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."