NEW YORK — New York - "America was a continent removed from world history for thousands of years, and this tremendous isolation explains the uniqueness of its creations." So writes Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz in his introduction to "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" at New York's Metropolitan Museum (through Jan. 13). And from the moment one encounters this truly monumental show's first work of art, a seated Olmec figure at least 2,500 years old, uniqueness and isolation seem peculiarly apt words for this art.
Among the strengths of Mexican pre-Columbian art is its integrity. It looks like nothing else, except itself. As successive peoples' art is highlighted -- Olmec to Izapan to Mayan and so on down to Aztec -- many changes occur, but there is never the weakness caused by an intrusion from elsewhere, or indeed (at least as represented by this show) the weakness of fatigue, of decline.
Mayan art may be more refined than what came before or after it, but it has no more presence. The Chac Mool, or semirecumbent stone figure, of about A.D. 1500 from Tenochtitlan may be heavier and less graceful than a similar figure from Chichen Itza several hundred years before, and the later one certainly lacks the suspicion of humanity that endears one to the earlier, but one would not think of calling it decadent. Throughout the pre-Columbian section of "Mexico," one knows one is in the presence of great art.
The problem with the exhibit as a whole -- and it is an inevitability; it is not anybody's fault -- is that what happened after the Spanish conquest just isn't as good as what happened before. The exhibit devotes about twice as much space to the period between 1520 and 1950 (when it breaks off) as it does to the previous 2,500 years, and it must be said that there is something a little anticlimactic about it.
Paz himself, writing of the viceregal (or Spanish rule) period, which ended in the early 19th century, extols the architecture but concedes that "the painting, on the other hand, is merely respectable." Since the architecture couldn't travel, what we get from this period is in large part the painting, and one can't fault Paz's judgment on it.
No one should take that as a reason not to see this really excellent show, however. In general we know far too little about our southern neighbor and its arts, probably less than we do about any number of European countries, and this massive show of almost 500 works, admirably organized and accompanied by clear, detailed didactic material, goes a long way toward correcting our ignorance. It ought not only to be visited but given the time it deserves, a full day with at least one break; otherwise, many of the works and much of the information in its two dozen galleries probably won't get through.
The pre-Columbian third has been assembled from archaeological sites as well as museums, and is organized by those sites, which represent the centers of the civilization: La Venta, Izapa, Teotihuacan and so forth down through Palenque and Chichen Itza to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, on the site of present-day Mexico City, which was destroyed by Cortez in 1521. Accompanied by pictures and descriptions of the sites themselves, the works of art, whether a life-size La Venta seated figure of the sixth to 10th century B.C. or a group of tiny gold masks from Chichen Itza (ninth to 13th century A.D.) just seven-eighths of an inch high, not only demonstrate skill and inspiration but also speak as manifestations of something unknowable. As much as one can identify to admire, one is also conscious of a level beyond our power to probe, and so the fascination doesn't end.
There is no point in looking for highlights among these works, since they are obviously all highlights. But perhaps the stucco portrait head thought to be of the ruler Pacal II, from Palenque (mid- to late-seventh century A.D.), achieves a kind of ultimate perfection. It seems to be at once a representation of a particular person and of a godlike ideal.
After the Spanish conquest, there was a determined effort to convert the natives to Christianity, and Paz explains illuminatingly the reason for this success. One, that the defeat of the Indians represented above all the defeat of their gods: "The real defeat was that suffered by their ancestral divinities, all of them martial and all impotent before the invaders." And two, that "the central mystery of Christianity," like that of the religion it replaced, "is . . . sacrifice."
Paz argues for a continuity of a sort from pre-Columbian to subsequent Mexican art. "Not the continuity of a style or an idea, but something more profound and less definable: a sensibility."
If so, it is certainly also less evident (to one not steeped in Mexican art and history) than the changes. As far as this show indicates, there was no gradual evolution from pre-Columbian to Christian art. The former simply stops and the latter begins. And it would be exaggerating to say that viceregal art is one of the world's great aesthetic manifestations.
But it does have its rewards, particularly in the idiosyncratic twists that Mexican artists give to their Spanish Christian models. The sculptures here particularly, such as the 16th to 17th century "St. Christopher and the Christ Child," the 17th century "San Felipe de Jesus," the 17th to 18th century "St. James the Moor-Killer" on horseback, and the marvelous late 16th century "Crucified Christ" streaming with blood, reflect, among other things, a kind of utterness of faith that is at once endearing and almost frightening. And the lower portion of a late 17th century retablo (structure over an altar) from Mexico City gives some idea of the incredibly rich decoration of Mexican church interiors.
If, on the whole, viceregal painting is "merely respectable," there is a gallery devoted to spectacular liturgical arts (garments, chalices, reliquaries, etc.), and another devoted to some fascinating secular decorative arts including a Queen Anne/Chippendale-inspired settee with arms that would support a tractor trailer.
The academic painting of the 19th century, after Mexico achieved independence from Spain, includes some of the least attractive works in the show, but the regional (akin to folk) painting has a considerable amount of freshness and, in the case of Hermenegildo Bustos, a degree of psychological insight as well.
With the 20th century we reach names that we know, especially Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The problem with these artists, of course, is that we should have their murals, which couldn't travel. But what's here gives some idea of their power, in such works as Siqueiros' commanding self-portrait (1945), Orozco's portrait of Pancho Villa with its depiction of a rough but somehow anguished face, and the determination mixed with shrewdness of Rivera's "Agrarian Leader Zapata."
Also notable are the paintings of Frida Kahlo, whose reputation has been growing in recent years. In her "Self-Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego on My Mind)" (1943) she appears a great deal more strong-willed than the somewhat apprehensive representation of Rivera (her husband) that she has painted on her forehead.
If there is a continuity of sensibility running through the three millennia of this work, it is not an obvious one. But this enormous show and its mammoth 712-page catalog provide an overview of Mexican art that is an education in itself and that will probably never be duplicated.
Despite its size, it hardly exhausts its subject, and numerous other organizations in New York are using the occasion to present aspects of Mexican art and culture, from art to film to poetry readings to concerts. Among the current art shows are "Mexican Painting 1950-1980" at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art (through Nov. 24); "Aspects of Mexican Contemporary Painting" at the Americas Society (through Dec. 31); and "Mexico through Its Masks" at the World Financial Center (through Nov. 15). For a full list, call (212) 223-ARTS.
Art of Mexico
"Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" runs through Jan. 13 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street in New York City. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays; 9:30 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Call (212) 535-7710 for more information.