A Question of Finish: thoughts on the work of Jeff Cowen

Jeff Cowen: Photoworks, König Books, 2016

‘A Question of Finish: thoughts on the work of Jeff Cowen’ is an essay commissioned  for Jeff Cowen’s book Photoworks, published by König in 2016, on the occasion of a major traveling exhibition of his work.

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From the opening section of the essay:

The invitation to write about the work of Jeff Cowen came by email. The phone in my pocket vibrated as I was in the café of the Met Breuer in New York, the new outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition I had come to see was titled Unfinished: thoughts left visible, and it set out to explore the question of when a work of art is finished. The scope was impressive, from Renaissance masters, through modernism to the present. There were works by Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, and Cézanne, as well as Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Janine Antoni and Lygia Clark. There were things that had been cast aside by their makers for one reason or another, and had ended up as official ‘works’. Alongside these were more recent examples where artists had deliberately left things unfinished, opening the possibility that this might be a legitimate way of achieving a different kind of completion. Perhaps this is what the prescient Leonardo da Vinci had in mind when he remarked: “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. Or maybe it is closer to the thinking of Marcel Duchamp in our own era. Upon hearing that his great opus The Large Glass (1915-23) had been badly cracked in transport, Duchamp promptly declared it “definitively unfinished.”

Although the exhibition had no overall style and drew upon works made in many different media, it was dominated by painting and sculpture, and I could not help noticing the near absence of photography. The omission could not have been due to institutional aversion, or indifference to the medium: the Metropolitan has been collecting and showing photography in ambitious ways for a long time. So, might it be that photography cannot be unfinished? Or, to put the question slightly less clumsily, is photography finished by default, in ways that would disqualify it from such an exhibition? If not, what might an unfinished work of photography look like?