More than three decades after artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from a New York City high rise at age 36, her untimely death continues to serve as a flash point in the art world.
Earlier this week, a group of Los Angeles artists and arts workers staged an action at the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition by the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre in memory of Mendieta. Andre, who was Mendieta’s husband, was acquitted in 1988 of second-degree murder charges in her death.
During the opening at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Little Tokyo of “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010,” the loosely organized group of protesters handed out postcards with an image of Mendieta and the text: “Carl Andre is at MOCA Geffen. ¿Dónde está Ana Mendieta?” (Where is Ana Mendieta?)
“We wanted Ana to have a presence and a voice,” says Joy Silverman, a documentary producer who was friends with Mendieta — and printed the 5,000 postcards that bore the artist’s visage. “And that’s what we did. I think that happened.”
Also participating was former MOCA curator Alma Ruiz, who helped champion the museum’s late-1990s acquisition of Mendieta’s “Silueta” works, which consist of photographic documentation of the artist’s ghost-like silhouette embedded in various landscapes.
“I was at the protest to lend support to the group,” Ruiz states via e-mail. “It was important for me to be there because as a [former] MOCA curator and a contemporary art curator with a particular interest in Latin American artists, I’ve always considered Ana Mendieta’s work relevant because of the emotional, intellectual and artistic heft it has had and continues to have on other artists.”
One group of protesters entered the museum and laid postcards around some of Andre’s sculptures and rained them down on the museum floor from a second-story mezzanine. Another group laid out a large fabric piece at the entrance to the museum that was dotted with candles and featured the silhouettes of bodies, as if splayed from a fall.
A MOCA spokesperson said the museum had no comment at this time. Andre, who is now 81, rarely consents to interviews. In 2011, he told the New York Times of Mendieta's death, "It changed me, as all tragedy does. But I have people who love me and believe in me."
The Saturday protest was followed, on Sunday, by the publication of an open letter to MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, written by the Assn. of Hysteric Curators, a loose group of Los Angeles artists and curators who focus on feminist issues and the representation of women in art. The letter was published on the group’s Facebook page.
“We … are extremely disappointed with your decision to bring the Carl Andre retrospective to the Geffen Contemporary,” the letter begins. “We would like to remind you that symbols of power emanate from institutions and reverberate through society.”
By noon on Monday, more than 100 people had added their names to the letter, including Culver City gallerist Luis De Jesus, arts administrator Anuradha Vikram of the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, Isabel Rojas-Williams of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, and artists such as Lauren Bon, Alexandra Grant, Barbara McCarren, Lili Bernard and Carolyn Castaño.
The retrospective of Andre’s work originated at Dia:Beacon in New York’s Hudson Valley, where it debuted in the spring of 2014. Curating the exhibition was MOCA’s Vergne, who was then Dia director, and Dia curator Yasmil Raymond, now an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Andre is considered one of the towering fathers of minimalism. In his review of the Dia retrospective in the New York Times, critic Holland Cotter describes the ways in which the artist, through the use of simple, raw materials — wood beams and industrial metal tiles — helped shift the nature of art.
“Through fairly straightforward means,” he writes, “Mr. Andre rethought what sculpture traditionally was, how it worked. He dispensed with the conventional formal skills. He eliminated the illusion of permanence, the essence of monumental. And he got rid of pedestals, the enshrining elevations that set sculpture apart from the world.”
Despite this, some of the protesters at the Andre opening questioned the decision to show Andre instead of an artist such as Mendieta herself.
The influential Cuban American artist was known for ephemeral actions that drew inspiration from Caribbean and pre-Columbian folklore and spirituality: Phantom imprints of her body, elements of ritual and sacrifice, images that played with the nature of identity. Since her death, the films and photographic documentation she left behind have been featured in various museum exhibitions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2004 and London’s Hayward Gallery in 2013.
Though Vergne wouldn’t comment on this weekend’s action, in 2011, while the Dia:Beacon show was still in its planning stages, he acknowledged the controversial nature of Andre’s life to Calvin Tomkins at the New Yorker.
“Carl broke something, and he was ostracized, and it’s part of the story,” he told the magazine. “But the work is there. We are a museum, not a court of law, and he is one of the most important artists of our time.”
Ruiz says she will see the Andre show “because I’m a contemporary art curator first and foremost, and it’s impossible to negate Andre’s role in American art in the second half of the 20th century.”
Mendieta’s death, on a warm September morning in 1985, continues to hover like a ghost over his achievements.
In his accounts to police, Andre stated that he was not in the room when Mendieta fell 34 stories to her death. Andre was ultimately indicted three times on murder charges and was acquitted on the last one. The first two indictments were dismissed.
Mendieta’s death divided the New York art world between those who supported Andre’s claims of innocence and those who couldn’t believe that Mendieta — whose career was beginning to blossom — would have killed herself.
Silverman says that at the time of her death Mendieta was in the midst of planning her first public art installation in Los Angeles — a series of carved and burned totem-like sculptures that were to be placed in MacArthur Park called “La Jungla.”
“She was really excited about this,” says Silverman, “she was in the middle of a project.”
The protests at MOCA are not the first time an exhibition by Andre has attracted protests.
In 1992, when the Guggenheim Museum opened a branch in downtown Manhattan, an exhibition that featured work by Andre drew protesters wearing T-shirts with Mendieta’s image and her dates of birth and death.
In 2014, protesters in New York City left a splatter of chicken blood and guts before the offices of the Dia Foundation in response to Andre’s retrospective in Beacon. And last year, protesters took to the streets in London when a number of Andre works were exhibited at the Tate Modern.
Ruiz says that for many in the art world, the artist’s death remains unresolved.
“Too many questions remain as to what led to her ‘falling’ out the window, to her untimely death,” she writes. “I don’t know if this will ever be settled. What I do know is that the importance of her work has grown over time, there’s a lot of supporting scholarship about it, and Los Angeles, because of its history of work by women artists, would be a natural place for a comprehensive exhibition.”
Mary Anna Pomonis, an artist who helped coordinate and write the letter on behalf of the Assn. of Hysteric Curators and who also attended the Saturday protests, says the Andre retrospective is, in many ways, indicative of the gap women artists face in terms institutional support and recognition.
“MOCA is foremost in people’s imaginations as a pinnacle of success,” she says. “The museum has an obligation to be a teaching institution that is responsible.”
Like a lot of large institutions, MOCA has historically featured a lot of male artists, most recently Kerry James Marshall, Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney, Mike Kelley and Francesco Vezzoli. (According to a 2016 report in the Art Newspaper, only 27% of the 590 major solo shows organized by nearly 70 institutions between 2007 and 2013 featured women.)
Of the roughly 11 large-scale solo shows (primarily retrospectives and surveys) staged at the museum since Vergne took over in 2014, four have featured women: Sturtevant and R.H. Quaytman in big shows at MOCA Grand Avenue and Cameron and Barbara Kasten at the museum’s smaller, Pacific Design Center location.
Given the long planning cycle in museums, many of these shows were in the works well before Vergne’s tenure began. Likewise, the statistics represent an improvement. Only one woman — sculptor Lynda Benglis — was the subject of a major solo show during the three-year tenure of Vergne’s predecessor, Jeffrey Deitch.
Moreover, chief curator Helen Molesworth, who also joined MOCA in 2014, has made it a mission to include more women in the story of art the museum presents. (And she included works by Mendieta in her permanent collection installation, “The Art of Our Time.”)
Still, MOCA has never dedicated a full-blown survey or retrospective to a Latina or Latin American female artist. Ruiz says that in her time at the museum she lobbied, unsuccessfully, to show a pair of traveling Mendieta exhibitions at the museum: One devoted to the artist’s unpublished works; another to her films.
This will change when the museum unveils a survey devoted to the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino, as part of the upcoming Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions this fall. Also in the works for 2018 are major solo exhibitions by painter Laura Owens and photographer and installation artist Zoe Leonard.
Mendieta remains a potent and influential symbol.
Sarah Williams is the managing director for the Women’s Center for Creative Work. She too handed out postcards on Saturday, and her organization is holding extras for anyone who might also be interested in handing them out.
“We can’t totally know what happened,” she says of Mendieta’s death. “What we did wasn’t so much a protest — it was an action. It’s a comment. It’s another history that needs to be told alongside it.”