Monday, February 8, 2010

NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World Exhibitions

Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

This exhibit is so multi-faceted that I think I had better limit myself to posting photos and discussing just one aspect of the works on view: the shapes, possible functions and dazzling inventiveness of surface decoration on the many ceramic pieces encountered here.

The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU is a brand-new entity, and just admitted its first crop of PhD candidates in Fall 2009. It is housed in a historic townhouse at 15 E. 84th Street, a scant pebble's throw from the Met Museum. A huge endowment by Leon Levy and Shelby White is the basis for its existence, and there was, and perhaps remains some controversy clouding NYU's acceptance of this largesse, since some antiquities in the Leon Levy Foundation are accused of having been looted, or obtained questionably.

The exhibition spaces on the ground floor are modest in size, but pretty accessible, with the majority of the large ceramic works displayed encircled by a perimeter barrier only, and not fully enclosed in cases. This presentation, I think, aids in the appreciation of the unbelievably complex slip decorations that cover the vessels.

The artifacts resulting from excavations in the Danube River Basin, primarily in Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova date from the Fifth and Fourth millennia, b.c. As such, their unique relevance stems from the fact that an Early European Civilization, pre-dating the Egyptian was virtually unknown. Belief was that a simplistic, unorganized society without hierarchical distinctions or complex rituals or ceremony was about all that settled these regions.

The large size and varied, high-energy shapes of the pots suggest that there may have been some kind of ceremonial, or presentation aspect to their use. There is a kind of beautiful, deliberate fineness to the surfaces, and the way they are broken up into overlaid fields of abstract decoration that don't just follow along the contours of the pots themselves is just a huge revelation. The line quality is fluid and bold, and I can't help thinking how much fun it must have been for these potters to devise and carry out these decorations.

The pair of conjoined drinking vessels must surely have had a ceremonial function, and I am deeply intrigued by the large, shallow decorated bowl containing figurines of a man and woman huddling together, or perhaps making their way through what might be a stylized depiction of an inhospitable, vast landscape.

This show continues to April, and if you can get to it, try and see it.

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