Waylaid by Great Beauty; The Search for Beginnings

Of the responses we experience when faced with a great work of art, one of the most basic is purely acquisitive: When an object is of such beauty that we can’t imagine living without it, we want to stuff it in our backpack and trot on home with it. Another response is just as sincere and more community-minded: the need to alert friends that there’s a super piece of art in the vicinity. I experienced both reactions looking at the terra cotta head displayed at the entrance to Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture , an exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dating between the 12th and 14th centuries and measuring less than nine inches in height, the head was crafted by an anonymous artist belonging to the Yoruba, a people who trace their origins to the city of Ife Ife in present-day Nigeria. The most striking aspect of the head-at least for those us who are enthusiasts of, rather than experts in, African art-is its naturalism. With its supple indicators of bone and muscle, the piece is without the extreme distortions of anatomy typical of African art. Mere divergence from the norm doesn’t account for its extraordinary power, however. The head’s imposing calm and aristocratic mien are intrinsic to its form, as is the unearthly sensuality it radiates. I’ve never seen anything like it. Standing in front of it, I didn’t want to see anything else.

“The profounder forms of art,” visitors read on the introductory wall label, are “retrieval vehicles for, or assertive links with, a lost sense of origin.” This lovely bit of phrase-making from the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka goes straight to the heart of Genesis : The show explores how disparate, if geographically linked, cultures gave body to their own particular beliefs about the nature of the universe and the role they occupied within it. Organized by Alisa LaGamma, the Met’s associate curator in the Department of the Arts, Oceania and the Americas, the exhibition has been installed with a noticeable sensitivity-the strengths of each work are put into sharp focus. Of course, picking the right object is important, too, and Ms. LaGamma has chosen some doozies here. Particularly arresting are two headdresses by the Bamana peoples of Mali, both of which, as distillations of form, are elegant and outrageous. The lone drawback is the obligatory video: Though it serves an educational purpose (it documents how certain objects are used in dance and ritual), it ultimately distracts, drawing viewers away from the art on hand. Humankind somehow managed to appreciate art before the advent of television-a lesson that would seem a natural with an exhibition canted toward the elemental.

Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until April 13.

Eccentric Collection

With a lineup of luminaries like Camille Corot, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, how could a collection of French art go wrong? Certainly the Janice H. Levin Collection, currently tucked away in a corner of the Met’s Lehman Wing, doesn’t. Levin and her husband Philip began collecting French art in the late 1960′s, a pursuit she continued after Philip’s death in 1971 and up until 1998, when she acquired Eugène Boudin’s Crinolines on the Beach, Trouville (1889). (Levin herself died in 2001.) Complaints that her taste was unadventurous are belied by the collection’s eccentricity. Not a few of the pieces are just plain odd: The Artist’s Garden (1873) by Monet, with its overripe accumulation of blossoms, may be the most vulgar thing he ever painted. An early Toulouse Lautrec finds him in an uncommonly bucolic mood. The slapdash Gondola, Venice , an 1881 canvas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is spatially unsound and exciting because of it. Amedeo Modigliani’s aestheticizing tendencies can’t suppress the strong psychological undercurrent informing his Head of a Woman (circa 1918). And then there’s the handful of canvases by Édouard Vuillard, a painter whose modestly stated accomplishment grows in stature with each passing year. His Model Undressing (1902-3) is atypical in its brightness and gloriously typical in its density. It alone is worth a visit to the Met.

A Very Private Collection: Janice H. Levin’s Impressionist Pictures is at the Met until Feb. 9.

Storybook Existentialism

The smell of pencils permeates the Adam Baumgold Gallery, and if it doesn’t trigger memories of a Proustian dimension, the sculpture of András Böröcz just might. Pencils-whether they be from G.T. Rentals in Brooklyn, the Czech Republic or Home Depot-are Mr. Böröcz’s medium, and carving is his specialty. To say that he whittles stick figures is to disparage his meticulous execution and, in particular, his gift for gesture: The manner in which Mr. Böröcz’s Giacometti-thin everymen crook their necks, cross their legs or tense their bodies in concentration is so true to life that one could almost call him a realist. He’s not, though. Ensconced in box-like dioramas (also made from pencils), his figures occupy a realm where time has been stilled by solitude. Artists, card players, Houdini, and even the knife thrower and his assistant are all caught in a moment of molasses-like torpidity. Shot through with an absurdism that stops just short of dread, Mr. Böröcz’s scenarios recall folk art, medieval altarpieces, Mitteleuropa and the sculpture of ancient Egypt-the eraser-tipped head of each figure is positively Pharonic. The only time the pieces ring false is when our eye lights on the dioramas’ cartoonish drawings. Storybook cute we don’t need; storybook existentialism we do-at least as embodied by the hands of a craftsman as ingenious as Mr. Böröcz.

Andras Böröcz is at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, 74 East 79th Street, until Jan. 18.