Modernism and Mesoamerica in The David M. Solinger Collection

Modernism and Mesoamerica in The David M. Solinger Collection

The impact of African art on European modernism is well known. The David M. Solinger Collection reveals its affinity with ancient Mesoamerican art and architecture.
The impact of African art on European modernism is well known. The David M. Solinger Collection reveals its affinity with ancient Mesoamerican art and architecture.

T he David M Solinger Collection reads as a primer on canonical modernism and abstraction and is full of aesthetic ideas that, at mid-century, were fresh and exciting. Solinger, who served as a trustee and then president of The Whitney Museum of American Art, fearlessly sought out the explosive and unusual, transcending the prejudgments of the uninitiated, and embraced the primordial, the expressive and the essential. It is therefore not surprising that Solinger, like the artists he championed, also sought those universal qualities in art forms created hundreds of years earlier, in cultures different from his own.

The David M. Solinger Collection is a masterful assemblage of art spanning continents and millennia.

While the relationship between African art and early twentieth-century modernists is well known, The David M. Solinger Collection points to another fruitful dialogue: the affinity between ancient Mesoamerican art and architecture and Western modernism. Concepts that developed in the great civilizations of Mesoamerica presaged the “discoveries” of modernists in the early twentieth century: from the geometric purity of Mezcala art (see lots 22 and 23 of the upcoming Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas auction), to the unrestrained graphic expressiveness of Nayarit terracotta sculpture (see lots 24 and 25).

Solinger discovered Pre-Columbian art through some of the same American dealers from whom he acquired paintings: Pierre Matisse, André Emmerich, Sidney Janis and Earl Stendahl. The David M. Solinger Collection of premodern art reveals a distinctively American curiosity about the universality of human forms and materiality that transcend cultural boundaries. He was among the first American collectors to explore these connections, bringing Mesoamerican artworks into a dialogue of great artistic traditions.

Left: Large Mezcala Stone Figure, Type M-10, Late Preclassic, circa 300–100 BC. Estimate: $40,000–60,000. Right: Mezcala Stone Figure, Type M-14, Late Preclassic, circa 300–100 BC Estimate $20,000–30,000.

Two magnificent stone figures that Solinger acquired from Emmerich in 1958 are among the finest known representatives of the abstract Mezcala style. First studied in the 1920s by the Mexican artist and collector Miguel Covarrubias, this mysterious tradition is believed to have emerged in the third century BCE, long predating the Aztecs and the Maya. Solinger was one of the earliest collectors of this now-famous style.

Mezcala stone figures are a distillation of the human form – minimal yet expressive with an elegant simplicity of pure sculptural geometry. Large planes of perfectly smooth colored stone suggest permanence and materiality. The subtlest angles impart the naturalism of great sculpture. The tilt of the head on this figure suggests the expressive personality of its subject, while firm diagonal lines define the arms against the torso, confident in placement and technique.

In the Solinger home, his Mezcala figures were placed near two important works of modern art: Fernand Leger’s Jeune fille au corsage jaune and Jean Arp’s Fruit méchant. Léger’s linear description reduces the young woman’s face to an essential form, a solution that the Mezcala artist had also conceived. The solid materiality of Arp’s patiently carved geometries is undeniably like the stoic ancient figures.


In the rounded, fleshy forms and exaggerated features of ancient West Mexican terracotta sculpture, Solinger again found an aesthetic dialogue with modern art. Once deemed “brutal” and “absurd” by early Western viewers, Nayarit art brims with vitality and expressive power.

The richly decorated couple of the Nayarit Ixtlán del Rio style represents the revered concept of ancestor worship and the primordial union of male and female creative forces. They are engaged in ceremonial activity as a pair: the male plays music on a turtle shell carapace with an antler, and the woman holds a bowl for communal feasting. Their kinship is reinforced through shared physiognomy, facial features, detailed body design and jewelry. Wavy concentric lines cover their faces, and zigzag serpent motifs mark their bodies.

The beautifully painted clothing and the stylized proportions of the Nayarit and Jalisco figures in the collection resonate with other twentieth-century abstract paintings displayed in Solinger’s apartment, such as Joan Miró’s Femme, étoiles and Jean Dubuffet’s Chamelier. Wild tendrils, liberal brushstrokes and bold expressions entrance the viewer, as do Dubuffet and Miró’s surreal visual worlds.

More than simple “affinities,” these works share across cultures a profound appreciation for the basic architecture of the human form, as well as an intense expressiveness charged by their unrestrained delight in color and form.

Highlights from Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

This article was adapted and abridged from “Source and Accompaniment: Ancient Mesoamerican Art in the Solinger Collection,” printed in full in the David M. Solinger collection catalogue.

Pre-Columbian Art

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