The eternal life of 'Pablo' and other brilliant but unfinished works

Kanye West performs during Kanye West Yeezy Season 3 on February 11, 2016 in New York City.

Deadlines are a nuisance.

There's a story I heard on the audio tour at the Barnes Foundation that - like most discussions of great art - eventually will bring me back to subject of Kanye West.

One of Dr. Albert Barnes' favorite artists was Maurice Prendergast, the American post-impressionist who has 21 paintings in the museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway. The story goes that Prendergast was frequently tempted to alter his own works. Once, while dining chez Barnes, he sneaked off to add a few brushstrokes to one of his paintings hanging on the wall at the doctor's Merion manse. It might have looked perfectly fine to everyone else, but in the eyes of the artist, the piece was unfinished.

That brings to mind one of the great, still-not-done projects of the 20th century, now carrying on well into the 21st: Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson books. The first biographical volume was published in 1982, and the fourth in 2012. In 2002, Caro talked in an interview about his frustration, as a lowly newspaper reporter, with having to let go of a story as a deadline approached: "They'd give you a week, they'd give you a month, but at the end of the month, I'd always have more questions." So far, the now-80-year-old Caro has been working on answering his LBJ questions for four decades. Hopefully, one of these years, he'll publish the fifth and maybe final volume.

What's all that got to do with The Life of Pablo? Everything. After he changed the title several times, West's long-awaited follow-up to 2013's Yeezus was expected to be available as a finished product on Feb. 11.

That, of course, did not happen. Instead, it soon became apparent West had blown his own deadline. After staging a fashion show/listening party at Madison Square Garden on the release day, the multitasker tweeted later that night that he was back in the studio with Chance the Rapper, the Chicago comer who rhymes on "Waves," a song once meant to be the album's title cut, then dropped from it altogether, and then ultimately included.

That was just the beginning of what has turned into one of the most botched - or brilliant - album rollouts ever by a major artist. For weeks, West continued to add songs and change others on the album, which was not for sale (but which was widely pirated and shared) and available only as a stream on Tidal, the Jay Z-helmed music service that comes in a distant third behind Spotify and Apple Music in terms of subscriber reach.

As of April Fools' Day, The Life of Pablo was available to buy - for $20 on - and could be listened to on all the major streaming services. But does that mean it's actually done?

Hardly. TLOP may not have come out when and how it as supposed to because West was too busy designing sneakers and going on head-scratching Twitter rants about Bill Cosby's innocence to turn it in on time. And though it contains brilliantly self-aware moments like "I Love Kanye" and effectively paranoid ones such as "Wolves," it also - intentionally or not - sounds far more unfinished than any previous Kanye album.

But that work in progress has, probably by accident, led to artistic opportunity. West's label, Def Jam, now refers to the Pablo rollout as part of a "groundbreaking windowed release strategy." That may just be PR-speak, but what is genuinely intriguing about The Life of Pablo is the plan to let the album continue to develop long after the conventional release date has passed.

"In the months to come, Kanye will release new updates, new versions, and new iterations of the album," the Def Jam statement reads. "An innovative, continuous process, the album will be a living, evolving art project." As West put it on Twitter: "Life of Pablo is a living breathing changing creative expression."

That's an idea that West - and artists of all stripes who just can't bear the idea of being done with whatever endeavor is obsessing them - can easily get behind. Social-media marketing and instant Internet distribution have given artists the flexibility to suddenly spring music on their fans, as everyone from Radiohead to Beyonce to Wilco have successfully done in recent years, and as Canadian rapper Drake is expected to do any day with the long-awaited Views From the 6.

With streaming music gaining traction and actual music ownership on the downswing, West has (probably accidentally) happened on a strategy of altering his music according to his whims - which are many, so this could get wearying - and keeping the work evolving long after the official release date has passed.

Since the advent of file-sharing at the turn of the century, there's been much blather about the death of the album, despite the continued impulse of artists of stature like West to think in terms of musical statements that involve groups of sequenced songs rather than just individual jams.

But by putting the "living breathing art project idea" into practice, West, or anyone else who chooses to work that way, can potentially give an album new life by continually reshaping it like a musical software update. (Or, left to their own devices, they could ruin it through obsessive tinkering.) Like Maurice Prendergast at his patron's house, West can go back to the studio any time he likes to add a verse, beef up a beat, or include more songs, as he did when he decided to put the Kendrick Lamar-guesting "No More Parties in L.A." on Pablo after all.

That's the track that gives Pablo its name. On it - when he's not mocking his own immaturity by calling himself "a 38-year-old 8-year-old," or fixating on his Philly-raised ex, Amber Rose - West repeatedly compares himself to a Pablo we can safely assume is Picasso, an uncontested genius worthy of the association in West's mind.

"I feel like Pablo when I'm working on my shoes," he raps. "I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news." Unlike West, the protean Spanish artist - whose current show at the Barnes is called The Great War, Experimentation and Change - didn't get to create in the age of digital technology, where altering one's work and delivering it to a mass audience can be managed with a few clicks.

Picasso had plenty of ideas about never fully letting go of his precious creations, though. "To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense!" the great man, who's also featured in the Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible group show at the new Met Breuer museum in Manhattan, once said. "To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to be rid of its soul."

The Life of Pablo strategy for nurturing art takes those words to heart: The best way to keep the music alive is to keep trying to perfect it, forever.