NEW YORK – Throckmorton Fine Art (throckmorton-nyc.com) will feature an important collection of forty-one pre-Columbian masks from the personal collection of Spencer Throckmorton from May 23 to June 22 at its New York gallery.
“Faces For Eternity” – Small Masks from Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica dates to Spencer Throckmorton’s first purchase in 1971. Over nearly four decades, Throckmorton has built a collection of some of the most beautiful and significant examples which he is now offering to his clients and collectors. He sees himself as a custodian of these objects, and he is delighted to now have a chance to share them with others.
While masks are often seen as disguises and meant to terrify, ancient Mesoamerican ones often serve a protective function, guarding against adversaries. Throckmorton says, “These very small objects, largely measuring just two to four inches in size, were intimate objects charged with mystical power. They embody much of the central belief systems of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.
“With the passage of time, there is an appreciation that these small masks are compelling, both aesthetically and as a “window” into the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica. The masks created by the Olmec have a realism that I admire, while others, for example from the Mezcala culture, have a quiet simplicity.
“There are prized masks, similar if a bit larger than those I am exhibiting, in numerous public collections, including those of the American Museum of Natural History, the Art Museum of Princeton University, and Dumbarton Oaks (in Washington, D.C.).
“My collecting small pre-Columbian masks was encouraged by three authorities on pre-Columbian material culture: Gillett Giffin, Peter Furst, and Frank Preusser. These three “scholars and gentlemen” are now gone, but they were long a source of inspiration, guidance, and knowledge—and friendship. I am happy to have Peter Furst’s spouse, Jill Furst, contribute an insightful essay to this catalogue. Jill is erudite but always approachable, and always, too, appreciative of beauty. A second essay is contributed by Allan Wardle. I am grateful to Allan for spurring me into offering this exhibit and for his extensive research on these small masks. His good work was augmented by a technical analysis of each piece by staff members of the Orenda Laboratory in Santa Fe.”
In the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, Allan Wardle says, “Small masks provide valuable insight into both the conventions of representation and systems of thought among Pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, and a roadmap to their evolution. Like other aspects of material culture, at some level we may never know the full significance of these small masks, particularly for those cultures without the benefit of texts. Our starting point for now will be to appreciate these masks for their extraordinary qualities.”
Wardle goes on to say, “There is something about great art that confounds us. How did the maker do that? What were they thinking? In an age where bigger is better, smaller objects are easily lost in the mix. This is a show of great art it seems to me; small in scale but master-works nonetheless. And in that sense of perfection perhaps, by our lights, a suggestion of immortality; by theirs, who can say?
“Take the small Olmec pendant head that begins the exhibition catalogue. In a mask just over two inches high, we see a carefully modeled face; this one with furrowed brow, upturned flaring eyes, flattened nose, and downturned squared-off mouth with drilled corners, probably suggesting a jaguar transformation. The texture of the stone figure is prominent in that process, giving a sense of contour and organicity to the face that is held in the stone. Turn it over and set into the slightly concave back is a raised rectangular cartouche likely representing the four directions of the world; there is an X glyph generally interpreted as a sky symbol set over it, with a dot perhaps conflated to represent not only the center but also a seed corn motif. Indeed, a corn glyph appears at the top and bottom of this ensemble, so we know that it is likely produced after 1000 BCE, when corn emerges as the premier staple crop among the Olmec in Mesoamerica.
“There is another small mask, similar in scale but more stylized in Figure 2, this one carved from dark green jadeite. The spherical face is inscribed with two half circles that define the area around the eyes, brow, and cheeks using a single stroke on each side, with a similar curve defining the downturned mouth. The holes that mark the inset eyes, nostrils, and corners of the mouth form a vertical axis that focuses attention directly on the center of the face, which is carved in a fairly shallow fashion, much like a yuguito, giving the impression that the features are emerging from the surface of the stone. With the exaggerated upper and lower lips, and central nubbin representing either a tongue or projecting incisors, it is as though the maw is coming out at you. The ear flanges are rendered as long protruding rectangles with two lines defining the ear lobes, giving the mask not only a distinctly horizontal feel but also the sense that this is not entirely the shape of a human face.
“Turn this one over and there is this time a deeply hollowed back bordered by an enclosing ring. This type of treatment is not merely an Olmec stylistic convention but is intended as well to define its ritual status as a “mask”; this one not worn over the face but with carefully drilled holes used to attach it to a belt or garment or even headdress. Like many of the other masks in the show, the back of this one would have been made by hollow tubular drilling, removing the material, and then smoothing the interior with progressively finer abrasives. What appears most remarkable about this and other masks assembled for the exhibition is the way in which the size and shape and color of the stone appear perfectly suited both to the conventions of representation and the techniques used to make it – cutting, etching, grooving, drilling, smoothing, polishing – all by hand and without the benefit of metal tools to form a coherent whole that is quintessentially sculptural.
“In surveying the scope of this exhibition, one thing is clear: small masks, or maskettes as they are sometimes called, were an important format all across Mesoamerica, beginning with the early Pre-Classic Olmec in the Gulf coast heart-land, to the middle and later Pre-Classic period in West Mexico, represented by works from Colima and Guerrero, to the Classic period of Teotihuacan and the Maya, to the Post-classic Aztec and Mixtec of Central and Southern Mesoamerica. In this trajectory the Olmec appear to have set the mold for creating small masks as representations of deities or animals, and portraits of rulers or shamans.
“A common theme of Olmec masks involves jaguar transformation, sometimes of a ruler or shaman, or representation of an Olmec deity as a complex composite anthropomorph or zoomorph with jaguar, avian and/or reptilian features. We see a figurative example of this type in Figure 16, carved in light blue jadeite. This version has features that Karl Taube and others have recognized as characteristic of were-jaguar babies – narrow eyes, fleshy face, and curving line at the bridge of the nose. Rather than art evolving in the direction of increasing figuration, the archaeological record suggests that figuration and abstraction co-existed in Olmec art; they could be used interchangeably depending on context so there is no sense that this abstract piece is necessarily made earlier in time or the figurative one later.”
In his Indian Art from Mexico and Central America, Miguel Covarrubias first proposed Olmec as the mother culture of Mesoamerica. More recent archeology, however, has cast the evolution of Olmec culture in a different light. Most importantly, Olmec “civilization” is no longer imagined as a strictly homogeneous, monolithic enterprise. In a new model that has been proposed, Olmec civilization is thought to have originated in San Lorenzo around 1200 BCE, where the earliest radiocarbon dates are documented, and then spread by around 1000 BCE to various major sites, throughout Mesoamerica – la Venta in Veracruz-Tabasco, Chalcatzingo in Morelos, San José Mogote in Oaxaca, la Blanca in Soconusco, and Teopantecuanitlan in Guerrero.
The masks from Colima and Guerrero (Figures 24-28) provide a stark contrast to the Olmec, not only in style but also materials. A recent show – Kingdoms of Luxury – at the Metropolitan and Getty Museums suggested that jadeite was the luxury material of choice among both the Olmec and later the Maya. In Colima, as in the Andean cultures of Latin America and other places in Mesoamerica, Spondylus shell was also perceived as quite valuable. Shells held many layers of potential meaning, perhaps centered around fertility, and would have required great effort to obtain, not to mention considerable skill to work into complex ornaments like the rare Colima mask in Figure 28.
Masks are typically of serpentine or other hardstone. Though not of what we would consider a “precious” material such as jadeite, it would be a mistake to overlook the significance of the stone itself in Mezcala carving, and the sense of its status as a living entity rather than inert substance. This sense of the sacredness of materials gives rise to a much broader aesthetic in representations from Guerrero and elsewhere that is different from what we are accustomed to seeing in the history of Western art. Rather than the forms being released from the stone as in the Renaissance aesthetic of Michelangelo, or the late nineteenth century aesthetic of the sculptor giving form to everything that we see in Rodin, in Mezcala sculpture the form is the stone. This connection, I think, is at the root of the sense one feels of the immutability of the representations, their being-ness in the stone to borrow a term from phenomenological discourse. This is recognized as perhaps the hallmark of Mezcala figures by Carlo Gay, Gillett Griffin, and other commentators.
At its height, ca 300-600 CE, Teotihuacan had an urban footprint roughly the size of Imperial Rome and a population estimated at 100,000-150,000, marking it as a site of major urbanization in the Western hemisphere. A recent show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Teotihuacán: City of Water, City of Fire, makes the case that this urban settlement was largely focused on securing those things seen as essential for the survival of its inhabitants – for example, resources such as corn or water. Not surprisingly, art became an important adjunct in this enterprise, giving rise to a highly standardized representational program that de-emphasized individual identity in favor of a projection of collective identity. Indeed, excavations under the city have revealed an extensive necropolis whose ritual objects incorporate selected themes and images deployed to maintain cosmic and political order below as well as above ground.
There has been much scholarly interest in the transition from the earliest major Gulf Coast culture – the Olmec – to the lowland Maya. One of the areas where this transition occurred is in Soconusco, with the rise of so-called Proto-Maya or Izapan culture on the Pacific Slope. This transition is exemplified in the curvilinear style of the mask in Figure 31, which even casual observation suggests is a dramatic departure from the Olmec. This mask has features identified as characteristic of the Maya sun god, including large round eyes with crossed, square pupils, large nose, and turquoise color. Unlike the material culture found at Teotihuacán, the painted ceramic vessels and stelae of the Maya document an interest in individual rulers and a pantheon of deities that is likewise reflected in their production of masks.
One standout example of what is presumably the portrait of a Maya ruler — and the only clay piece in the exhibition — is the small mask in Figure 36. Though it has features reminiscent of Pacal – high forehead and downturned gaze – the face is fatter and rounder, with hair originally braided to both sides and circular ear ornaments that individualize the portrait. Everything about the piece seems designed to capture the presence of the personage at a specific moment in time. Perhaps in contrast to stone, this portrait head reminds us of the plasticity of clay and its ability to capture the liveliness or tonalli of a subject. By the Classic period jadeite is so scarce that the Maya resort to mosaic masks partly to maximize use and/or reuse of existing jade fragments.
In her catalog essay, Jill Leslie Furst says Pre-Columbian masks featured in this Throckmorton exhibition consist of more than two dozen examples, most made by the Olmec of Tabasco and Veracruz. Of the remaining carvings, five are by the Maya of Yucatán, four by the Chontal Maya of Tabasco, and two by the Mezcala culture of the State of Guerrero. One each originated in the great city of Teotihuacán in Central Mexico, in the Mixteca in the State of Oaxaca, and in Costa Rica. Several others are of uncertain attribution because they were created in territories where mask makers worked under the influence, or in imitation, of another group’s style. Or they may have used examples from other times or places as models for their work. Together, these masks cover a wide area, and most date to the years before the Common Era, with the exception of Yucatec Maya masks, which were probably carved between 600 and 900 CE, and the late Mixtec piece from 1100 to 1300 CE.
The Gulf Coast Olmec carved the largest numbers of the masks in this collection. The later Aztecs, the major power in Central Mexico at the time of the Conquest in 1519, called this area the land of “Olman,” or the place of rubber, where rubber trees grew in profusion, and the inhabitants the Omecatl, or the rubber (olli, rubber) people (mecatl, people). The Olmec cities had been long abandoned by the time of the Aztecs, so that we do not know what the Gulf Coast people called themselves. So far as can be determined at this point—and a new archeological find could upend this statement tomorrow—the Olmec were the first to organize themselves into complex city-states centered on communities that functioned as both urban centers and ceremonial sites. They left no written records that we are able to read, and their origins have been the subject of much popular speculation. Various “experts” have suggested that the Olmec were Africans, or looking even farther afield, descendants of extraterrestrials. How else, these commentators ask, would their sculptures have African features? How else could a people who did not invent the wheel have moved tons of earth and stone?
These exquisitely made Pre-Columbian masks were not masks in any sense of the Western term. They were not created to conceal identities, deceive, or to terrify others, unless those others intended evil to the wearers. Instead, they revived the dead, or were given to the Underworld powers in exchange for benefits and help. They guarded the living, and particularly, the most vulnerable spots on the body. To their owners, they were useful and necessary. For us, the small masks also illustrate profound ideas about the inner life force and human identity. Their materials are nearly durable and will last and stay at their tasks long after their makers have ceased to be among the living. These nearly eternal stone faces bear witness to the genius, ingenuity, and inventiveness of the early peoples of Mesoamerica, and to the interactions between art, ideology, and technology. Beyond these important matters, however, the masks are interesting and compelling in and of themselves. Sometimes it is necessary to sit and gaze at one until it reveals its inner beauty, and until we can see clearly its unique qualities: its shape, its modeling or incising, the nature of the stone. They are objects of meditation. Seeing those things takes time, but eventually, with concentration, the stone glows and the mask seems to come alive.