The myth of Jason held powerful dominion over the minds of the ancient Greeks. The voyage of the Argonauts — from the Aegean Sea, through the narrow waters of the Hellespont, to the Black Sea and into the hinterland — represented the archetypal passage from the relative safety of the known world into a perilous land of mystery and incantation. It was the transition from civilization, from reason itself, into something akin to barbarism and savagery.
A tingling sense of what was at stake can be felt among the glowing artifacts that are now displayed at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, which has just opened in a Renaissance-style townhouse on the Upper East Side.
This accredited institution is primarily intended for graduate students and is affiliated with New York University. In the spacious ground-floor galleries, the inaugural show is ambitious in conception and expert in fulfillment. So much so that this institution can fairly rank as a new museum for New York. Largely the idea of Shelby White, widow of Leon Levy and a well-known collector of antiquities, the Institute is roughly comparable, in seriousness and refinement, to such other recent Manhattan museums as the Neue Galerie, which covers modernism in Germany and Austria, and the Rubin Museum of Art, dedicated to the cultures of the Himalayas.
"Wine, Worship, and Sacrifice: The Golden Graves of Ancient Vani" is not only beautiful in itself: It embodies with uncanny perfection the aims of the institution that houses it. The novelty of ISAW is that it addresses the great breadth of the ancient world, rather than only one culture. In practice, this would seem to suggest a commitment to exploring the odd things that happened whenever the civilizations of Greece and Rome collided with those of their neighbors. That story is told through the 130 objects in this show, most of them loaned by museums in Tbilisi and Vani in the Republic of Georgia. All of the objects were discovered in seven of the 28 grave sites that Georgian and foreign archeologists have been excavating since the 19th century.
Like their modern-day descendants, the denizens of that mountainous region beside the Black Sea spoke a Kartvelian language that was entirely unrelated to the Indo-European and Ural-Altaic languages that encircled them. In the objects on view, mostly dated around 300 before the common era, one sees strongly Hellenistic works, artifacts that fully embody local traditions, and a convergence of the two.
You could not ask for a more powerful record of this collision than the juxtaposition of the "Torso of a Youth of the 2nd Century B.C." against several other figures, far more local in feeling, from the previous century. The former is nothing less than one of the finest sculptures to survive from the ancient world. Headless and shinless, it possesses a vitality that enables us easily to imagine what has vanished, and to recognize in it an ideal Hellenic type of corporeal perfection. But within that perfection, there is a sharpness, a sensitivity, an aptness of detail that makes the work far more than the mere embodiment of some arid abstraction. Through the coolness of its bronze, the eye picks up a vital warmth. How jarring to pass, within the same gallery, from this perfection to the hieratic stick figures of a neighboring vitrine. Their severity, their oversized heads, and the incongruous addition of gold jewelry to their rough-hewn bronze convey a modern, even postmodern, feeling. It is likely that these will come closer to contemporary taste.
Something like an equilibrium between these two styles can be found in a bronze lamp comprising the heads and extended trunks of three Indian elephants. Having acquired a blanched platinum patina from centuries underground, this lamp represents the application of a Hellenistic sensibility to decidedly un-Greek forms. The naturalism of these elephant heads — the ears, eyes, tusks, and runnels in their rough hides — strains credulity. It is a hallmark of the sculpture's excellence that there is an inexhaustible power to the artifice: At no point is this work reduced, any less than the aforementioned torso, to mere materiality. Over and over, it reasserts its claims to life.
The second, larger room in the exhibition is devoted to splendid gold jewelry, as well as to some of the more utilitarian jugs, jars, and glasses that were occasioned by the region's vigorous tradition of winemaking. There is so much gold here that, if the Met had mounted them in an exhibition, the result would have been a blockbuster, with knockoffs selling briskly in the concession area. ISAW is too high-minded for such a thing. More important, the excellence of the work far surpasses the value of the gold. All manner of torques, studs, and pendants are here, often enhanced by a granulation technique that causes the objects to appear coated in golden dew.
As fine as that workmanship is, there is elegance in the installation itself, directed by the gallery's curator, Dr. Jennifer Y. Chi. As with exhibits at the Rubin Museum and Neue Galerie, the quality of the current display suggests seriousness and professionalism, together with great visual tact, that bode very well for this newest and most welcome enhancement to the cultural life of New York.