This talk examines the reception of colossal Olmec heads in the United States and Mexico during the 1960s, their decade of greatest exposure. A mission led by U.S. archaeologist Matthew Stirling in 1939 catapulted the Olmecs and their striking monumental art to mainstream fame in both countries. Made sometime between 1500 and 400 BC by the first "urban" culture of the Americas, the striking naturalism of these large and extremely heavy carved heads of volcanic stone mystified scholars, artists, and popular audiences . Heated debates about the dating, production, and ancient transportation of the heads raged for decades thereafter, parallel to racially-charged controversies surrounding the presumed and confusing 'African' traits that these heads evinced. Showcased in a number of now-forgotten blockbuster exhibitions in museums and World's Fairs pavilions in the early 1960s, the striking heads became a significant presence within official Mexican culture and proved central to diplomatic transactions on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Still more interestingly, their expansive, mass-mediated reception also exerted considerable impact on a number of artistic trajectories in the U.S. Exploring their heretofore understudied centrality to early practices of 'public' art, land art, and various other sculptural trajectories, the talk also examines their enduring and unsuspected imprint on artistic and museological practices revived very recently.
Luis Castañeda is an assistant professor of art history at Syracuse University. His work focuses on the interrelations between art, design, media and cultural display in twentieth-century Latin America. A current book manuscript explores the design culture of Mexico’s mid twentieth-century economic “Miracle” as part of a transnational matrix of political, financial, and ideological exchanges. Castañeda’s writings on art, design, and culture have appeared in Grey Room, Pidgin, the Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, the Journal of Design History, and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. He has lectured and presented papers internationally , and has received awards from NYU, the Pinta Foundation, Syracuse University, and the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota.