Orozco′s American Epic

Myth, History, and the Melancholy of Race

Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: 100 color illustrations Published: February 2020

Author: Mary K. Coffey

Art and Visual Culture > Art History, History > U.S. History, Latin American Studies

Between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted the twenty-four-panel mural cycle entitled The Epic of American Civilization in Dartmouth College's Baker-Berry Library. An artifact of Orozco's migration from Mexico to the United States, the Epic represents a turning point in his career, standing as the only fresco in which he explores both US-American and Mexican narratives of national history, progress, and identity. While his title invokes the heroic epic form, the mural indicts history as complicit in colonial violence. It questions the claims of Manifest Destiny in the United States and the Mexican desire to mend the wounds of conquest in pursuit of a postcolonial national project. In Orozco's American Epic Mary K. Coffey places Orozco in the context of his contemporaries, such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, and demonstrates the Epic's power as a melancholic critique of official indigenism, industrial progress, and Marxist messianism. In the process, Coffey finds within Orozco's work a call for justice that resonates with contemporary debates about race, immigration, borders, and nationality.


Orozco's American Epic is original in its intent, theoretically sophisticated, and clearly elaborated. Mary K. Coffey does not settle for easy interpretations of Orozco's mural but rather dwells purposively on the difficult questions it raises. An outstanding book.” — Claire F. Fox, author of Making Art Panamerican: Cultural Policy and the Cold War

“This is a spectacular piece of scholarship. Any study of Mexican mural painting in the context of Mexico is challenging enough, but adding the extra level of context as a work on US soil would defeat a less ambitious and less courageous scholar than Mary K. Coffey. Any scholar who can speak with great authority on the theories of Benjamin, Freud, and Butler on the same page and then apply those insights to the work of a Mexican painter is a scholar of almost shocking sophistication and intellectual conviction. This book needed to be written, and Coffey has delivered in glorious fashion.” — Leonard Folgarait, coeditor of Mexican Muralism: A Critical History

"Coffey’s scholarship is singular in its depth of critical analysis of Orozco’s Epic and, for this reason, will likely be considered among the foremost explorations of the work. . . . This book is highly recommended for every academic library collection." — Colleen Farry, ARLIS/NA

"Critiquing melancholy through the lenses of performance and critical race studies, decoloniality, and transnationalism, Coffey offers a nuanced interpretation of Orozco’s political art. She presents Orozco’s Epic as a compelling counternarrative that reappraises debates about identity, immigration, and nationalism. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; professionals." — L. Estevez, Choice

"An engaging read. . . . Coffey’s discussion of these muralists correctly places the book in conversation with Mexican muralist studies more broadly." — Gregory R. Mesa, Dartmouth Review


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mary K. Coffey is Associate Professor of Art History at Dartmouth College. She is the author of How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture: Murals, Museums, and the Mexican State, also published by Duke University Press, and coeditor of Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations  ix
Preface  xv
Acknowledgments  xvii
Introduction  1
1. Orozco's Melancholy Dialectics  43
2. Colonial Melancholy and the Myth of Quetzalcoatl  79
3. American Modernity and the Play of Mourning  123
4. "Modern Industrial Man" and the Melancholy of Race in America  207
Conclusion  261
Notes  287
Bibliography  325
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0298-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0178-2