“Cambodia,” for as long as I can remember, has been a word associated mainly with political strife. In recent years, its cognate, “Khmer,” was linked most often, horrifyingly, with “Rouge.” Another close relative, “Angkor,” on the other hand, signaled a place of mystery, a city of towers and tumbled stones, gripped by the roots of voracious jungle growth. Angkor was remote and fascinating, like Petra or Baalbek or Machu Pichu, a ruined architectural marvel that I hoped, vaguely, to visit one day. But apart from my general sense of the architecture of Angkor Vat, these loaded words existed for me unaccompanied by images of what Cambodian art looked like.

I was made forcibly aware of this gap in my knowledge by the Brancusi retrospective two years ago—specifically, by the stunning group of economical, ambiguous torsos in the Paris installation—which jarred loose the...


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