14. Non finito
June 28th, 2020

James Hunter Black Draftee (Alice Neel, 1965)
(File under: art, portraiture, completion)

This week I gave thanks to The Algorithm, hallowed be its nebulous processes, for suggesting Sarah Urist Green’s wonderful YouTube channel The Art Assignment, specifically its latest episode about unfinished art.

The video uses the Met Breuer’s inaugural exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible as a jumping-off point to ask when (or if!) a piece of art can be considered complete, why a piece of art might be left intentionally incomplete, along with the knotty, often tragic, human stories that accompany these questions. It’s thoughtful and approachable, and it practically fizzes with interesting references, quotes and connections. Some of the art was familiar to me, like Benjamin West’s the Treaty of Paris—a portrait to commemorate the end of the American Revolutionary War which depicts the US delegation staring down a blank area of canvas where the British delegation should be. However, the standout piece for me was one I’d never seen before: Alice Neel’s 1965 painting, James Hunter Black Draftee:

James Hunter Black Draftee

Nothing has reminded me that I haven’t stepped foot in an art museum since February like being stopped in my tracks by this portrait. The story goes that James Hunter had been drafted for the Vietnam War and sat for Alice Neel less than a week before leaving. In their first and only session, Neel completed the underdrawing before focusing her oils entirely on Hunter’s face. When Hunter failed to return for a second sitting, Neel signed the portrait and declared it complete. It remains unknown what happened to Hunter.

Isn’t it remarkable? Something about the piece feels like how you imagine people in dreams—big clouds of half-remembered haze with small areas of pinpoint focus. It’s a fitting rendering of somebody whose thoughts were presumably far removed from his body at the time he sat to be painted. There’s a palpable weight in his expression, an entire spectrum of defeat. If you can pull your eyes away from his face, even Neel’s viewpoint is fascinating, looking down at her subject sat slumped and defeated, with something I want to believe is compassion.

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