The Perfect Circle

Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17th Street
New York, NY

through January 11, 2010

Image 1: “Mandala Plate of Vajrayogini According to the System of Eleven Yogas,” Tibet, eighteenth century, pigment on wood, 11.75 × 11.75 inches ©Rubin Museum of Art

With their vivid colors, stylized images, and intricate geometric designs, mandalas are prized among Westerners as objets d’art. But to Tibetan Buddhists, these arresting figures are not just artwork but meditation tools: graphic representations of the cosmos, maps of the arduous journey to enlightenment.

“Mandala: The Perfect Circle,” an exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art, in New York City, sets out to explain the complex symbolism of these mysterious forms, which are central to Tantric Buddhist ritual and practice. A number of pieces on display, such as those pictured on these pages, are from the Rubin’s permanent collection. Others include a rare eighth- or ninth-century scroll from the Dunhuang caves in China, on loan from the Musée Guimet, in Paris; a three-dimensional metal mandala from Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s personal monastery, in Dharamsala, India; and a state-of-the-art computer-generated example that clearly demonstrates the mandala construction process. For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, there’s a 264-page illustrated catalog (Arnoldsche/Rubin Museum, $80 hardcover with color plates), an expanded version of a classic work on mandalas by the Rubin’s chief curator, Martin Brauen, who put together the current exhibit.

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