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 death.
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 , 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 and film”.
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 facial hair.
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 death.
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 Acconci.
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 Argentinian artist Liliana Porter 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… you 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.”
Sean O’Hagan // The Observer
El arte es un acto material de cultura, pero su mayor valor es su rol espiritual, y eso influencia a la sociedad, porque es la mayor contribución posible al desarrollo intelectual y moral de la humanidad ”.
Con esas palabras la artista cubanoamericana Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) definía su práctica e ideario como artista, tratando de distanciarse desde un comienzo de los conceptos preestablecidos de Arte corporal, Land art, arte performance y arte feminista.
En una retrospectiva histórica de su carrera en Gran Bretaña, la primera en el país y una de las más importantes de su obra en toda Europa, la prestigiosa Hayward Gallery de Londres le rindió homenaje a esta original creadora nacida en La Habana en el seno de una familia políticamente activa y católica, quien a los 13 años fue enviada a Estados Unidos para escapar del régimen comunista de Fidel Castro.
Fue justamente esa ruptura de exilio –tanto cultural como de idioma– la que marcó para siempre a Mendieta como artista y poeta del arte.
Durante su breve pero prolífica carrera, generó un lenguaje visual único que fue al mismo tiempo íntimo, provocativo y absorbente. Utilizando su propio cuerpo, junto a materiales básicos como la sangre, el fuego, la tierra y el agua, la artista creó performances viscerales y esculturas corporales efímeras, que combinaron las tradiciones de rituales del pasado con las metáforas más profundas de la vida, la muerte, el renacer y la transformación del espíritu.
Esa combinación esencial –mitad experiencia viva, mitad renacer espiritual– es la que permite transitar toda su obra, la cual ahora está siendo reconsiderada como de vital importancia dentro de la producción artística femenina de los años 1970 y 1980.
En una búsqueda constante para hallar su lugar y contexto en el mundo, Mendieta se embarcó en un diálogo entre el paisaje y el cuerpo de la mujer, que funcionó a partir un lenguaje propio como eje en toda su carrera.
La exposición de la Hayward Gallery, titulada Ana Mendieta: Traces, está dividida en diez salas que recorren las épocas más importantes de su obra, desde los comienzos en los años 1970 cuando trabajó con su cuerpo como sujeto y objeto de su arte, y donde se destaca la serie de fotografías a color Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant), pasando por sus trabajos realizados en Oaxaca, México, mezclando tradiciones y rituales prehispánicos en arte corporal conocidos como Siluetas, que se volvieron centrales en su obra, hasta sus Esculturas rupestres, iniciadas tras una visita a Cuba a inicios de los 1980.
Uno de sus poemas, escritos en su pequeña libreta ilustrada, resume en algunas frases sus ideas más profundas en esa época: “Dolor de patria/ cuerpo soy yo que mi/ orfandad vivo./ Allá cuando se muere/ la tierra que nos/ cubre habla./ Y cubierta de la tierra/ que me aprisiona/ se siente al muerto/ palpitar bajo ella./ La tierra anima/ (de vida) la vida/ es inmortal cuando/ se acaba./ Y el vivir que se va, vivo/ se graba/ de la patria inmortal/ en la memoria./ Más cuando de amor de/ patria llevo mi alma/ ando dejando huellas/ en la tierra, andar/ en la victoria./ El arte de pensar es/ ver las ideas/ crecer desde raíz a fruta.” (20 de marzo, 1981).
Su traslado a Nueva York en 1979 marcó un cambio gradual en su práctica.
En 1982, comenzó a realizar esculturas permanentes como Árbitra (Witness), una escultura vertical de barro erigida en los terrenos de una escuela de arte en Connecticut. En su casa de Nueva York, en 1983, Mendieta experimentó haciendo esculturas planas con tierra, arena y barro, obras que siguió creando cuando se trasladó a Roma un año más tarde. Al incorporar tierra “sagrada” de otros sitios –arena de Cuba o de Egipto– logró expandir temas que la preocupaban y que consideraba claves en su vida, como las “cualidades mágicas”, la “pureza del espíritu” o la “transformación del alma”.
Desde su base en Roma, Mendieta se trasladó a otros sitios del Mediterráneo, incluida la isla de Malta, donde quedó fascinada por los templos del Neolítico y las cavernas prehistóricas. Fue a partir de esas experiencias que creó obras como Arbol de la vida, una serie de esculturas con incisiones en troncos de árboles, que sugieren formas primitivas como hojas, contornos humanos y corazones.
La exposición en Londres muestra a Mendieta con toda su fuerza, y además de sus fotografías, esculturas y piezas efímeras, incluye una gran variedad de sus vídeos y documentación de su trabajo, como también cartas personales, postales y documentos.
Su trágica muerte el 8 de septiembre de 1985 al caer desde el 34to piso de su apartamento en Greenwich Village, donde vivía junto a su esposo de ocho meses, el escultor minimalista Carl Andre, puso fin a una inigualable luz creativa que a pesar del tiempo, sigue brillando hoy a través de una obra pura y magistral.•