The Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of art of the ancient Americas, formed in large part by a sizable donation from Fred and Florence Olsen given between 1958 and 1973, offers Yale students the rare opportunity to learn about art of the Prehispanic Americas directly from the objects themselves. This catalogue is the byproduct of ambitious efforts aimed at both ensuring the usefulness of that collection for future generations of Yale students and increasing its availability to scholars around the world. Since the original publication of Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America in 1986, the Gallery’s ancient American art collection has nearly doubled in size and has broadened in scope. Through donations and acquisitions, the collection has expanded in key areas such as the Central Andes and Lower Central America (also known as the Intermediate Area), while further developing strengths in Olmec and West Mexican art, Maya Jaina-style figurines, and art related to the Mesoamerican ballgame, among others. The field of Prehispanic art history has also continued to evolve in response to subsequent discoveries and refined understandings of the role of art and artists in ancient American societies. Nonetheless, after more than thirty years, Pre-Columbian Art remains true to its goal, providing a useful and accessible record of the original collection, composed by authors who were then among the most promising young art historians and orchestrated by one of the founders of the academic study of Prehispanic art, George Kubler.
Kubler’s efforts to legitimize Prehispanic art as a field of scholarly study through his legacy of published works are self-evident and require no further elaboration here.1The reader is directed to Thomas F. Reese, ed., Studies in Ancient American and European Art: The Collected Essays of George Kubler (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985).
However, modern readers may find the organization of Pre-Columbian Art
to be idiosyncratic in comparison to more recent scholarship. Kubler’s chronological scale emphasizes regional and site-specific relative chronologies, many of which have since been refined through advances in chronometric dating methods and further discoveries. Such site-specific chronologies can now be anchored to wider-scale temporal shifts, and many scholars writing for broader audiences have eschewed regional chronologies as it has become more apparent that certain phenomena, such as drought, the collapse of certain cities, exchange, and imperialism, affected Mesoamerica as a whole. Kubler’s geographical distinction between “Inner” and “Outer” Mesoamerica, while novel, did not gain traction among other scholars. Internal regional divisions, such as “East Coast” and “Southern Mexico,” for example, are more widely recognized as “Gulf Coast” and “Oaxaca,” respectively. Kubler’s insistence on geography as a primary framework for classification is explicitly stated in his early works and apparent throughout his career.2See, for example, George Kubler, Pre-Columbian Sculpture: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1954); and George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962).
Here we witness his efforts to stake out new territory for Prehispanic art within the field of art history while asserting an intellectual trajectory apart from that of anthropological archaeology. As Mary Miller—a former student of Kubler and a preeminent scholar of Mesoamerican art—argues, “Kubler would assert geography over culture, putting him directly at odds with anthropology and its emphasis on culture.”3Mary Miller, “Shaped Time,” Art Journal 68, no. 4 (2009): 71.
Prehispanic art traditions, such as Olmec, Toltec, and Aztec, however, extend beyond geographical boundaries, and perhaps for this reason, culture remains unseated as a basic classificatory scheme across disciplines. In the interim, Prehispanic art history has not suffered through alignment with archaeology; rather, each pursuit benefits from the other’s contributions.
The entries in this catalogue emphasize the formal attributes of individual objects over their possible meanings. In Kubler’s own words in the preface of the book, “The nature of pre-Columbian studies is such that unviable interpretations abound while exact description is lacking.” Through rapid development in such fields as iconography and epigraphy, especially during the 1980s, Mesoamericanists now stand on more certain interpretive ground. However, what appears as caution toward speculative interpretation likely also reflects Kubler’s belief that while forms may be stable and repeated across time and cultures, the meanings attached to them are volatile and mutable.4See George Kubler’s essays “On the Colonial Extinction of the Motifs of Precolumbian Art” and “Renascence and Disjunction in the Art of Mesoamerican Antiquity,” in Reese, Studies in Ancient American and European Art, 66–74, 351–59.
Form, geography, and material composition, like the mineralogical attributions provided by Eleanor Warren Faller at the end of the catalogue, provided empirical, immutable certainty. Kubler’s demand for verbal precision is laudable and has ensured the continued relevance of the entries, but coupled with his strong emphasis on formalism, it becomes excessive at times; for instance, objects that are commonly referred to as masks are reclassified as “face panels” because the eyes are not perforated.
Although most scholars working today sense his impact primarily through his published works, Kubler played an active role in mentoring the subsequent generation of art historians within the classroom. Kubler’s seminars presented an opportunity for young scholars to work hands-on with objects and to develop their visual, descriptive, and analytical abilities, with the added benefit of providing experience in the fundamentals of curatorial work and publication. Most of the catalogue’s student contributors have since had a measurable impact on the field of art history. Maryan Ainsworth, Barbara Anderson, and Frederick John Lamp became prominent museum curators, as did Margaret Young-Sánchez and Richard Townsend, both in the field of Prehispanic art. Judith Bettelheim, Richard Brettell, Jeffrey Miller, and Maude Southwell Wahlman became influential professors of art history in different fields, and—along with Mary Miller, mentioned previously—Janet Catherine Berlo, Marilyn Goldstein, Jeff Kowalski, Rebecca Stone, and Dicey Taylor became notable scholars of Prehispanic art whose work continues to shape the field. This catalogue remains a solid foundation for students and other researchers who continue to work with the collection. One result of ongoing research is that some of the objects have been determined to be of modern manufacture. Such forgeries, signaled by editor’s notes in the catalogue text, remain relevant as study objects to aid students in discerning authenticity and to shed light on the complexities of the antiquities market as Prehispanic art became desirable among American collectors. In other instances, the cultural, chronological, and geographical attributions of some objects have been updated in light of current scholarship. The reader is directed to the Gallery’s collections database for the most current information on specific objects. The publication of Pre-Columbian Art in an electronic open-access format ensures that the catalogue and the collection that it describes will remain important resources for students and other scholars of Prehispanic art.
Andrew D. Turner
Postdoctoral Associate in the Art of the Ancient Americas
Yale University Art Gallery