DALLAS — The Nasher Sculpture Center here is devoted to the art of the modern era, and its elegant pavilion and garden, designed by Renzo Piano, have recently welcomed exhibitions by living masters like Roni Horn, Pierre Huyghe and Giuseppe Penone. Its new show, though, exhibits sculptures from far, far earlier: So far back in human history that the artists — and we’ll come back to whether that term applies — are not even of our own species.
“First Sculpture,” an alternately fascinating and flummoxing exhibition of Paleolithic stone artifacts, travels as far from the present day as possible to propose a new genealogy of art history. Stones carved and collected by Neanderthals 150,000 years ago appear in vitrines. Large hand axes, sitting in view of steel sculptures by Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra, date from 300,000 years ago or earlier. Think those are old? “First Sculpture” also includes tools from North Africa 800,000 years old, and a spheroid gewgaw, found in South Africa, that was collected by Australopithecus 2.5 million years before today.
Though you may have seen tools like this in natural history museums, the proposition of “First Sculpture,” from its title onward, is that these are not merely instruments, but art; that they were crafted not just for functional reasons but for aesthetic ones. Moreover, the naturally occurring patterns in some stones — holes or circular depressions that resemble eyes, for example, or protuberances like noses — supposedly reveal a hard-wired hunger for representation: an aesthetic impulse in our evolutionary forebears.
Are these 80-odd tools, eons more ancient than the ancient world, indeed art works? Can we ever really know? With no artist statement forthcoming from our Stone Age ancestors, the show takes on a strange admixture of science and guesswork, paleoanthropology and wishful thinking. Still, the uncertainty of its thesis is part of its pleasure; a great work of art, after all, is always a thing we don’t fully understand. Whatever their status, the objects are astonishing.