Mary K. Coffey. Duke University Press, February 2020. 384 p. ill. ISBN 9781478002987 (pbk.), $28.95.

Reviewed July 2020
Colleen Farry, Assistant Professor, Digital Services Librarian, The University of Scranton, colleen.farry@scranton.edu

coffeyPainted between 1932 and 1934, The Epic of American Civilization at Dartmouth College is considered the most significant work completed by Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco in the United States. The twenty-four-panel mural, located in the Baker-Berry Library, depicts a series of episodes in pre- and post-colonial American history. Through a montage of imagined and historical scenes, the mural cycle explores the construction of individual and national identity through race, culture, and politics. In Orozco’s American Epic: Myth, History, and the Melancholy of Race, Mary K. Coffey critically explores the historical, theoretical, and formal framework of Orozco’s Epic mural, and demonstrates how the work grapples with the legacies of violence and racial injustice in the Americas.

The book’s introduction provides a schematic layout of the fresco mural in addition to images of each panel, helping to position the reader as a viewer of the mural sequence. Additional images throughout the book illustrate art historical precedents and corollaries, contextualizing Orozco’s work within Mexican muralism and the work of contemporaries Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. While the introduction provides a background on the mural’s commission and descriptions of each panel, the subsequent chapters explore the politics of Orozco’s formal and theoretical approach and situate his choices within contemporary debates on mural art. The book includes chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index.

One of the compelling arguments presented by Coffey is how a change in Orozco’s location from Mexico to the United States affected his understanding of identity in the Americas. Coffey demonstrates how the themes of the Epic fit within Orozco’s broader oeuvre, while also bearing evidence of his experience as a racialized “other” within the white racial ideal of United States nationalism. Coffey unpacks for the reader Orozco’s meditations on the psychic conflicts of race in postcolonial America and the experience of national, cultural, and racial bordering.

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. It not only situates the mural within the Mexican muralist movement, but also provides the reader with a critical understanding of cultural and political thought in post-revolutionary Mexico. Moreover, the themes presented in this book find contemporary resonance in debates about race, identity, and nationality. Though the casual reader may find the theoretical complexity of Coffey’s writing challenging to grasp within its dense historical and philosophical contexts, this book is highly recommended for every academic library collection.