The Testimony of Hands
Chimú Pottery

Abstraction and Mass Production

Our examples for abstraction and mass production
Photograph by B. Bernard

Until abstract art became popular in Western countries, it was typical to denigrate abstraction and mass production by non-western cultures such as those of ancient America. Because of the association of naturalism with "high civilizations," it was preferred over abstraction. Precolumbian cultures that employed naturalism (such as the Maya in Mesoamerica and the Moche in South America) became favorites in scholarship and in exhibitions.

The three pots shown below display various degrees of abstraction. They indicate the value placed on simplified modeling, sometimes to the point where it is not clear what is being represented. The first shows a crouching jaguar fairly clearly, but the jaguar's body is no more than the usual elliptical body for a jar. This example is 15 centimeters (6 inches) tall.

Catalogue No. 88.72.2

88.72.2, mold-made jar
Chimú-Inka period (A.D. 1470–1532)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Rowland

The next pot has an animal on the handle, but is it a monkey or an iguana? The body of the pot is even more ambiguous. Looks from other angles don't help much. As the process of abstraction progresses, objects move away from the obvious and easily interpreted, toward arrangements that appeal directly to the viewer's aethetics. Although abstract art is considered a hallmark of the modern world, the process was invented and applied in multiple cultures, centuries before the art salons of Paris.

Catalogue No. 61.10.18

Catalogue No. 61.10.18 Catalogue No. 61.10.18

61.10.18, mold-made stirrup-spout jar
Late Chimú (A.D. 1350–1470) to Chimú-Inka (A.D. 1470–1532) period
Hurd Collection of Peruvian pottery; gift of S. L. (Bud) Maisel
Photographs by B. Bernard

The pot shown above is 15 centimeters (6 inches) tall; the one shown below is 14 1/2 centimeters (5 3/4 inches) tall. In the lower example the process of abstraction is close to complete. Two human figures adorn the handle but the aesthetic impact of the piece depends on its shape, color, and polish. In a sense, abstraction has come full circle, back to the elemental forms of many examples of so-called "primitive" art.

Catalogue No. 57.5.10

Catalogue No. 57.5.10

57.5.10, mold-made ceramic jar
Chimú, Lambayeque style (A.D. 1350–1470)
Gift of Mr. Wartt Stewart

To return to the thumbnail on the previous page, click here.

All content copyright © Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. High-resolution versions of photographs may be ordered from the Maxwell Museum's photo archives. Please make note of the catalogue numbers. For more information please visit the photo archives web page

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Page last revised on March 7, 2011. Please report problems to