An Indispensable Reminder: Civilization’s Not a Done Deal

Talk about timing. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus , an exhibition that recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, focuses on the art and culture of Mesopotamia, “the cradle of civilization” encompassing modern-day Iraq as well as portions of Turkey and Syria. There’s no way the organizers of this show could have imagined the extent to which Iraq would come to dominate world events. (Planning for the exhibition began in 1997, and prognostication is not a skill most museum curators possess.) Nor could they have foreseen, at least in the early going, a world transformed by 9/11 or a subsequent-and troubled-interest in the Middle East on the part of many Americans.

Current events undoubtedly called for complicated feats of diplomacy in the mounting of the show, as well as snags in acquiring loans. A discreet wall panel, affixed near a lion-headed eagle pendant from the National Museum in Damascus, declares the curators’ regret that “difficult political circumstances have prevented a fuller representation of Syria’s vital role in the birth and development of civilization.” An art historian I know professed amazement that the Met pulled the show off at all.

Can one visit Art of the First Cities and not be distracted by contemporary geopolitics? It’s difficult, but not impossible. There are objects on display of great aesthetic merit. The mosaics covering the Standard of Ur , with their luminous chunks of lapis lazuli and scurrying gnome-like figures, will fix the visitor’s attention. The delicate carving of myriad cylinder seals and cuneiform fragments are guaranteed to astonish. Viewers will marvel at the stylistic invention-sometimes whimsical, often imposing-in the depictions of fauna. They will also come face to face with history: The late-third-millennium head of a ruler, a copper-alloy sculpture from the Met’s own collection, looks at us with a frankness that is daunting but also humane.

The pleasure one derives from individual pieces, while considerable, makes less of an impact than the exhibition as a whole, and this is where world events color our experience of Art of the First Cities . One leaves it with an invigorated awareness of civilization’s ongoing relevance-which is, after all, the duty of a museum. That’s an obvious truth made less obvious by cultural depredations to which we have become inured. One of the lessons we’ve learned from 9/11 is that civilization isn’t a done deal, that its fate can be determined as much by threats to its vitality as by its attainments. We owe thanks to institutions like the Met for confirming just how much is at stake in the preservation of culture and, as such, civilization. Art of the First Cities is many things-stunning and scholarly, thorough and humbling. Above all, it’s indispensable.

Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Aug. 17.

Really Big

Don’t be fooled by the buzz surrounding Joel Shapiro’s recent sculptures, which are on display at the Chelsea branch of PaceWildenstein. That a couple of the pieces are big- really big-isn’t news. Scale has never posed a problem for Mr. Shapiro-or much of a challenge: He may as well be tying his shoes when fabricating a sculpture that barely clears the gallery’s warehouse-like ceiling. Similarly, claims that the new pieces are “abstract” are exaggerated. Just because the artist’s rectangular totems are no longer one-to-one signifiers of the human form doesn’t make them any less figurative. Indeed, the less emblematic the pieces are, the more closely they approximate flesh and blood.

Mr. Shapiro’s Minimalist everymen suffered from a literalism that made a glib, if immaculate, joke of his knack for gesture. Here, gesture is its own reward, underscoring the work’s roots in antiquity. A wood construction in the east gallery is, in its sweep and drama, the Dying Gaul of the 21st century. Not that the sculptures achieve a sublime level of accomplishment. Form, for Mr. Shapiro, is a prop to be manipulated, not an agent of life. He can’t imagine its independence; he can only grant it his expertise. As things go, that’s not bad, but neither is it enough.

Joel Shapiro: Recent Work is at PaceWildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, until July 31.

Anxiety of Influence

“There’s no accounting for taste” is the old cliché about the anomalies of individual choice. I’d like to put forth a new cliché: “There’s no accounting for influence.” Can you ever draw a straight line between the work of one artist and another? The textbooks tell us we can: Think of Picasso and Cézanne, de Kooning and Ingres, Gorky and Miró. There are conundrums, too. I still haven’t figured out how the greatest painter of the 20th century, Henri Matisse, could have been the grateful student of one of the stickiest from the 19th, Gustave Moreau. And think of the pivotal role Thomas Hart Benton, the cornpone advocate of American mannerism, played in the artistic development of Jackson Pollock. Influence can be a circuitous and contradictory thing.

Which brings us to the painter Robert Kushner. The last time his pictures were exhibited at DC Moore Gallery, he made a point of declaring his fealty to the “great painterly tradition” of Pop Art. Mr. Kushner’s current show of floral paintings done on Japanese folding screens, also at DC Moore, is an homage to his friend, the composer John Cage. Now, I have as much patience for Cage’s impish shenanigans as I do for the in-your-face banalities of Pop Art. Yet Mr. Kushner’s work, particularly his palette, did benefit from an allegiance to Pop. The same goes-I am delighted and somewhat chagrined to report-for Mr. Kushner’s Cage-inspired paintings. Relying on Cage’s strategy of chance operations, Mr. Kushner has done something his mentor could not: create self-sustaining works of art.

The new paintings are recognizably Kushnerian: His over-the-top embrace of the decorative remains blessedly intact. What’s new is how adroitly the paintings tiptoe between joy and prudence, artifice and integrity. Mr. Kushner has always been a highly conscious painter-that is to say, each time he puts brush (or gold leaf) to canvas, he’s an advocate for the art he loves, particularly that of Japan. This time around, he works with a newfound transparency-or, as Cage had it, a “silencing of ego.” You can see it clearly in November: Inside/Outside (2002), a painting as ephemeral as a dream, and as real. Spare yet luxuriant, it signals a deepening of Mr. Kushner’s painterly powers. If that can be traced to John Cage, then credit where credit is due-but not all the credit. If the picture’s tonal richness, brevity of touch and mystery aren’t traceable to Edouard Vuillard, I’ll eat Mr. Kushner’s hat. That’s the wonderful thing about influence: It can slip in the back door when the invited guests are already at the party.

Robert Kushner-Sliding Doors: Homage to John Cage is at the DC Moore Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until June 13.