As one of this country’s greatest encyclopedic museums, the Art Institute of Chicago has a long-standing commitment to study, display, and communicate knowledge about the heritage of the world’s peoples. Thus, we play a crucial cultural and civic role in our region, our country, and our wide international community. There is no substitute for displaying original works of art, and it is through the presence of such invaluable objects that the museum is able to present some five thousand years of artistic expression and knowledge of the many functions that art has served in communicating the ideas, ethos, and spiritual aspirations of different civilizations.
Indian art from the U.S. Southwest first touched the American public imagination during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad was built from Chicago to Los Angeles in the 1880s. By the early 1900s Indian arts and crafts were being displayed at the Fred Harvey Company hotels and restaurants connected with the railroad, as, for example, in the famous Alvarado Hotel Indian Building (figs. 1
) in Albuquerque, El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon, La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, and at other sophisticated centers of tourism. As the cultural history of this scenic region attracted ever wider appeal (fig. 3
), great private collections also took form. The most remarkable of them subsequently became the core collections of major national museums. The Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles, for example, was established in 1907 with the collection of journalist-author Charles Fletcher Lummis. The collection of George G. Heye constituted the Museum of the American Indian when he founded it in New York in 1916, and it is now the core collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Part of the Fred Harvey collection itself was acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as was a large body of pieces accumulated in Mexico in the 1890s by archaeologist Carl Lumholtz, whose field work had been sponsored by the museum. Other parts of Harvey’s collection were divided among the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. The collections of Edward Ledwidge of El Paso and Mrs. Georgia Houghton of Amarillo, Texas, were for years part of the holdings of the Gila Pueblo research foundation in Globe, Arizona. In the 1950s the foundation transferred many of its objects to the Arizona State Museum at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Other portions of Ledwidge’s collections went to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and the School of American Research in Santa Fe. These and other invaluable collections continue to be sources of exhibitions, publications, and public educational programs, complementing the vast resources of Chicago’s Field Museum and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., as well as many university and state museums.
FIG. 1. View of the interior of the main salesroom of the Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel, established by the Fred Harvey Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1902.
FIG. 2. Apache basket weavers at work in the Indian Building at the Alvarado Hotel, Albuquerque.
FIG. 3. In the 1920s the Fred Harvey Company provided chauffeured, touring car visits from its La Fonda Hotel in Sante Fe to nearby Pueblo communities.
In the Southwest, as archaeological explorations took place at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and elsewhere between the 1890s and 1930s, it became apparent that here, too, as in Mexico, Peru, and in our own Midwest and South, an early form of civilization had flourished; many sites in the Southwest are ancestral to the Puebloan communities of today. From other points of view, writers and artists as well as anthropologists and historians portrayed the rich cultural layering of the region, with its Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo-American populations. As this process of cultural encounter unfolded, it was readily apparent that the indigenous artistic traditions were to be seen as more than souvenirs, curios, or scientific specimens. In particular, Pueblo ceramics were widely recognized as one of the finest traditions in the Americas, if not worldwide. For over a century the tracing of hundreds of local pottery lineages with their inventive geometric and figural decorative imagery through prehistoric, colonial, and modern times has absorbed the attention of some three or four generations of archaeologists, art historians, and collectors, as well as contemporary Pueblo potters who continue to draw on ancient designs and shapes in the ongoing task of creating new forms for their many admirers and clients.
One remarkable ceramic tradition, however, still remains virtually uncharted and has yet to figure as a special subject of interest in the vast archaeological, ethnographic, and art historical literature on the Southwest: this is the pottery known as Casas Grandes. The curious circumstance of this lack of attention is principally due to the fact that the primary area of Casas Grandes culture was located in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, with important extensions into southern New Mexico, Arizona, and extreme southwestern Texas. This was an area beyond the borders of “our” Southwest, and too far north for Mesoamericanists whose interest lay in the great urban civilizations of central and southern Mexico. Serious archaeology did not begin until the late 1950s and 1960s at Paquimé, the principal Casas Grandes site; but the highly distinctive pottery received little interpretation beyond suggestions of connections between the Southwest and distant Mesoamerica, and its recognition as an accomplished art form of a culture that flourished between A.D. 1250 and 1450. Nevertheless, by the 1920s if not well before, Casas Grandes archaeological sites were already being pillaged, and although the pottery was hardly yet a subject of serious academic attention, numbers of unprovenanced Casas Grandes ceramics were even then entering museum collections in the U.S. and Canada.
Much has changed in recent years. Casas Grandes has at last become a major field of interest for Mexican and American archaeologists; a splendid new site museum has been built at Paquimé by the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) of the Mexican government; and the fragile adobe ruin itself is the subject of ongoing stabilization and maintenance. It has now become ever more urgent to approach the unique ceramic tradition with a fresh eye and new questions about its significance. How does this pottery differ from and what does it share with preceding Southwestern ceramic traditions? What does it say about the cultural process surrounding the formation of Paquimé? Do the vessels show evidence of a Mesoamerican connection? What was the role of art in the life of this ancient community, and what does the imagery of Casas Grandes ceramics tell us about the nature of artistic invention in traditional societies such as those of the ancient Southwest? Lastly, it is also important to reflect on why the inventive geometry and shapes of these vessels—from a remote desert landscape and a distant culture—have the capacity to affect our imagination and sensibility so strongly today. The essays that follow in this book address such critical questions.
The task of salvaging American antiquity demands diverse creative and pragmatic approaches. While the optimal process for gaining the greatest amount of information about early civilizations may be through scientifically conducted archaeological excavations, what is to be done to account for the multitudes of unprovenanced objects in public and private collections? Certainly we cannot afford to ignore these resources. Rather, it is our responsibility to take a census of what is already out there in the world, to develop a dialogue among committed and capable people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, and to bring into the domain of public knowledge works assembled from both museums and private collections. To fail in these respects is truly to cast these invaluable resources into oblivion. Among these objects we shall find many artistic masterpieces that are an important part of the collective patrimony of humankind, and that would otherwise remain largely unknown. Works of art and related objects that have been removed from their original contexts still have much to tell us. For there is always a context, provided by similar works from documented locations, by sequences of kindred materials from earlier or later periods, and by ethnological texts, historical sources, and knowledge preserved in traditional societies or gathered from comparable cultures elsewhere in the world. Drawing on such varied sources, the following essays open new prospects in the study of the art and cultural achievement of Casas Grandes and its place in the larger Southwestern pottery tradition.
These essays are written for general audiences as well as academic readers. We are obliged to create an informed public that will respect and appreciate the value of this ancient patrimony and actively help to prevent destruction at archaeological sites. Public education, law enforcement, and international agreements are vital parts of this complex picture. The exhibition and catalogue Casas Grandes and the Ceramic Art of the Ancient Southwest are addressed to this purpose of salvage and retrieval. In this endeavor, the project builds on a precedent established by other noted Art Institute of Chicago undertakings such as The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes (1992); Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past (1998); and Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South (2004). Like the catalogues for these exhibitions, which were also organized by Curator of African and Amerindian Art Richard F. Townsend, to whom we are extremely grateful, the present book is thus much more than a beautiful publication; it is a serious work of investigation aimed at opening public consciousness and communicating new thoughts and discoveries about one of the most imaginative and appealing accomplishments in the long history of indigenous art and culture in the Americas.
President and Eloise W. Martin Director
The Art Institute of Chicago