Unsettling Sights

For decades a seamy varnish of intrigue has crackled over the contemporary art world regarding Ana Mendieta's marriage to Carl Andre. Many have believed that the controversy surrounding her demise marginalized her artistic legacy. Others believe that justice took a whitewashing.

Cuban-born Mendieta was an outsider who had struggled to make her mark on the performance and land art of the Seventies. Establishment icon Andre cut his teeth as one of America's avatars of Sixties Minimalism. In September 1985, following an argument in their high-rise Greenwich Village apartment in New York City, a naked Mendieta plummeted 34 stories to her death. She was 37. Andre dialed 911 and sputtered, "She went out the window."

When police responded, Andre bore "fresh scratches on his face and chest." Mendieta's body, a coroner's report cited, was discovered with "blood under the fingernails." It could not be typed for evidence owing to "tar contamination" from the roof where Mendieta's shattered remains were recovered.

Andre was tried and acquitted of murder. Early on, defense attorneys drew catcalls when referring to Mendieta's death as a "subintentional suicide."

"It was a painful and terrible trial. One has to think of the O.J. circus for perspective," recalls artist Nereida Garcia-Ferraz, who helmed Fuego de Tierra, an award-winning documentary about the life of Ana Mendieta, and who sat in on the proceedings. "The trial was split along lines of the Andre establishment camp and those who knew Ana and hoped for justice," Garcia-Ferraz relates. "On one side, you found her family, feminists, the marginal Latino arts community; on the other, the art elite defending a consecrated icon. There was a lot of power and influence behind Andre."

The stakes were high. Minimalist luminary Frank Stella coughed up Andre's $250,000 bail. An Andre collector frantically called his dealer wondering, Should I buy or should I sell? The art business braced for a hit. "Andre hired experts who painted Ana as an unbalanced woman who practiced Santería," Garcia-Ferraz remembers. "You have to understand that her death and public reaction challenged the status quo. For many those wounds remain open," she intones. "It's time Ana is given her due."

The most comprehensive survey to date of more than 100 works by Mendieta is opening at Miami Art Museum, part of a traveling exhibit seeking to shift the focus back onto the artist's life and significant art production. Organized by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and curated by the Hirshhorn's director, Olga Viso, the landmark Mendieta show will run at MAM from October 2 through January 15, 2006.

"The life and art of Ana Mendieta have been a frequent source of intrigue and speculation as considerable debate about her untimely death has dominated public and critical discussion. As a result, the richness and complexity of her art, as well as its important legacy to contemporary culture, have not been fully acknowledged," Viso explains.

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus