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The Aztec Empire at the Guggenheim

Related Resources:

Holland Cotter, A Lost Culture, Drenched in Blood and Beauty (New York Times, October 15, 2004)

Peter Schjeldahl, Memento Mori (The New Yorker, November 1, 2004)

Frederick M. Winship, Guggenheim museum revisits Aztec empire (Washington Times, from UPI, November 19, 2004)

Michele Leight, The Aztec Empire: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (The City Review, with lots of great images)

Carolyn Weaver, Aztec Art Exhibit Showcases Fascinating Civilization (Voice of America News, December 17, 2004)

Jennifer Viegas, Aztecs Cooked, Skinned, Ate Humans (Discovery News, January 25, 2005; thanks to Cronaca for this link)

Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (exhibit at the National Gallery of Art)

Mark Barry's visit to Teotihuacan
On my recent trip to New York (where I saw the excellent play 9 Parts of Desire), I spent my last morning in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum looking at the absolutely mind-blowing exhibit on The Aztec Empire (until February 13). The Guggenheim's Web site is pretty terrible, as far as images go, but there are some other images in the articles listed to the right. This exhibit is noteworthy because it is apparently the largest single collection of Aztec artifacts, most of them loaned from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, ever shown outside of Mexico. This cachet appears to have justified an outlandish admission price ($18, plus $5 for the audio tour), almost as high as the regular admission to the new MoMA, although it had no impact on the crowds happily forking over their money on the day that I visited.

This show gives an extended look into the obsessions of the Aztecs, with death and how it sustained life. Many of the sculptures depict their seemingly endless pantheon of gods, and the animals associated with them, beginning with the ground floor presentation of Quetzlcoatl (the feathered serpent, shown in a large serpent head sculpture) and the death goddess Coatlicue, with her skirt of serpents. The incredible number of objects encourages you to plumb the many associations these deities had for Aztec artists, such as the symbolism of the snake, shedding its skin and rejuvenating itself. One of the most striking pieces in the show is an anthropomorphic brazier (shown at left), in which a youthful human face is seen within an aged face, which is itself within a dead face, with hollow eyes like a snake skin. Looking at this piece gave me a new perspective on the Aztec practice of flaying sacrifice victims and priests wearing their skins until they rotted away, a ceremony depicted in the Xipe Totec sculpture also in the show.

For someone who has not yet visited any of the great Mesoamerican sites, the exhibit also provides some excellent pieces from the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlán and other temple sites, such as the Atlantean figures, sculptures that supported an Aztec temple at its four cardinal points. The Aztecs, like other Mesoamerican cultures, assimilated most of the legends of cultures that preceded them. They continued to revere the sacred city at Teotihuacan and appropriated artwork from much older cultures like the Olmec, worshipping the ancient goggle-eyed weather god, whom they called Tlaloc, at the Templo Mayor. There are some beautiful Olmec pieces in this exhibit, too, including several masks and a standing figure depicting the Jaguar-child motif found in that culture. According to the exhibit commentary, the Aztecs excavated the major Olmec sites, in a quest for their past.

Photograph by Michele Leight (
The exhibit has a lot of small pieces in the cases along Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral, but there are also some stunning large statues in the adjoining spaces. A statue of Mictlantecuhtli, ruler of the underworld, shoes his exposed liver splayed open like a flower, and an Eagle Warrior from the Templo Mayor towers over the visitor in a darkened room, representing "a standing man wearing a helmet in the form of an eagle, from whose beak the warrior's face emerges." Although there were Aztec warriors who wore this costume, recent research indicates that this statue may depict the Sun God, on whom the warriors' costume was based.

With a lot to think about, I spent my last few minutes in Manhattan wandering through Central Park. The bases of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's upcoming installation The Gates had been installed, with little orange plastic supports visible on all the paths winding through the park. Mark Barry tells me that he will be in New York for the opening (it will be in place from February 12 to 28) and will give us some pictures. We look forward to it.

Thanks to Marja-Leena Rathje for her kind reference to and comment on this post.


Anonymous said...

Please could you credit the mask image to The City - directly under the image as is customary? I wrote a review of The Aztec Empire show, which you have kindly credited me for, and I took this photograph at the press preview at The Guggenheim Museum, which is shown at the top of my review for

Michele Leight
Founding Director,
Author:Harvest of Innocence

Anonymous said...

I am the editor and publisher of and I would appreciate it if you would give Michele Leight a photo credit beneath the picture she took that you used to illustrate your review of the Aztec Empire show at the Guggenheim. Many thanks, Carter B. Horsley

Charles T. Downey said...

Done. Sorry not to have done so before. If it is not alright to use this image, please let me know and I will take it down.

Anonymous said...

It is fine to use the photo as it is credited now, so please have no concerns. I have to follow the proper protocols. My goal is to share these treasures with everyone.
Many thanks,
Michele Leight