A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The rise and fall of the Aztec Empire, which flourished in the Valley of Mexico from 1325 until its defeat by the Spanish conquistador Cortez in 1521, is the subject of the extraordinary exhibition "The Aztec Empire" at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a year after it debuted at London's Royal Academy of Arts. It so impressed Guggenheim curators that they brought it to their own museum, which is generally associated with modern art. The exhibition offers more than 400 masterworks wrought in clay, stone, wood, feathers, shells, and gold by the Aztecs, their predecessors, and their neighbors.
The show makes the most of Frank Lloyd Wright's famed spiraling exhibition space. The artifacts are presented in shadow boxes and deep recesses mounted on an undulating wall that slithers like a serpent down the museum's six-story vortex.
Among the most stunning objects are greenstone masks with inlaid eyes and teeth, diminutive ornaments cast in gold, and near life-size ceramic eagle warriors recovered during the 1978 excavation of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán, the ancient Atzec capital now blanketed by the urban sprawl of Mexico City. Also exhibited are a number of well-known colonial works hewn from stone harvested from Aztec monuments, including a column base from a colonial church carved from an altar bearing an image of Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord, and a baptismal font in the form of a serpent, which both appeared more than a decade ago in "Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Though now presented as works of art, the pieces on display were far more than decorative accents made for well-heeled patrons. They were key ritual objects in the Aztecs' lives. Most of the artifacts relate to Aztec concepts of time; to the partitioning of the heavens, Earth, and underworld; and to the practice of ritualized warfare and human sacrifice to placate the pantheon of deities who maintained the continuum of life. Worshiped above all was Huizilopochtli, the god of the sun and war, who kept nocturnal threats at bay in exchange for human blood. Other deities were equally demanding. Xipe Totec, patron god of goldsmiths, exacted an annual toll of flayed human skin. One ceramic bowl has a surface sculpted to look like that gruesome offering, and indeed once held the real thing.
Take the audio tour (in English or Spanish) or buy the catalog beforehand, because the captions provide little information beyond the materials used and the lending institution, mostly the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA) in Mexico City. Also worth the investment is a volume of essays written by luminaries in the field of Mesoamerican studies and edited by the MNA's Felipe Solis, who curated the exhibition.
Compounding the paucity of information is a lack of signage to direct the visitor. For instance, it's easy to miss a large side gallery where a fantastic array of finds recovered during the excavation of the Great Temple are displayed. There, the eagle warriors appear to fly overhead. Also on view is a compelling offering to the Xochipilli-Macuilxochiti, patron god of music and dance: dozens of miniature musical instruments rendered in ceramic, found during construction of a drainage system in the late 1970s.
Despite its shortcomings, the exhibition highlights the artistic achievements of the Prehispanic world in a manner seldom seen. "The Aztec Empire" runs through February 13, after which it opens at the Guggenheim Bilbao on March 21.
Angela M.H. Schuster is editor-in-chief of World Monuments Fund's Icon.
Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.