

* * * *

In contrast, Dionysus is in spasm. As modernism began, so did the school of Spasmodic poetry. But the Spasmodics are rather dull – theirs was essentially Georgian poetry – epitomised by Sidney Dobell. His crowd intensified romantic content but remained Swinburnian in style, heavy on dated verse-forms; and they failed to break the frame of standard British verse. It was the destructive, abstract modernists who broke the frame and reversed the equation. For with Dionysus, the imagination steers the will, and steers it willy-nilly too – you never quite know where you’re going!

It comes out of Art for Art’s sake! We are stoned on art, as Dionysus was stoned on his grapes. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms, the medium is the message. In this game, nothing can ever be finished. It’s simply switched on or off.  “I am just doing some collaging.” Notice how wary even comparatively figurative artists such as Fischl and Salle are about assigning a considered meaning to their works, although anyone who can read a picture can elicit clear meanings from their canvases. It is really not fashionable among modernists to ascribe meaning to their processes. They like to think that they simply provide stimulation. They are servants of the visual, not pontiffs. This sort of disclaimer obtains even in these post-modernist times, so strong has been the grip of nonfinito on the twentieth century.

In music, nonfinito and incompletion gave rise to the emblematic music of that same century. Music as an engagement in playing rather than a finished composition has been epitomised by jazz, where improvisation is at the heart of the creative process. Improvisation is the time-based form of the unfinished. In television programmes documenting the nineteen-fifties and sixties, abstract expressionist painters are usually to be seen making their marks to the strains of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Larry Rivers initially made his name as a jazz saxophonist. Earlier, while jazz was emerging from the bars of North America, the tango had progressed from the brothels of Buenos Aires to fashionable salons throughout the world. The tango is as significant to the development of dance as jazz is to the development of music. For their respective arts, each is the improvisatory form par excellence. Each offers both a framework and a freedom. They emerge from similar conditions, from melting pots in the New World.

Whether you were in New Orleans, inviting someone to play music with you, or in Buenos Aires inviting someone to dance, the problem was the same, that is, there was, initially, a failure of language. Everyone came from different roots. Nobody knew the same songs or the same dances. The convergence of indigenous, enslaved and immigrant culture got everybody improvising, whether you improvised the roof over your head, the music you played with your neighbours or the dance you did when you met someone you fancied.

Outside the sphere of jazz, John Cage used chance as a process. He didn’t think that jazz went far enough. Jazz was improvisation within limits. It had a formal structure, for one thing, and it was also bounded by the consciousness of the musicians. Random procedures enabled more disconcerting surprises to occur. At the same time, Cage pushed technology to its limits, though here again the work was never concluded, since the technology kept evolving. Cage often created the sounds the great dancer Merce Cunningham would use for his pieces. Dancers would jump, twist, roll and writhe according to recipes for random movement suggested by the choreographer. If, by coincidence, a dance leapt in the air just as the music created a sudden stab of sound, the unison of action and sound was something that occurred by chance; and to Cage and Cunningham, such coincidences had a greater quality of simultaneity than when a dancer tried to “keep in time” to sounds heard milliseconds after they had been made. There was no finalised version of a piece, both sound and the sequence of actions altered every time it was performed. In this sense, the term “piece” is apt, since the work was never complete.

Derek Bailey (1930-2005), the British guitarist who pioneered a network of improvising musicians, can be located between these two positions in the polarisation of contemporary improvisation. His improvisation was free-form, not jazz. He wrote an excellent book on Improvisation, and his record-label, Orbis, was a source of the best improvised free-form. These improvisations would reach a certain pitch of intensity, and as that intensity waned the engagement with sound-making remained, but at last it would get abandoned. When Bailey played he seemed to get away from the derivative backdrops of familiar music – jagged Bartok, canto hondo – backdrops which sometimes weakened the playing of his colleagues. With Bailey, it sounded as if the guitar were filled with chalk. What did I say about Pollock, that he never wanted the curves and scurries of a drip to take shape? It’s as if Bailey never wanted noise to become tune. At the very ghost of a tune he averted his sound as Pollock averted his drip from a shape.


In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes refers to the need for the shadow of a meaning in a text, however material that text may be in Gertrude Stein’s repetitive terms. Stein of course was just as important as Pound when it came to pioneering modernist nonfinito in literature. But just as the general atrophy of a defeated culture persists as the shadow of a meaning behind the cantos of Pound, there’s the shadow of a meaning behind many of Stein’s texts. The shadow may lurk in the title. Tender Buttons, for instance. Now that’s a marvellous title. It suggests nipples of course, but also cookery – as in tender button mushrooms. That’s enough shadow to keep a text busy for some time.

But incompletionists may make a fetish out of never allowing a shape to emerge, or out of suppressing narrative, or out of erasing the shadow. And it is here that abstraction runs the risk of becoming academic. Carol Robertson, the abstract painter, writes messages to herself on the canvas she means to cover. The message may be no more than a name. By the time she decides to leave the picture alone, the words have been lost beneath the paint. For her, the subsequently-hidden words have resonances in handling and colour. Her affects are attached to these words. They have given the work a shadow. But is this merely subjective? How can we feel that shadow? The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets who followed the trail into abstract writing blazed by John Ashbery and Clark Coolidge in the sixties, often restrict themselves to writing down severely isolated words in excessively tight forms. I prefer at least the quandary expressed, or not, by Carol Robertson.

The poetry of the Clark Coolidge shares many of the formal abstract properties we have noted when discussing the work of J.H. Prynne in my essay on quietism and form. There is a similar abstract density, and a similar ambiguity of reading, for, like Prynne, Coolidge refuses to constrain himself to a purist endeavour so far as his abstraction is concerned. On the other hand, his poetry differs from Prynne’s in that he is less concerned with regular forms. Like Ashbery, he has written open-ended book-length poems. There is far less closure in his work than there is in Prynne’s, and one soon finds oneself reading quite specific content into the work, but, it’s a scrambled content, as if it had gone through the Moulinex mixer. As with Clough, we get a sense of the stress that goes along with all the niceties of living, but Coolidge has a respect for the jazz drummer and sometimes establishes a driving syncopated rhythm. His poems have more in common with the free-wheeling prose riffs of Jack Kerouac than with any of the above. Sometimes his oddly begun, oddly ended sentences read like a jazz solo, and a poem will evolve like a jazz session that just goes on until the dudes run out of steam. Here is a passage from Connie’s Scared – less than a third of the poem:

“The wind came up, the radishes died and
the peelings continued. No one could be
more hostile than a species enclosed in
a chimney for a century or so they told me.
The lighter fluid on the other hand might warm
your nails. We deserve overtime
for dealing daily with these mistreated burdens.
The milkweed pods for no reason in the world
we could see ignited and the frog is loose.
The mail at last arrived but you had better
proceed to lick your envelopes more heartily
as they all came empty. No one exactly states
but everybody thinks the whole world level
has been lowered and continues. If the flame
goes out the food will spoil, remember?

Then there is the problem of the stray moose
to be seen from the road or better not, bring
apples, take pictures, but the village idiot
had his son throw rocks….”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Clark Coolidge, Own Face)

Here we can sense more than a shadow of a meaning, surely? And Jackson Pollock retreated from the absolute materiality of his drip-actions and returned to the expressionistic figures which shadowed his abstraction in a later period – though one prior to his last paintings. These later Pollocks, in monochrome, are some of his most successful works, I feel, as they mediate precisely between the material imagination of abstraction – drips, actions – and the shadow of a gone figurative world last visited by Picasso: a distorted vision of that world perhaps, but it’s fitting that such shadows of meaning should emerge at the end, as a result of the improvisatory momentum, rather than be suppressed by some more arid concept of abstraction.

A good example of such improvisatory momentum leading quite casually to a deepening of significance is Frank O’Hara’s 1959 poem on the death of the jazz singer Billy Holiday (“Lady Day”). It’s called The Day Lady Died:

“It is 12.20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille Day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7: 1 5 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and                                                                casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems)

F. T. Prince includes this in his anthology of fragments, and he remarks on the method of O’Hara – an insouciant “I do this, I do that.” Beyond the nonfinito of its casual tone, the poem is incomplete in a particular way – for the reader has to know a lot, has to be able to fill out the poem’s references – that the 5 SPOT is a jazz club, that “Lady” is Billie Holiday and so on – thus the poem is completed by the reader and, quite possibly, by the reader’s personal memories. A movement O’Hara was associated with in the sixties was the New York School, and he spoke of his poetry as employing “personalism”, that is, he wrote as if he were writing a personal letter, wrote his poems to someone, and perhaps mentioned things only that person would know of. Other poets in the New York School employed similar tactics, the privacy of their poems amounting to abstraction; others, such as Coolidge, Kenward Elmslie and Harry Matthews, were more conceptually abstract at that time. Of the writers associated with the school, Ashbery’s poems were the most elegantly abstract, Coolidge’s the most radically so, and O’Hara’s the most “improvised”.

Improvisation in film is well exemplified by the films of John Cassavetes. In A Woman under the Influence, a ganger has brought his crew back for lunch, and, while his wife cooks and they eat, the wife gets quietly plastered. In this scene the camera-work is consummate: every angle is explored, and every close-up, as the characters spontaneously rant at the table, rise from it, gesticulate. And somehow or other the cameras never get in the way, must swing out of our view somehow. However improvised, a huge amount of preparation must have gone into the shoot. Cassavetes made his money playing Johnny Staccato, a jazz-playing private eye. He was very hip. Improvisation is hip.

Clark Coolidge, as I may have mentioned, used to play the drums, and the syncopations and collisions of a drum-riff can certainly be heard in his poetry.

The French film-maker, Jacques Rivette, set his actors a peculiar task for his epic-length Out one: Spectre. Inspired by a novel by Balzac, The Society of Thirteen, which concerns a secret society working in sometimes villainous ways for the good of the community, Rivette told the actors that they were that secret society. He then filmed them in a serial way, in solos, duets and trios. These were all improvised. Each actor brought his or her interpretation to the otherwise-unstated role. For instance, one actor might simply be a member of a secret society who had just taken drugs and was having a bad trip, maybe the actor was just having a bad trip, while another actor might be be in a telephone box trying to find out more about what it meant to be a member of a secret society.

In the Danish director Lars von Trier’s The Idiots, we get the sense that we are the invisible witnesses to some docu-reality. We are part of a small group of disaffected yuppies, goading each other on by “spassing out” – that is, pretending to be retarded in public situations causing embarrassment to all who are not in on the joke. There’s a strong dose of immoralism working on us here, but the film is the wonderful outcome of hours of improvisation around this theme. When interviewed by Nigel Floyd for Time Out, von Trier had this to say:

“The good thing that came out of using video cameras was that some of the scenes in The Idiots are only one-and-a-half-minutes long, but they were one hour long when we shot them…”

The Idiots is a Dogma 95 film, a contemporary European movement in film which advocates rules that proscribe the use of studio sets, tripods and dollies, artificial lighting, introduced props and music not played and recorded in real time. All films should be shot on 35mm film stock. But for Von Trier, these rules are there to be broken – as Catholics are allowed to lapse:

“I had this notion that I wanted to go into films that were less controlled. The limitations that are within the material, and the limitations that are within the actors, are therefore the limitations of the film. I didn’t go in and force things. I didn’t film it, I just looked through the camera. That was the technique…”

Among British film-makers, David Larcher is someone deeply immersed both in the process of his work and in that of his own being. His moving images reveal the innate nature of film or of video, and his work is a constantly exploratory process. One of his early films, Monkey’s Birthday, is very much an extended fragment that reveals his Heracleitan approach to creativity. Almost every frame of this six hour offering is hand-painted, subjected to a practically alchemical barrage of procedures and treatments which have no reason to be brought to a conclusion: the tinting of frames, the scratching of celluloid, the addition of newly printed repetitions of previously shown takes could go on forever. In Granny’s Is, key-edits are superimposed on previously manipulated material, which may comprise imagery Larcher has shot of his grandmother, or material from old home-movies, or material from other films, and we get the sense that we are watching many films at once, each from a multiplicity of perspectives. Larcher studied anthropology and paleontology before embarking on his film career, and his films are many layered. One senses that his process is essentially an archeological one that is at the same time informed by psycho-analysis. Bear in mind that Freud was fascinated by Pompeii, and liked to compare the process of analysis to that of excavation.


(see also http://making-light-of-it.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/mares-tailmonkeys-birthday.html)

In more recent videos, Larcher has moved from the chemistry of film to the physics of the electronic matter he is now engaged with, and Videovoid seems to work from nothing, or rather from signal, static, screen snow – the inchoate stuff of the medium. During screenings of his work, Larcher may make his presence known by commenting on the piece as it gets projected, creating an accompanying performance by picking fights with the audience or getting drunk. Frank Auerbach speaks of the process of painting as “bringing something new to life.” For Larcher, it is as if the film or video were still in the process of being born, as if he were still in labour.

Critics may say that the work is “unresolved”, but I think that this irresolution is part of the meaning. Larcher is a structural romantic, immersed in the modernist obsession with the essential nature of each medium employed, but at the same time refusing to acknowledge a separation between his life and his art, or between science and psychology, or between film and poetry. He is attempting to create an organon in film, an all-embracing, ultimate work that must at the same time remain constantly in labour, forever emergent, never finally formed.

* * * *

Performance art itself is generally considered to be the most ephemeral of all art forms. In the sixties, its practitioners made a virtue of this, scornfully identifying objects which could be bought and sold with the “material values” of the art-world. First published in 1968, Richard Wolheim’s Art and its Objects called into doubt the hypothesis that works of art must inevitably possess some physical substance.

Wolheim cited music and literature as instances of insubstantial manifestation. He spoke of the “concept of art as a form of life.” Just such a concept has governed the form of performance art. It’s a method of working that emerged out of the art-world and its “happenings” rather than out of the world of the theatre, and initially, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, it was taken up with visual, and essentially sculptural, issues, in an enthusiastic response to this concept of art as a form of life. The aim of performance art was to create a sculptural experience without producing a physical object. It could be argued though that the performers were always physical objects – even if they were objects that came and went with time – or one might maintain that the score, the documentation or the mapping-out of the performance, constituted such an object.

More interesting than the issue of its physicality, for our purposes, is the notion that the concept governing the performance may amount to an art object even if it is given no lasting physical form; and more interesting still is the notion that there may be no end to the performance, no final result sanctified by completion. This is true of the sculptural lives of Gilbert and George. Proclaiming themselves “Living Sculpture” in the late sixties, their concept of being statues of themselves is decidedly uncanny. To all intents, they dress each day in excessively formal suits and follow a strict routine that constitutes “being with art.” Their action seems highly controlled however, and, in a sense, sealed. The pair appear to be “complete”. Ultimately, however, their living sculpture will only be completed with their demise, but that is precisely when it will cease to exist, and, as the theorists of romanticism realised, death renders life incomplete. What will happen to George, if Gilbert dies before him, or to Gilbert, if George is the first to die? Will the survivor still be part of sculpture that Gilbert and George now constitute? Their work is intriguing precisely because it raises such issues, which are, after all, issues that concern most couples.

Julian Maynard Smith made a breath-taking attempt at a sublime performance (such aspirations must always remain essays or attempts) when his company Station House Opera created The Bastille Dances in Cherbourg’s historic Gare Maritime in 1989. This involved twenty-five performers creating a perpetually moving edifice, by manhandling some ten thousand breeze blocks. Architectural structures were invented, then these got transformed into new extravaganzas of construction. The performers “subjugated, released, supported and imprisoned each other to create a continuous mutation of forms: piles of rubble, walls, towers, arches, furniture, and pavements.” (Arts Admin – 20 Years – catalogue 1999). Here the performance was always in a state of flux – one is reminded of that Greek term phusis – meaning continuous change – which has been discussed in some detail in my essay on Grandeur. Station House’s concept was grandiose, and realised in a grand way. At the same time the polymorphous nature of the material created continuous change rather than a set task that spelled out completion. You could say that this performance achieved a species of sublimity, by attempting that fusion of grandeur and incompletion striven for earlier by the romantics at Jena.


Other performance artists may derive benefit from nonfinito when they improvise, for this compounds the ephemerality of their medium. Not only has it no physical constitution after it has been made, but it is also unrepeatable and unfinished. The process of making is all. It is not a secret. It is that very process made public. And as such, performance bears little resemblance to the dark-room activities of the photographer, though the performance artist Martin Burton – who has always been immersed in photography and its techniques – has created spooky performances which occur in the dark.

Over the years performance art has become increasingly structured and rehearsed. Yet since it is an art-form created from the living body of the artist, it ineluctably remains in thrall to incompletion, and, by dint of fatigue and ultimately mortality, it lends itself to the mode of nonfinito. This was understood by the artists who pioneered the “happenings” in the fifties and sixties, many of which were improvised within the bounds of some fairly loose concept or excuse for action which often had as its outcome a painting or a sculpture. These physical results constituted traces rather than completed artifacts. They were the results of the action, abandoned when the action was exhausted, and often these actions relied fairly heavily on improvisation. Performances, particularly in those days, were often devoid of narrative, and the artists reluctant to spell out their theme. Improvising performance groups discovered that the subjective projections stimulated in the audience by some enigmatic confluence of actions were well served by recourse to physical expressions and exercises informed by spontaneity. Such improvisations are very much the standard practice in workshops today and are sometimes called “free sessions”. In the same way as a free-form musician may practise scales and improve instrument tonality before improvising, the performance artist may “rehearse” by working on more structured exercises and improving physical and vocal potential, while avoiding prior planning before the free session itself. When the performers are highly attuned to each other, the results can “look” rehearsed to a high degree. But this “look of rehearsal” is not in conflict with the unfinished nature of the improvisation.

* * * *

Performance, which is so often perceived as an “ephemeral” form, seems an obvious candidate for nonfinito and for “making it up as you go along.” But even a form as seemingly stable as architecture can be improvised, as children improvise dens and camps in the woods.

Marvelous examples can be found of the architecturally incomplete. Near Agrigento, in Sicily, there are quarries that were used in antiquity where the fluted marble drums intended for the columns of temples have never been separated by any saw from the vein of marble they were hewn from there in the side of the hill. Doubtless intended for some abandoned project, they seem to have grown in the quarry of their own accord! Mention should be made also of the paintings of Thomas Jones, who worked on views of Rome in the period of neo-classicism. His work is meticulously realistic, highly finished, and informed by a quiet formality, but his subject matter includes buildings without roofs, and sometimes with incomplete walls. Critics (Wolheim in particular) have pointed to a certain timelessness about these canvases, since one cannot always tell whether the buildings shown are in a state of decay or in the process of being built.

In his entertaining and informative Art Chronicles John Ashbery brings the reader’s attention to Sarah Winchester’s Llanda Villa (begun in the 1880s) which “stands amid the sun-drenched gloom of a commercial strip on the outskirts of San Jose, California.” Maintained, and partly restored now, by private investment, which runs it primarily as a Winchester rifle museum, Sarah, the widow of William Wirt Winchester, whose father manufactured the repeating rifle that helped “win the West,” might, as Ashbery says, “have appreciated the respect shown by the restorers, who have gone so far as to leave unfinished parts of the house which may well have been intended to remain that way.”


Sarah was convinced that she was haunted by the ghosts of dead Indians, victims of the rifle; the very ghosts who had already disposed of her infant daughter and of her husband. She was then told by a medium that she would only be safe “if she undertook to build a house on which work would continue eternally, night and day, in which case she could expect to live forever.” The traps and distractions for ghosts built into the house include a “stairway which rises to the ceiling and ends there.” Ashbery adds that “at one time there may have been as many as 750 rooms: since the workmen had to be kept busy, destruction, or perhaps de-construction, was as important an activity as building…”

“Some have suggested that the incongruities of the house are due to Sarah’s ineptitude as an architect. How else account for skylights built where the light of the sun could never strike them; for doors that open on blank walls or a sheer drop; for a chimney, connected to several fireplaces, that rises four stories and stops just inches short of the roof? Perhaps. But in my opinion neither the ghost-buster nor the hopeless-amateur theory can account for the house: one senses immediately on entering it that Sarah Winchester, with all her peculiarities, was an artist. For her house is an enchantment, and that could be exactly what she intended all along.”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(John Ashbery, Reported Sightings, p. 341)

After working for some forty-two years on it (between 1884 and 1926), Antoni Gaudi died before his strange, intentionally skeletal cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona could be finished, but controversy rages as to whether it should ever be finished “properly”: attempts so to do have succeeded only in the installation of rather conventional conclusions in some areas, conclusions that many feel are the result of decisions reached by committee, utterly devoid of the capricious originality that was the hallmark of this architect.

Another architectural maverick, the eccentric millionaire Edward James, was a great supporter of surrealism. He spent a very large part of his fortune building a palace called Las Pozas (The Pools) in the jungle surrounding the hilltop town of Xilitla, Mexico, in San Luis Potosi state, near Tampico. The thirty-six fantastic structures that comprise Las Pozas are built around nine pools connected by extravagantly embellished waterfalls. This palace took some twenty-five years to construct and had he persisted in good health James would have doubtless continued to extend it. Some of the world’s finest orchids grow here – it was orchids that first brought James to Xilitla. The palace is infested with these, and with lianas, and vines and ferns, and with muscular trees which grow intertwined with the constructions.

Las Posas

It is likely that in the end the jungle will prevail and what was begun but never completed here will be overwhelmed and torn apart by rampant vegetation. But such a fate may have been predicted by the instigator. Andre Breton appreciated the surreal shapes naturally created by the jungle, and as a vast folly, a ruin submerged beneath huge green fans, slowly but inexorably being strangled by vegetal boa-constrictors, Las Pozas will achieve a destiny fitting its inception. As with the paintings of Thomas Jones, the unfinished enters into some strange affinity with the decayed.

Those who are drawn to Nonfinito are aware that their work will never be perfect, but equally it can never be ruined. It concerns itself with the attempt. In order to taste of the sublime, it may bite off more than it can chew. This is well shown in the work of Janine Antoni, a performance artist who has often managed to leave an object behind which is both evidence of her action and the artwork itself. Such a work is the giant cube of chocolate which she has nibbled at and chewed, but which remains for the most part intact. The piece is a wry dig at the Platonic perfection of forms which distinguishes the minimalism of artists such as Donald Judd and Walter de Maria. It is also a fine effigy of the incomplete. Is the cube complete except for the chewed edge of it? Or is it that the act of chewing has not yet been completed? And do these two opposed manifestations of nonfinito amount to a finished artwork?

Anthony Howell, December 2003.


Shelley: The Colosseum – a fragment
Hanne de Boven
Emma Hamilton’s improvisations
Bobby Baker’s roaming
Dibbets controlled fragment
Amikam Toren
Susan Hiller
Cypress corner posts
Firth of Forth

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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4 Responses to ‘Nonfinito’ or the Art of Incompletion

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