Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art
The following excerpt is taken from a standard text on the history of Mexican art.

Pre-Spanish history in Mexico is riddled with lacunae or gaps. All that can be stated with certainty is that, quite independent of any European or Oriental influence, peoples speaking different languages and at various stages of cultural development gradually created a civilization in Mexico which, by the tenth century, already knew the use of certain metals. This civilization has left us temples, palaces, tombs, ball-courts, images of its gods, ritual masks and funeral urns, mural paintings and codices, jewelry and personal ornaments, pottery for household and religious uses, weapons, and primitive tools. All these do not belong to the same epoch, style, or culture, but together they form a rich and varied aggregation which is, nevertheless, homogeneous and comparable to Chinese art of the two thousand years from Confucius to the Ming dynasty.

Pre-Spanish art in Mexico served a religious function. It was not content to copy the external world, whose visible forms were for it no more than an outward testimony of great inner forces. It created original compositions, using real elements with an almost musical freedom. It is not a crude art; they are mistaken who see in its bold simplifications or wayward conceptions an inability to overcome technical difficulties. The ancient Mexican artist was deliberate and skillful, and, though never led by a merely descriptive aim, he often lingered over his subjects with realistic and minutely observant pleasure. One marvels at his plastic feeling and at his powers of decorative composition.

The Mayas achieved in sculpture a placid and austere beauty of proportion and sensitiveness in modeling which has rarely been surpassed. The works of the Totonacs reveal a people of keen sensibility and varied means of expression. Their grace and tranquil, formal beauty, their plastic rhythm and interpretation of psychological values place their makers among the creators of purest art. Aztec works rival the sober and vigorous solidity of great Egyptian sculpture, which they surpass in human intensity. The colossal statue of Coatlicue shows that equilibrium between a maximum richness of detail and an assertion of plastic structure which, centuries later, is again to be found in the Mexican baroque.

In its finest works, Mexican sculpture equals the masterpieces of any other period. The plastic feeling of these mysterious people led them to solutions that are surprising in their modernity. There are Tarascan statuettes that anticipate the essential and drastic simplicity of Brancusi, and Totonac masks that recall the poignant mortality which haunted Lehmbruck. The reclining figure of Chacmool seems to forecast the lines of “The Mountains” by the English sculptor Henry Moore. The ancient Mexicans tried sculptural caricature also, and even sought to reproduce color effects plastically . . . These peoples have left us, as Roger Fry affirms, “more masterpieces of pure sculpture than the whole of Mesopotamia, or than the majority of modern European civilizations.”
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