NEW YORK — WHAT more can one expect from the 1989-90 art season? Just when the best of it seems over, another great show comes along. The latest is the Metropolitan Museum's magnificent display of roughly 150 masterpieces of drawing from the Ian Woodner Family Collection. For anyone who loves drawing, this is about as special a treat as one will find on this side of the Atlantic. With artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, D"urer, Holbein, Bruegel, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, C'ezanne, Redon, and Picasso, one can't go wrong - especially when the drawings are of the highest quality.
According to Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan, ``Mr. Woodner's collection is one of the most distinguished in private hands anywhere. It is remarkable in its comprehensive view of European draftsmanship from the 14th century to the early years of the 20th century.''
Excellent though it is, the exhibition represents only one-sixth of the Woodner holdings, which continue to grow. A few drawings in the show aren't in the catalog because they were purchased after it went to press.
The exhibition is arranged by school - Italian, German, Swiss, Dutch, Flemish, French, and Spanish. There are great examples by D"urer (his brilliantly colored, ``Left Wing of a Bird''); Rembrandt (his breathtaking ``Joseph Recounting his Dreams''); and several French artists, particularly Greuze (whose ``Head of an Old Man'' is one of the outstanding images).
The star, however, is a double-sided sheet from ``The Libro de' Disegni'' of Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), one of the earliest collectors of drawings. Formerly in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, this sheet contains nine drawings attributed to Filippino Lippi and a richly colored gouache recently attributed to Botticelli. Carefully arranged by Vasari on each side and then individually ``framed'' by him with hand-drawn arches and other architectural elements, these drawings add up to one of the most beautiful works on paper I have ever seen.
The verso side, with the Botticelli situated at lower center and a rough sketch of a dancing putto immediately above, is an absolute knockout, both for the quality of the drawings and the sheet's ensemble effect.
The importance of this exhibition, however, comes not so much from the individual pieces as the extraordinary overall quality. It stands as a compliment to Mr. Woodner's taste and commitment and amply demonstrates the effectiveness of the visual arts' most personal and revealing mode of expression.
Drawing can be so personal that a sketch can be executed as quickly as a signature. (The angel in Rembrandt's ``The Angel Showing the Fish to Tobias'' is a perfect example.) It can also reveal the mood of the artist while drawing (as Rembrandt's ``The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee'' does). And it can transmit an observation or intuition from one century to another with such directness and conviction that the viewer feels the artist himself is present.
An exhibition such as this, then, is like a huge communications center, with dozens of artists sending ``messages'': There's Leonardo making a point about caricature; Raphael showing us how the nostrils of a horse flair; D"urer demonstrating with both accuracy and joy exactly how the feathers of a bird's wing are layered; Hoffmann celebrating the bushiness of a squirrel's tail; Degas indicating how a young dancer can rest with her weight on the heel of one foot and the big toe of the other; and Goya insisting we know how Spain treated the insane in the 1820s.
But that's only the barest hint of all the ``messages'' that can be received. Holbein devoted his life to learning how best to perceive and project human character through line. Redon devoted decades to discovering how to make his fantasies both convincing and provocative. And Ingres put everything he had into making line drawings that were not only ``accurate'' but among the most beautiful things the world had seen.
Some of the ``messages'' were so swiftly rendered that they appear almost as code. A few are elaborately detailed. But most are somewhere in between - with no wasted effort but plenty of relish for the subject depicted and the medium used.
At the Metropolitan through May 13.