Met’s Millennium Show Proves 1 Was Good Year

Of the many things to be said about the exhibition called The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West , which a team of curators headed by Elizabeth S. Milleker has organized at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first is that it is very beautiful. It is indeed the most beautiful, as well as the most intellectually compelling, of all the exhibitions which the New York art museums have mounted to mark the new millennium. And with slightly less than 150 works on view-some of them really tiny, too- The Year One is also the smallest of these museum millennium shows.

As a rule, I do not favor the idea that less is more. With the things that matter most in art-aesthetic quality, for instance-less is never to be preferred to more. Yet the response of our museums to the new millennium has too often been a dispiriting reminder that sheer size is no substitute for either clarity of thought or aesthetic intelligence. Far from enhancing our understanding of anything-except, perhaps, the marketing mentality now dominant in our museum bureaucracies-the overkill scale of most of these millennium shows has left their ostensible subjects in an intellectual shambles.

Public comprehension of American art in the 20th century will not soon recover from The American Century debacle at the Whitney Museum of American Art, nor will the cause of connoisseurship in art quickly recover from the muddle of 1900: Art at the Crossroads at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. As for MoMA 2000 , which is now in its final agony at the Museum of Modern Art, it certainly got off to a promising start, with those thrilling rooms devoted to the great paintings and sculptures from the early decades of the 20th century. But since then, it has mostly been a downhill slide until, with the current Open Ends disaster, MoMA 2000 appears to be culminating in the vulgarization and trivialization of practically everything-art and life, nature and society, science and technology, and the museum itself.

Even without such dismal comparisons, however, The Year One would be instantly recognizable as an uncommonly elegant and intelligent exhibition. It takes us back to the art and culture of the period, some 2,000 years ago, that marked the beginning of the Christian calendar, and it offers a broad sampling of what can be said to constitute the principal artistic currents of that distant era from a worldwide perspective. The result is a show that is at once a connoisseur’s delight and a many-sided intellectual challenge. Among the most daunting of the challenges it presents us with is the realization that, in many disparate cultures some 2,000 years ago, the visual arts were on a much higher level, both of aesthetic quality and spiritual aspiration, than most of the art so far produced in the year 2000 can make any claim to. It is in this sense, at least, that The Year One is an historically humbling experience.

In an essay for the show’s catalog called “The Year One: Empires and Trade Routes Across the Ancient World,” Ms. Milleker sets out the boundaries encompassed by this worldwide perspective. At the beginning of the first millennium, she writes, “five contiguous powers stretched from the Atlantic Ocean across the Mediterranean Sea and Asia to the Pacific; the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire, the Kushan Empire, the nomadic confederation of the Xiongnu, and the Han Empire. Works from these regions and from independent kingdoms in Arabia, India, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan are presented here, as well as art of the city-states and kingdoms of Mesoamerica and the western coast of South America.”

If this sounds impressive-well, it is, and all the more so because most of the objects on view are drawn from the Met’s own encyclopedic collections. Among the most amazing of these objects are the Panels from the Black Room of the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase , Roman wall paintings dating from the last decade of the first century B.C. These mostly black panels, which served as bedroom decorations for a villa built by Agrippa, friend of the emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter Julia, are paintings of a high order. And to the modern eye, they inevitably invite comparison with the wall paintings in the Rothko Chapel in Houston-a comparison that may be hinted at in a wall text speaking of black walls that “appear at once to be flat and to dissolve into limitless space.”

Yet it is mainly for its sculpture and other three-dimensional objects that The Year One is an especially rich aesthetic experience. The carved alabaster Female Head from South Arabia; the terra cotta Plaque with Royal Family , an elegant family portrait from West Bengal in India; the partially painted earthenware Female Dancer from the Western Han dynasty in China; the bronze Ceremonial Object in the Form of an Ax Head from Indonesia; the gold Funerary Mask from Colombia; and the bronze Bell from the late Yayoi period in Japan-these, plus the dazzling selection of Roman sculpture, of which the bronze Portrait Statue of a Boy from the Augustan period is perhaps the finest, are but some of the highlights of this exhibition.

It was an inspired idea to think of marking the new millennium with an exhibition of this quality and scope, and it has been realized with an appropriate combination of taste, scholarship and attention to public instruction. Nowadays, when college professors cannot always count on their students knowing exactly when either the First or the Second World War took place-as I have lately learned from visits to several campuses-it is audacious, to say the least, to mount an exhibition that requires a rudimentary acquaintance with the history and geography of the ancient world to be fully understood. Congratulations, then, to Ms. Milleker and her curatorial colleagues at the Met on two counts: both for their choice of objects to be included in this exhibition, and for the clarity and intelligence they have brought to the catalog and the wall texts of the exhibition.

The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West remains on view at the Met, on the first floor adjacent to the new Greek Galleries, through Jan. 14.