The periods spanned by the show are among the most important in the history of Chinese art. The Sung Dynasty (960-1279) has been called the golden age of Chinese painting. Monumental landscape painting came into its own. There was a constant dialogue and tension between the academy, which saw artists as craftsmen and valued a precise, almost realistic approach, and scholar-amateurs, who fought to elevate the status of artists and approached painting more in terms of natural philosophy and self-expression.

In the Northern Sung, landscape paintings attained a special majesty. Human beings were tiny and mountains rose and swept into the sky. Kuo Hsi was a key painter and theorist. In his “Trees Against a Flat Vista,“ which may be his only work outside China, everything except two small figures crossing a bridge and a handful of isolated rocks and trees seems to be behind a film. Nature is revealing and concealing itself, pulling back its curtain and fading away like rivers and hills in a dream.

In 1127 the Jurchen barbarians sacked the capital of the empire and carried off the emperor, and the court moved south. Southern Sung enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, and there was a growing sense of sophistication and refinement. But the empire had been sharply reduced in size, and there was a deep sense of vulnerability. The metropolitan area of Hangzhou, the capital city, was so large – it had a population of several million people; no city in Europe had more than 50,000 – that the natural world was even more attractive as guide and refuge.

If the empire was smaller and less expansive, so was Southern Sung painting, but that does not mean it was less effective. In Ma Yuan’s fan painting “Plum Blossoms by Moonlight,“ two robed men face the moon while a craggy tree seems to twist and turn in a ritual dance binding the two men to earth and sky. The anonymous “Evening in the Spring Hills“ is a fan painting that demonstrates the Chinese feeling for void. The scroll is 90 percent blank, and the few landscape forms seem to be painted in order to allow the empty twilight space to live.

The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), established by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, marked the first time that all of China had been conquered. The Mongols turned Chinese society upside down, placing scholars at the bottom with prostitutes and beggars. There was an artistic reassertion of traditional Chinese values. Calligraphy was the preeminent Chinese art, and partly to raise his status, the scholar-amateur painter developed a calligraphic style that changed Chinese art forever. Calligraphy, painting and poetry became inseparable.

Ni Tsan was one of the four great Yuan landscapists and one of the most influential figures in all of Chinese art. He was born into privilege and eventually gave it up for a nomadic life. Three of his paintings are in the show – one early, another after he was forced into hiding by the Mongol court, a third, “Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu,“ painted two years before his death. The compositions are formulaic, but the last work suggests the versatility of his brush. Slashes of ink give shape to leaves and trees, but the slashes also seem to be gestures of artistic license that swarm over parts of the painting like locusts. Ni Tsan, like Huang T’ing-Chien and Mi Fu, two great calligraphers of the Sung Dynasty, had a long, troubled, picturesque struggle with political power. It would be nice if the many layers of meaning in this show -which runs through Aug. 2 – were more clearly mapped. Also of interest this week: Donald Lipski (Germans Van Eck Gallery, 420 West Broadway, near Spring Street): Donald Lipski’s current show has fewer and generally larger objects than his last show at the Germans Van Eck Gallery. Six of his playful and sinister enigmas are spread, splattered and coiled across the floor and walls. There is also a dicey installation in the back office in which thousands of little game sets -the kind used in Parcheesi – pour over the floor like water from a forgotten sink.