More Treasure at Crowded Met: Eclectic Array of Native Art

Forget the annoying acoustiguide: What you need nowadays to get through the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a sleeping bag.

Forget the annoying acoustiguide: What you need nowadays to get through the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a sleeping bag. You’ll need to hunker down and spend a couple of nights if you want to take in the dizzying amount of art on view.

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I’m not talking about the permanent collection-that’s for another sleepover. I’m talking about the cornucopia of temporary exhibitions: retrospectives of El Greco, Sanford R. Gifford and Philip Guston; Crossing the Channel: British and French Painting in the Age of Romanticism ; a collection from Harvard University that includes works by David, Ingres and Gericault; the beginnings of photography; and I haven’t even mentioned 16th-century Japan or Renaissance Italy. Not all the shows are of equal merit- Crossing the Channel tries to do for England and France what Manet/Velázquez did for France and Spain, and falls short of the mark-but they’re all worth seeing.

Which explains in part why I was late getting to The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art , an exhibition at the Met that closes Sunday. The show encompasses a variety of cultures-Aleut, Ojibwa and Blackfoot, just to name three-and a daunting number of years, starting from around 3,000 B.C. (a bannerstone, a throwing-stick weight carved from shale) leading up to our own time (Diego Romero’s ceramic bowl from 1994). This last item illustrates the show’s engaging, off-kilter character: The bowl is decorated with an image of Jorge Lujan, whose ambition is to become “the next Don Trump of Indian Gaming.” This obviously isn’t your standard array of Indian art. Credit the eclectic eye of Ralph T. Coe, former curator of European painting at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and a man passionate about Native American culture.

Inspired by an amateur’s enthusiasm for what was then called “primitive art,” Mr. Coe began collecting Indian art in 1955. His taste is commendably catholic: He appreciates the randy scene carved on a 19th-century Sioux pipe bowl, and also the fearsome Transformation Puppet , an intricate Tlingit figurine used for shamanistic ritual. In between, there are baskets, totem-pole models, tourist tchotchkes and numerous other objects of peculiar interest, including the most genteel and dainty of fists, carved from wood and adorning a Penobscot knife.

Mr. Coe has promised the collection to the Met, a gift the folks at the museum are no doubt greeting with high fives, delighted with its “agonizing beauty” and “springy abandon” (to borrow Mr. Coe’s apt description). The rest of us should be celebrating, too.

The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Dec. 14.

Intergalactic Condom

Al Held, God bless him, keeps on keeping on. His recent canvases at the Robert Miller Gallery are more of what we’ve come to expect from this prodigious painter: sizable and meticulously constructed abstractions that encompass outer space, cyberspace, psychedelia and (as the title of the exhibition has it) whatever lies “beyond sense.”

Mr. Held’s architectural fantasies are reliably spectacular; the eye can’t help but be drawn into the swirling vortexes of pattern and geometry. It can help being convinced by them, however. Try as you might to lose yourself in the pictures, you never stop wondering about how much Mr. Held must be shelling out each month to store these monsters, or how painstaking is the labor that goes into crafting them. (His assistants must, over time, come to despise masking tape and exacto knives.)

The newer pictures are marginally more interesting, largely because of their humor-one recurring form is best described as an intergalactic condom-and a newfound self-awareness: Mr. Held has finally admitted to being the M.C. Escher of abstract art. The proof? The skewed perspectival framing of Stardain (2001).

Al Held: Beyond Sense is at the Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, until Jan. 3, 2004.

Lush, Sure, Terse

When I say nice things in print about the American abstract painter Morris Louis (1912-1962), a friend invariably sends me a chastising note: Why was I “gushing” about “that furniture-showroom decorator”? Another letter will soon be on its way. The monumental Louis canvases currently at the Paul Kasmin Gallery made my head spin with pleasure. It’s one of the best shows in town.

Painting was a hands-off activity for Louis. He poured thinned acrylics down expanses of raw canvas pleated to create specific pictorial effects. The pictures, though utterly contrived, nonetheless incorporate an element of chance: The canvas might absorb a particular color in an unforeseen way, or skeins of black, orange and blue might-or might not-interact. The possibility of failure is always present in Louis’ mix.

His hedonism, bare-boned and tense, can’t be dismissed as “decorative.” It could conceivably be described as “existential.” I’d hate for either tag to stick, though they’re better than the standard line, which is that Louis is “the bridge between Abstract Expressionist and Colorfield painting.” Enough already: He was a brave and heady artist. Who cares about historical score-keeping when confronted by paintings as lush and sure and terse as these?

An artist friend once said to me, “The longer Louis stays dead, the better painter he becomes.” I believe it: Pictures such as Nexus I (1959) and Para III (1959) will only grow more powerful, more lyrical.

Morris Louis is at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 10th Avenue at 27th Street, until Dec. 24.

More Treasure at Crowded Met:  Eclectic Array of Native Art