July 25, 2024


Art Shines Through

How should Ana Mendieta’s story be told?

How should Ana Mendieta’s story be told?

Protestors stage an action at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin on September 18, 2016, in memory of Ana Mendieta. Photo: Coral Garvey.

HERE IS WHAT WE KNOW: In 1979, Ana Mendieta, a young, up-and-coming artist fresh off a solo show at the feminist co-op A.I.R. Gallery, met the older, more famous Carl Andre, a so-called founding father of Minimalism. The artists embarked on a romantic and, by several accounts, tempestuous relationship. In 1985, Mendieta died after falling from the window of Andre’s thirty-fourth-floor apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village. He was tried, and acquitted, for her murder. Now eighty-seven, Andre—still living, somewhat astoundingly, in that same apartment—has carried on with his career, exhibiting regularly in museums and galleries throughout the world. Yet not everyone is convinced of his innocence, as we hear in Death of an Artist, a six-episode podcast from writer-curator Helen Molesworth. In addition to offering a précis on the defects of the US justice system, the series reframes abiding questions about art through the lens of Mendieta’s case: Are artists’ lives—and deaths—relevant when discussing their work? What about when we suspect that they have committed a terrible crime? Who benefits from silence, and from speaking up?

Cliff-hangers, plot twists, and sudden revelations govern the true crime genre, which turns traumatizing experiences into “bingeworthy” “content.” This rather sordid, popular format meets the august discipline of art history in Death of an Artist, which combines first-person testimony—much of it recycled from interviews conducted by journalist Robert Katz for a book published in 1990—with vivid narration and staged reconstructions (Mendieta is voiced by artist and Cuban compatriot Tania Bruguera). The evidence piles up. We hear from Mendieta’s friend Marsha Pels that she was planning to leave Andre on the night she died. She’d been gathering proof that he was cheating on her: phone and credit card bills that were never recovered by detectives. We hear the transcript of Andre’s frantic 911 call, in which he told the phone operator that Mendieta had “committed suicide” before later revising that statement to suggest that her death had been accidental. We hear of other evidence that was either deemed inadmissible or discredited at Andre’s bench trial, which was requested by his team because they thought a “sophisticated” judge would be more sympathetic than the average jury, liable to be doubly alienated by Andre’s avant-garde art and working-class affectations. (“A genius,” Molesworth quips, “is going to have a hard time finding a ‘jury of their peers.’”) There’s an unexplained scratch on Andre’s face; an absence of footprints on the windowsill; a doorman who heard a woman scream “No, no, no” shortly before Mendieta fell. And infuriatingly, we hear how Andre’s defense used Mendieta’s art—her performances, films, and photographs showing the impact of bodies on earth; her fascination with blood and violence; her research into Afro-Caribbean rituals and religions—to argue that she might have taken her own life, as some sort of performance-cum-sacrifice. Death of an Artist makes a persuasive case that Andre’s acquittal was a grave miscarriage of justice.

It’s undeniably engrossing. But it can also be somewhat uncomfortable to find yourself racing from one episode to the next. Although the tone of the narration is sensitive, the subject is still the death of a beautiful young woman. America’s fixation on this topic has been increasingly scrutinized in recent years, for example in Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (2018) and Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession (2019). As Monroe points out, the most avid consumers of stories about men hurting or killing women—and it is usually men—are other women, who often justify these morbid narratives as “raising the alarm” on the dangers of misogyny. An uncanny irony of Mendieta’s case is that, for one of her earliest projects, in 1973, she made a series of artworks in response to the rape and murder of a fellow female student at the University of Iowa, staging the grisly aftermath of these crimes in performances and installations around campus. The first episode of Death of an Artist opens with a description of Moffitt Building Piece, in which Mendieta filmed the reactions of passersby to a pool of blood that she had leaked outside her apartment. But where exactly is the line between warranted attention and voyeurism—between the act of bearing witness and perpetuating victimhood? And what end does the typical true crime narrative serve? We all have different ideas of justice. That said, I have yet to find a TV series or podcast with an account of gendered violence that does not, explicitly or by implication, endorse the ideology of carceral feminism, which holds that the solutions lie in stronger policing and longer prison sentences for offenders.

Promotional art for Death of an Artist.

Molesworth compares Andre’s murder trial to the staging of an exhibition: “Both are places where a story is being told . . . And the rules about what evidence or artwork can be used to tell those stories are not always straightforward, transparent, or fair.” It is a surprising analogy, given that the stakes of trials and exhibitions are so different. But it does facilitate a transition to a field that Molesworth is better positioned to discuss: the mechanisms of the art world, and how they have protected Andre in the face of such serious, credible allegations. Here, she is unflinching, raising concerns about institutional silence that cannot easily be quelled. You get the sense that the issue is personal for Molesworth. In 2018, she was very publicly fired from her position as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; the media reported a clash with then-director Philippe Vergne over matters of diversity and inclusion. (An epilogue for Death of an Artist, titled “The Numbers,” makes a hard pivot to an analysis of parity in museum collections today.) Although she can’t discuss the details of her termination due to a nondisclosure agreement, Molesworth states openly that she was unhappy with the museum’s decision to host a touring retrospective of Andre’s work in 2017. While she’d once admired his artistic achievements, over time she realized that she “didn’t think we should be celebrating someone who had been accused of murder.” Neither did the protestors who crashed the show’s opening, where they handed out postcards with images of Mendieta and unfurled a white scroll painted with silhouettes of women’s bodies—a tribute to the artist’s long-running “Silueta” series. But the show went on. As Molesworth regretfully concludes, “An art museum is definitely not a democracy.”

It is frustrating that we can’t know exactly what went down with her firing. Is Molesworth implying that it was connected to the Andre show, or more generally that she regrets signing her NDA, which should be taken as evidence of a systemic lack of transparency in the art world? (Hinting at the latter, she briefly interviews Kelli Morgan, another curator who in 2020 resigned from the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, citing a “toxic” and “discriminatory” workplace—and who did not agree to an NDA.)

Still, it is useful to hear about her professional entanglements with Andre, experiences that bolster her argument that his career has been shielded by those who stand to profit from their association with him, as well as by his reputation, still intact, as a (white, male) genius. As the late Peter Schjeldahl points out, “We don’t give Caravaggio grief for being a murderer, you know, which he absolutely was.” Schjeldahl, it’s worth noting, was no fan of Andre. Following an altercation in a bar in the 1960s, the critic made it a point to avoid the artist, and describes him to Molesworth as a “prima donna and a bully.” But after Mendieta’s death, friends and associates closed ranks. Lawrence Weiner, who bailed Andre out from Rikers with a check furnished by Frank Stella, admitted that he didn’t even ask what happened: “I don’t intrude on my friends.” The most illuminating piece of testimony comes from B. Ruby Rich, a friend of Mendieta’s and one of the few who knew the couple to publicly question Andre’s innocence. She recalls an assistant D.A. saying that they had “never encountered a wall of silence like this one, except in mafia cases.” Molesworth glosses: “We [the art world] are a social formation structured by deep friendships that mix business with pleasure, love with money, and perhaps because the lines between personal and public are so thin, it’s a world in which discretion is paramount.” After the conclusion of Andre’s trial, we’re told that a meeting was convened by his gallerist, Paula Cooper, where it was agreed that no one in the room would speak about the case again.

It’s not just Andre’s team who won’t talk. The estate of Ana Mendieta also declined to be interviewed for the series because, as Molesworth concedes, “They prefer the focus to be solely on Ana Mendieta’s work.” The podcast betrays this wish—as, of course, must any coverage of it. Yet while the vexed issue of biography in art history and criticism remains unresolved in Death of an Artist, Molesworth refuses to flatten Mendieta—and her ferocious, multifaceted body of work—into a mere representation of victimhood. The final episode of the series concludes not with the question of what happened on that tragic night in 1985, but with a description of Ochún, a work recorded on videotape by Mendieta four years earlier. The footage depicts a silueta formed of two curving lines sculpted from earth and submerged in water off the southern coast of Florida, a few hundred miles from her home country of Cuba. It is a characteristically layered work, weaving together the artist’s occupations with nature and the body, culture and identity, art and ephemerality: an outline at once indelible and at the mercy of the ever-turning tide.

Gabrielle Schwarz is a writer and editor living in London.