On September 8, 1985, a naked body fell from a 34th floor window at 300 Mercer Street in Greenwich Village. The broken remains belonged to thirty-six year old Ana Mendieta, a rising Cuban-American artist who, until the fall, had been enjoying a quiet evening of Chinese food and champagne with her husband of eight months, minimalist hero Carl Andre. Yet somehow, during this quiet, domestic scene, she “had gone out the window,” as Andre stated in the 911 call. When officers arrived at Andre’s apartment, he reasoned that Mendieta must have drunkenly jumped to her death after the artist refused to go to bed with her. As officers surveyed the scene, Andre pulled one of his art books from a shelf. “You see,” he explained, “I am a very successful artist and she wasn’t. Maybe that got to her, and in that case, maybe I did kill her.”
“How do you know she jumped?” asked an officer. At four feet, ten inches and 93 pounds, the famously height-phobic Mendieta barely reached the window above the bed. Nonetheless, her body fell 269 feet in 4.21 seconds, leaving an imprint ironically similar to those of her famous earth Siluetas. “I just know,” replied Andre.
Three years later, Andre was acquitted of all charges on the basis of insufficient evidence. He continues to live in the Mercer Street apartment.
This is the context in which many know Mendieta, as a victim of a high-profile murder trial that divided the art world, as a modern day Frida and Diego, her playing the foreign wife who “gleefully dabbles in works of art” while riding the coattails of her more-famous husband, as a body of work to be viewed in monographs, or simply as a body.
On May 20, 2014, a body fell at the Chelsea headquarters of the Dia Art Foundation. This time, it was clearly not an accident as protesters poured chicken blood and guts onto the street in protest against the foundation’s Andre retrospective at Dia:Beacon. “I wish Ana Mendieta was still alive,” read a banner placed in front of the building, echoing a sentiment that has been felt ever since that Fall evening in 1985.
The Chelsea protest was a bloody declaration of anger regarding Mendieta’s death and the institutional celebration of her probable murderer, as well as a reminder that she has not been forgotten. Though Mendieta’s life will never be able to exist without mention of Andre, there were no traces of the late artist at the Dia retrospective. Instead, her presence had to be forcefully inserted by protestors who cried for the late artist amongst Andre’s cold metal plates and timber blocks. Perhaps most crucially, scholar Anna Chave used the occasion of an Andre symposium at the museum to deliver the hard-hitting lecture “Grave Matters: Positioning Carl Andre at Career’s End.” The essay, which has been republished in Art Journal, considers the role of violence in Andre’s poems and sculptures, as well as the role of Dia in protecting the artist. Chillingly, Chave referred to a 1958 poem written by Andre:
The ways of love were
sometime my revenge when
I was wronged by something
done or said & she stood
naked by the window waiting
to be struck perhaps where
her white breasts were red…
Andre purposefully avoided Chave’s lecture. He made an appearance the next day, when the lectures were less critical. I sat behind him, a towering figure clad in blue worker overalls as always. It felt terrifying to be so close to the man who is presumably responsible for the death of a woman who has become so important to me, who is being celebrated by an institution I hold quite dear. I cried that day for Mendieta. I cried when talking to her friend Carolee Schneemann, who told me that Ana would have never committed suicide. I cried while writing this essay because this narrative feels too common. As African-American artist Howardena Pindell succinctly said, the outcome of the trial was “totally symbolic: your life isn’t worth shit.”
The Dia show unintentionally brought Mendieta attention, but now that the retrospective is closed, it is imperative that these conversations continue. Mendieta is certainly not the only female artist whose career has been overshadowed by that of a male Father artist and she is CERTAINLY not the only person of color whose killer has not been sentenced.
Ana Mendieta deserves to be known for her life, not her death, although, as an artist obsessed with ephemerality and temporality, mortality was a crucial theme in her work. For those who have not yet learned about Mendieta’s brief but complex career, here is a primer. Luckily, many amazing monographs exist that paint a much more detailed picture of her life and work. I have particularly enjoyed the monographs Ana Mendieta: Traces and Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, as well as Naked by the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta by Robert Katz.
Ana María Mendieta was born in Havana, Cuba in 1948 to a prominent political family. Her father originally supported Castro’s revolution but as the leader’s communist leanings became more evident, he broke from the cause on religious grounds. He was subsequently sent to a political prison for eighteen years. Ana, by then twelve, and her sister Raquel, fifteen, were sent to Miami as part of Operation Peter Pan in 1961. The young girls had no family in Florida so they were sent to live in Iowa, where they were shuffled between orphanages.
Blood and Feathers
In 1969, she received her BA from the University of Iowa before pursuing an MA in painting. However, Mendieta quickly abandoned painting in search of a more spiritual medium: “I realized my paintings were not real enough for what I wanted the image to convey -- and by real, I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.” Iowa’s Intermedia MFA program had introduced her to contemporary artists like Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik, and Robert Smithson. The young Mendieta began creating challenging works like Untitled (Death of a Chicken) (1972) in which she held a freshly decapitated chicken, letting its blood spray her body like a Pollock painting. Mendieta would continue to use blood throughout her work, notably in Sweating Blood (1973), in which she sits in trance-like state with her eyes closed while blood trickles down her face; in Untitled (Blood and Feathers) (1974), in which she rubbed her body in blood and rolled in white feathers, becoming a sacrificial Santería chicken; and in Untitled (Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks) (1974), for which she dipped her arms in blood and then pressed them against a white wall, dragging them down to trace two bloody streaks.
Blood Sign #2/Body Tracks
As Mendieta’s interest in performance grew, so did her fascination with ancient and indigenous cultures. Mendieta first visited Mexico in 1971 for an Archaeology Field Research class. She would return to Oaxaca many times between 1973 and 1980 to create her famous Silueta series. The Silueta works, performed in Mexico and Iowa between 1973 and 1980, are outlines of Mendieta’s body in flowers, mud, grass, dirt, rocks, and fire. The works were site specific with the purpose of becoming one with the land.
In the first Silueta, Imagen de Yagul (Image from Yagul), the artist lay in an ancient open grave and asked partner and professor Hans Breeder to cover her nude body in flowers. In the photograph documenting the action, the flowers appear to have grown from Mendieta’s body, as if nature has taken over both her body and the site.
As she explained, the Siluetas were created in an effort to reconnect with her heritage and become close to nature: “I have been carrying out a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this has been a direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that unite me to the universe…I became an extension of nature and natures becomes an extension of my body.”
After completing her MFA in 1978, Mendieta moved to New York City. In 1980, she returned to Cuba for the first time since 1961. There she created the Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures), life-sized forms of indigenous deities carved into limestone. The project was left unfinished due to her death, and the individual works believed to have been destroyed. Recently, Canadian artist Elise Rasmussen found that the carvings and their painted outlines still exist in their original sites, to the contrary of information presented by the Guggenheim and the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba. As Rasmussen told Haley Mlotek for her piece “Tracing Ana” in The New Inquiry, this misinformation once again shows that Mendieta’s narrative has been largely overlooked: “It causes me to question the importance that major institutions place on her as an artist, while at the same time it makes me realize the importance of actually experiencing something firsthand and not taking the authoritative word as doctrine.”
Rasmussen’s exploration of Mendieta’s works summarizes perhaps their most important qualities: the emotional and sensual associations of experience and creation. In death as in life, Mendieta escaped categorization. Was she a painter, a sculptor, a performance artist, a body artist, or an earth artist? Maybe all of the above. Either way, we must not forget Ana Mendieta.