Africa's sophisticated art -- central to its people's lives

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he Metropolitan Museum of Art here is playing host to two private art collections -- extraordinary in content and beautifully and dramatically displayed.

"For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman collection" should be required viewing for anyone still harboring the notion that African art is either primitive or crude -- or that it represents naive and clumsy attempts to create realistic art.

Such ideas simply would not survive the overwhelming evidence in this show that African art is extremely sophisticated -- both formally and technically, that it has own rich traditions, and that its works (odd as many of them may appear to some eyes) were intended to look exactly as they do.

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What may be a bit difficult to understand, however, is that most African art was created to serve social and political goals not to serve merely as something attractive to be admired. Art in Africa occupies a central role in human, governmental, and religious events: in rituals that insure the continuity of the group: the birth of new members, the teaching of the young, the transfer of power from one generation to the next, and, finally, the peaceful departure of the souls of the dead.

This excellent exhibition's 150 works (mostly wood, bronze, and ivory sculpture, and masks) cover the six major geographic areas of subSaharan Africa: the western Sudan, the Guinea coast, Nigeria, equatorial Africa, central Africa, and eastern and western Africa. Each of these areas is well represented by outstanding -- and occasionally rare -- examples of its art, with most of those on view dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is, from my vantage point as a nonspecialist in African art, a wonderful and magnificent show. This impression is heightened by the sensitive way it has been mounted. It is hard to think of a better way to spend a few hours than among these remarkable sculptures and masks.

It will remain in view at the Metropolitan Museum through Sept. 6.

"An American choice: The muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection" consists of 70 outstanding (and not quite so outstanding) paintings, sculptures, and drawings of the 20th century, as well as a number of "primitive" works from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas promised to the Metropolitan by Mrs. Newman.

Although it includes examples by Gris, Leger,

Schwitters, Miro and a few other Europeans, the main emphasis of this collection is on the New York School, in particular the work of the years 1945- 1955, the heroic decade of abstract expressionism.

When this collection becomes a part of the Metropolitan, it will considerably enhance the museum's holdings in recent American art. For one thing, it will add examples of the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston -- to say nothing of paintings, sculptures and drawings by (among others) Arshile Gorky, Alexander Calder, Mark Tobey, Joseph cornell, David Smith, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, John Marin and Claes Oldenburg.

And it will also fill in some crucial gaps from among artists of lesser rank who were very active during that period, but whose overall importance has dimmed somewhat in the past 20 years.

It is, without doubt, an important collection, and a most welcome addition to the museum. In particular, I found the Leger, Giacometti, Pollock, Tobey, Marin , Wols, Matta's and Gorky's drawings, de Kooning's "Attic," and Richard Artschwager's "Bread" marvelously effective and among the very best examples of each artist's work. (Anne Ryan's small collage "Unitled" also stands out.)

Some of the other works, however, failed to represent their creators properly. Neither of the Klines really measures up to his standards, the Dove is far from his best, the Still is inferior, the Rothko Motherwell, rivers, Frankenthaler are merely so-so, and the Cornells are a major disappointment.

What we have here, in other words is a collection of both first-rate and not so outstanding examples of the work of some of the most important artists of the past 50 years, with a few additional older and also lesser works thrown in for good masure. Plus around 40 or so excellent examples of "primitive" art.

It is all assembled very handsomely, and I'm only sorry some of these paintings reveal more about their creator's idiosyncracies than about their true qualities -- and thus give a somewhat false impression of both these artists and the abstract-expressionist movement.

Even so, this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum should not be missed. It will run through Sept. 27

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