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The U.S. Imagination of Maya Ruins: Critical Reflections on Art and Architecture, 1839-1972

  • Author(s): Miller, Elizabeth Deen
  • Advisor(s): Wardwell, Mariana
  • Bryson, William N
  • et al.
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Divided into three episodes between the 1830s and 1970s, the dissertation explores the U.S. imagination of Maya ruins vis-à-vis the works of three salient figures in American cultural history. The first point of interest is the nineteenth-century expeditionary tradition and the politics of ruin gazing in southeastern Mexico, concentrating on the illustrated texts of the citizen-diplomat and travel writer, John Lloyd Stephens, and his counterpart, the English architect and draftsman, Frederick Catherwood. Stephens and Catherwood were the first to thoroughly document Maya ruins for a U.S. audience with the two-volume Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841), Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), and Catherwood’s self-published folio of lithographs, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1844). Mayan Revival (also known as “Neo-Mayan”) architecture is the second subject, focusing on Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of ancient American aesthetics in the 1910s and 1920s to create an “indigenous” modern American architecture in examples like the Ennis House (1923-1924). The third and final subject centers on the long sixties and the configurations of ruination (and ruin gazing), landscape, and the indigene in selected projects and writings of the celebrity of American land art, Robert Smithson. I address examples like “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” a 1969 photographic travel essay, and Smithson’s comedic slide lecture, Hotel Palenque (1969-1972). The recuperations of Maya architecture in U.S. contexts provide insight into the ways the imperial behaviors of the nineteenth-century United States can be traced through the aesthetics of modernity that emerged in the early to mid-twentieth century. The import of indigenous aesthetics and subject matter on Anglo-American aesthetic traditions—whether in Catherwood’s illustrations of the continent’s ruins, Wright’s Mesoamerican revival architecture, or the putatively radical de-sublimation at work amongst the American neo-avant-gardists like Smithson—sheds light on the unusual and occasionally overlooked relationship between ruination, U.S. art and architectural modernism, and the hierarchies that in many ways define the American landscape.

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This item is under embargo until June 25, 2020.