da The Guardian (22 September 2013)
Mendieta: death of an artist foretold in blood
The mystery of how the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell 34 floors
from the window of her New York apartment in 1985 has echoes in
the dark, ritualistic images she left behind
In 1992, the Guggenheim Museum in New York held
the inaugural show for its new and what would turn out
to be short-lived downtown art gallery in SoHo. The opening
was memorable not for the art within, but the action outside.
To enter the exhibition the great and the good of the New York
art world had to pass a picket line of about 500 feminist protesters,
many of them carrying banners that read: "Where Is Ana Mendieta?"
That question was directed at the male-dominated art establishment,
which feminists claimed had already forgotten Ana Mendieta, who
had died seven years earlier. What incensed the protesters even
more was the inclusion in the show of a work by her former partner,
the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. To them, as well as to Mendieta's
family and many of her friends, Andre was responsible for her
In the early hours of 8 September 1985, Mendieta had to
borrow the words Andre had used when he called the emergency services
"somehow gone out the window" of their 34th floor
apartment on Manhattan's Mercer Street.
Both had been drinking heavily. Andre later claimed to remember
nothing of the events leading up to her death and that she may
even have committed suicide, but those that knew her well
and knew of her acute fear of heights thought this unlikely.
Many of them believed he had pushed or even thrown her out of
the window during a drunken argument.
"What happened that night, no one will ever know,"
says the artist Ted Victoria, a close friend of Mendieta who still
lives and works in a studio in SoHo close to where she first lived
after arriving in New York. "But the notion that she would
jump out the window in her underwear no. She had too much
going for her at the time, more so than him. Her work was being
noticed. And she wasn't depressed.
"I know because I saw her a few nights before her death.
She was up and happy. She hated heights, so she would not have
climbed up on the window, which was close to, and just above,
the bed in their apartment. My guess is they were fighting and
it just happened, this terrible thing."
"Most people thought he had done something active,"
says Dotty Attie, an artist and friend of Mendieta from when they
both belonged to the all-women AIR gallery in New York in the
early 1980s. "Others, who knew him, could not believe it.
Most of his women friends supported him, but people wanted to
blame somebody. There was a lot of division in the New York art
world over her death. People took sides."
When the police arrived, they found the couple's bedroom in a
mess and Andre with scratch marks on his nose and arms. His initial
statements differed from his recorded message to the emergency
services. He was arrested and later charged with murder. In court,
a doorman testified that he heard a woman screaming "No"
several times around 5.30am, and then the thud of her body as
it hit the roof of the all-night delicatessen below.
After three separate indictments, Andre was acquitted on the
grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove that he
had pushed her during a drunken row. Many of her friends remain
unconvinced of his innocence. They cite contradictions in his
police interviews, and his decision to be tried by a judge rather
than a jury which meant that the evidence was weighed up
without him being cross-examined by the prosecution.
"There were too many things that were just not right about
the trial," says the feminist writer and academic B Ruby
Rich, a friend and staunch supporter of Mendieta, who wrote a
long, critical article in the Village Voice newspaper following
the failure of the first indictment. "Not least the cynical
way in which his lawyers tried to use her art to back up the suggestion
that she committed suicide. Many powerful figures in the New York
art world colluded in that."
Until recently, the question asked by those feminist protesters
might have been amended to "Who is Ana Mendieta?", so
unknown was her art outside the rarefied world of feminist art
criticism. But, as the recent big show of her work at the Whitney
Museum in New York and the imminent retrospective at the Hayward
gallery in London attests, Mendieta is undergoing a reappraisal
as a pioneering artist whose work, as the Hayward's artistic director,
Ralph Rugoff, notes "ranged nomadically across practices
associated with body art, land art, performance, sculpture, photography
Cuban-born and American-raised, Mendieta described her work as
"earth-body" art. From 1971, when she had her first
solo show while an MA student at the University of Iowa, until
her death, she created a diverse collection of work that included
silhouettes of her body created in mud, earth, rocks, wild flowers
and leaves, performance pieces that evoked the folk and occult
traditions of her native Cuba as well as her beloved Mexico and
subversive self-portraits that played with notions of beauty,
belonging and gender. In her performance pieces, where she sometimes
used blood "as a very, powerful magical thing", she
evoked the power of female sexuality as well as the horror of
male sexual violence. In her photographic self-portraits, she
pressed her face against glass to distort her features or pictured
herself dripping in blood or disguised as a man with glued-on
Mendieta's art, like her spirit, was fuelled by a restlessness
rooted in her exile from Cuba. Friends described her variously
as "sparky", "provocative", "tempestuous",
"outspoken" and "fiercely ambitious." After
her death, many saw, in her often dark and ritualistic art, a
foreshadowing of her fate she once staged a performance
in which visitors came upon her prone under a blood-splattered
white sheet. Others claimed her as the freest of female free spirits
in a male-dominated art world. The curator and scholar Irit Rogoff,
her as "essentialised through an association of wild appetites
and with unbounded female sexuality." It is only now that
the power of her art is finally taking precedence over the stereotypes
that were thrust upon her and the darkly dramatic manner of her
Mendieta was born in November 1948, the second of three children
to Ignacio and Raquel Mendieta, a well-off, upper-middle-class
couple. Her father, a supporter of Fidel Castro, was made an assistant
in the post-revolutionary ministry of state in 1959 but, disillusioned
with the anti-Catholicism of the new Cuba, later became involved
in organising counter-revolutionary activities. As did his two
daughters, Ana and Raquelin, aged 12 and 14. Fearing for their
safety, he arranged for their passage to America, in 1961 through
Operation Pedro Pan, a scheme organised by a priest in Miami that
allowed around 14,000 children to leave the country and enter
the US under the guardianship of the Catholic church. "For
Ana, it was an adventurous thing," her sister Raquelin later
remembered, "When we arrived in Miami, she kissed the ground."
Her euphoria was short-lived. After a time in which they were
given over to the care of an Iowa reform school, where beatings
and confinement were common punishments for the slightest misdemeanour,
the sisters were separated and spent several years being shunted
from one foster home to another. Ana felt abandoned by her family
and isolated from her homeland. She did not see her mother and
brother again until 1966, or her father, who was jailed for disloyalty
to Castro, until 1979. He died soon after arriving in America.
"You have to understand she came to America with nothing,"
says Victoria. "That sense of exile was something she carried
with her as well as a fierce independence of spirit. She would
talk about it sometimes when she'd had a few drinks. I mean, coming
from the heat and fire of Cuba to puritan Iowa would leave its
mark on anyone and she had that survivor's spirit.
"She was driven in everything she did and that made her
feisty and combative as well as great and generous company."
Mendieta began making art at the University of Iowa, where she
had a decade-long affair with the artist and academic Hans Breder,
perhaps her most important formative influence. It was Breder
who drew her attention to the notion of cross-disciplinary practice,
citing the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein and the Viennese
actionists as creative touchstones as well as organising visits
by contemporary avant garde artists such as Hans Haacke and Vito
In the summer of 1971, Mendieta travelled to Mexico for research,
describing the experience as "like going back to the source,
being able to get some magic just by being there." Her vision
of a unified art of the self, drawing on nature and place
as well as performance and sculpture was being formed.
Its first manifestation was also one of the rawest: a series of
visceral performances created in response to the 1973 rape and
murder of a university student, Sara Ann Otten.
By 1974, Mendieta was working on a series of performances that
used blood as the primary material, including Body Tracks, in
which she dips her hands and forearms in blood then smears them
down a wall. Everything she did was documented on film or photographs,
often by Breder.
In the summer of 1975, having returned to Mexico, she created
the first of her Siluetas series in which she left an imprint
of her body in the ground. Her silhouette pieces became a kind
of signature, and were often executed in stones, leaves and twigs,
flowers and driftwood, and sometimes set on fire, outlined by
fireworks or drenched with red paint. "My art is grounded
on the belief in one universal energy which runs though everything,"
she wrote in an artist's statement from the early 1980s, "from
insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from
plant to galaxy."
Rich, though, insists that Mendieta's art is as much rooted in
the feminism of the time as any art tradition. "She came
out of the feminist movement as much as Cuba. In the 1970s, blood
was being reclaimed as a feminine and a feminist
material in art. Plus her early earth works, particularly those
made in Mexico, are very potent because they are made by a woman.
"People place her in the earth works tradition of Robert
Smithson or Richard Long, but when a woman engages with the earth
it is a very different statement. Her body was her art and she
placed it in the ground. In doing so, she was trying to ground
herself in the earth but also reconnect with the earth that she
was standing on even if it was not Cuba."
Mendieta arrived in New York in 1978. She found a tiny apartment
on Sullivan Street and eventually made friends with some of the
leading feminist artists of the time, including Nancy Spero, Mary
Beth Edelson and Carolee Schneemann. When Edelson organised a
fancy-dress party for Louise Bourgeois, Mendieta went as Frida
Kahlo. In 1979, also with Edelson's support, she joined the AIR
all-women gallery on Wooster Street. "We didn't have a unifying
agenda or way of thinking," says Attie, a founding member,
"except that we wanted everything that men had in the art
world. For most of us, that meant recognition."
It was through Spero that Mendieta met Andre. Their relationship
intrigued some of their friends and baffled others: she was feisty
and opinionated, small and sexy; he came across as cold and detached,
his towering presence as formidable as his intellectual aloofness.
"Carl and Ana were very different personalities and that
is what attracted them to each other," says the Argentinian
artist Liliana Porter, a friend of Mendieta. "Carl was very
methodical in his daily life, following routines, and Ana was
the opposite. He liked her strong personality, her looks and her
intensity and she enjoyed his company and in some way needed a
more mature and steady point of re ference."
Creatively, though, their art practices could not have been further
apart: hers was wide-ranging, elemental and ritualistic; he was
a minimalist whose work was refined and cerebral.(Andre is still
best known in Britain for his infamous arrangement of 120 bricks
at the Tate.) It is one of the ironies of her early death that
her star was in the ascendancy as he was entering a period in
which demand for his work fell and prices dipped accordingly.
Often, when drink had been taken, she would taunt him about this,
once saying, "You know, Carl, minimalism is over
already did your thing." He would respond in kind.
"They drank a lot," remembers Victoria. "They
would arrive around here for dinner with four or five bottles
of champagne. There were arguments, mostly started by Ana. She
was combative. She could bring out stuff that would really piss
you off. That was just how she was when she was drunk. She had
loads of attitude."
Attie concurs: "I had dinner with her and Carl in Rome and
they both got very drunk. I remember her saying, 'Oh, he likes
your work, but he's never bought anything.' It was mischievous
and pointed and they went to it arguing. "But I didn't get
the feeling he was ever violent. I remember she wanted to drive
home and it was he who said no. He had self-control even when
he was very drunk. I had a hard time thinking he would push her."
Mendieta moved to Rome in 1983 on a prestigious American Academy
residency and fell in love with the city, describing it to friends
as a cross between Cuba and New York. "She felt accepted
there in a way she never was in America," says Rich. "She
could be herself." For a while, her relationship with Andre
hit the rocks, then, surprising everyone who knew them, they reunited
and married in a private ceremony in Rome in January 1985. On
her return to New York in August, though, she told friends she
suspected him of having an affair in Berlin, where he had been
working off and on.
On Thursday 5 September 1985, the couple had dinner with Spero
and her husband, the painter Leon Golub. Spero later described
them as "happy and relaxed". Three nights later, they
stayed in to have a Chinese takeaway, watch a movie and drink
champagne. The following day, she was found dead on the roof of
the delicatessen, 33 floors below an open window of their apartment,
her body having hit the surface so hard that her head left an
imprint. Even her death echoed her art. "Ana was on her way
somewhere else creatively when she was killed," says Rich,
pointedly. "She was starting to make objects rather than
ephemeral works. Stuff she could sell. She was excited and optimistic."
Attie recalls meeting her in Rome earlier in the year and feeling
the same. "She told me that she was making new work and that
she was going to give up drinking and smoking because women artists
did not get recognition until they were old. She said that she
wanted to live long enough to savour it."