An Acquiring Mind

The curators had free reign, but Mr. de Montebello made a request: The exhibition should be mounted in a cross-cultural and ahistorical manner. Five thousand years of art—why not mix-and-match Mesopotamian devils, Jasper Johns, sandstone Buddhas, a Kongo power figure, Islamic miniatures and Peter Paul Rubens’ busty wife? Commonalities in aesthetic and functional purpose are gently emphasized, not least as they apply to art’s ability to encapsulate spiritual longing and solace. (Mr. de Montebello has spoken movingly about the profound feelings engendered by Duccio’s “Madonna and Child.”)

Juxtapositions of time, style and place, often extreme and never denied, are rendered fluid. Credit Jeff Daly, the senior design adviser, for a beautifully nuanced installation—he hasn’t done the impossible; he’s made the possible revelatory. But consider what he’s working with: a collection guided by a man whose discernment, intelligence and eye have led him to a fairly unfashionable conclusion: Art is the embodiment of humankind’s noblest impulses. Mr. de Montebello is an optimist. That’s but one reason “Three Decades of Acquisitions” sings.

“The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 1, 2009.

Daunting Intensity

Political artist Sue Coe aims her latest critique at cruelty inflicted on elephants. Most of the pictures focus on early 20th-century circuses replete with dicey stagehands, a clammy P. T. Barnum and Thomas Edison—the great inventor electrocuted an elephant as a publicity stunt. A nitpicky hand at oils muffles Ms. Coe’s rancor, but the drawings—fiery admixtures of gouache, graphite, watercolor and collage—embody it with daunting intensity.

“Elephants We Must Never Forget: New Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Sue Coe” at Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th Street, until Dec. 20.

Deadening Literalism

Alfred Kubin’s black-and-white drawings, nightmarish dreamscapes enveloped within gloomy chiaroscuro, recall Goya’s Los Caprichos and Redon’s mystical reveries, but Salvador Dali is the better comparison. Lacking moral indignation or haunting romanticism, the Austrian loner illustrated his monsters, hobgoblins and “slaughter festivities” with deadening literalism and stilted authority. The drawings aren’t hallucinations given heft, but melodramatic inventories of Freudian portent.

“Alfred Kubin: Drawings, 1897-1909” at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 26.

mnaves@observer.com

An Acquiring Mind