Ancient art from Israel; modern prints from Russia

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``Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art From the Israel Museum,'' on view at the Metropolitan Museum here, is the largest and most important exhibition of ancient art from Israel ever to travel abroad. Nearly all of its items come from excavations of famous biblical sites conducted during this century.

Highlights include the Habakkuk Commentary, one of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls to be found; a bronze statue of the emperor Hadrian; seals, ostraca, and ivories from the First Temple Period; pottery and metal objects from sites of the Canaanite period; ivory and pottery figurines from some of the earliest recorded phases of habitation in the ancient Near East; and copper crowns and staves from the Nahal Mishmat treasure of the 4th millenium BC.

For a while it seemed as though this show would never reach the United States.

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Originally scheduled to open in 1984, it was canceled by the Metropolitan because of possible political repercussions, due to the presence of a dozen disputed objects from East Jerusalem.

Plans were changed once again, however, and the objects ultimately were permitted to travel.

The exhibition comes in seven parts -- six of historical periods, beginning with the Natufuian culture of roughly 10300 to 4500 BC and ending with the late Roman and Byzantine periods of AD 70-640, and including one devoted to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Everything is of extraordinary cultural and archeological importance -- if not necessarily of great artistic merit. Only a dozen or so pieces at most out of the nearly 200 on display are of more than passing aesthetic interest, and even these are not of sufficient quality to make this a major artistic event.

Even so, it's an intriguing and highly informative show. After its closing at the Metropolitan on Jan. 4, it will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (April 9-July 5, 1987) and then to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Oct. 20, 1987-Jan. 17, 1988).

Tickets are required for admission, and they must be purchased in advance at Ticketron outlets throughout the US or at the Uris Center at the Metropolitan. Russian printmakers

It's a pity we know so little about contemporary Russian art, especially that aspect of it that tends toward the aggressively individualistic and technically experimental.

We know such work exists, due to various recent accounts of what some younger Soviet painters and printmakers are up to, but few of us have seen actual examples or even good reproductions of these paintings and prints.

Thanks to the joint sponsorship of International Images Ltd., the exclusive US representative for contemporary artists from the Soviet Union, and the Nicholas Roerich Museum here, the work of six Russian printmakers is available for viewing by the American public. Two are from Moscow, the others are from Leningrad, and all their etchings and lithographs were executed during the past decade.

Andrei Gennadiev, Yuri Liukshin, Mickhail Maiofis, Demian Utenkov, Yuri Vashchenko, and Vicctor Vilner are exceptionally accomplished grahic artists for whom the making of prints is obviously a primary activity and not merely a lucrative sideline.

It shows in their devotion to the craft of ``biting'' lines on copper plates with acid or drawing on a lithographic stone; it shows in their respect for the great traditions of draftsmanship and also in their choice of images that would appear forced and artificial in any other medium or format.

None of these artists can be described as traditionalists, however. All are ``modern'' in attitude and expression, if not always in style or form. Most use color.

Gennadiev is particularly adept at applying watercolor to his etchings to give them an unusually warm and richly textured surface, and Utenkov is a past master at achieving subtle tonal qualities in his large etchings on steel with the addition of only one or two tints.

The exhibition is full of wit, charm, and delightful good humor. I was particularly taken by Vashchenko's set of five etchings illustrating ``Alice in Wonderland,'' Utenkov's allegorical landscapes, and the exotic, brilliantly colored images of Gennadiev.

Only Maiofis struck me as more illustrator than artist.

At the Nicholas Roerich Museum, 219 West 107th Street, through Oct. 26.

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