Ana Mendieta: Untitled (Body Tracks), 1974
Ana Mendieta: The Whole Story
You can tell that Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) is about to make it into art history: her last name only is on the cover of the dramatic, blood-red catalogue that accompanies the new survey of her art now at the Whitney.
When I saw that, it gave me shivers.
All is forgiven, Art World. She broke a lot of boundaries; she broke a lot of rules.
Her shocking death for a time divided the art world, but now we can be healed.
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The main theme of Ana Mendieta’s art is exile. Can that be true? And if so, isn’t exile too narrow, too local, too particular? “I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body,” she wrote. “I believe this has been the direct result of my having been torn from my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature).”
I used that 1981 quote to head my essay in the catalogue of the first Mendieta retrospective, which I co-curated for the New Museum. Mendieta’s art status is further confirmed by a splendid new retrospective originated by the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., but debuting at the Whitney (945 Madison Ave. at 75th St., through Sept. 19). It will be at the Hirshhorn Oct.14 to Jan. 6, then at the Des Moines Art Center and the Miami Art Museum.
Of course, art history (or its shadow) is littered with the careers of artists who at one point or another had museum retrospectives. But try naming an artist currently in the history books who has not had at least one museum survey. At least it’s a start. Museums produce catalogues with the proper scholarly paraphernalia. Catalogues get into libraries, and most people are loathe to go beyond these readily available sources. There is a sense of imprimatur.
Without the context of so-called postmodernism and its sister pluralism, Mendieta’s work might not now be comprehensible. In fact, it might not have come into existence. From the work she did while hanging out or hanging on as a graduate student, which consisted of unusually daring and accomplished performances, Streetworks, films and tableaux before these forms were de rigor; through her personal take on Earth Art in her Silhueta series; and later in her earth- and then tree-trunk carvings and floorpieces; the work is brave and always upsetting.
Yet, as the quote at the beginning of this essay reveals, Mendieta can be seen as a deep romantic, in some ways as romantic as her predecessor in Earth Art, Robert Smithson. His view of the universe was also bigger than life, though unlike Mendieta’s it was predicated upon the slippery slope of entropy, dead planets, salt and mirrors.
Mendieta’s deep romanticism was about exile from the past as symbolized by Eden, and about the potential for healing. Smithson’s was about exile from the future and indicated despair. Curiously, Mendieta once referred to her art as “pre-industrial.” Her favorite earth artist was not Smithson, but Richard Long, known for his gentle interventions. Her own work, though keyed to her five-foot frame, was hardly gentle. The imagery, as well as her frequent use of gunpowder and blood, is sometimes brutal. Much of her early work is about blood rituals, crime scenes and rape.
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Initially, Mendieta’s exile was literal. At age12 she was shipped out of Cuba in 1961 under Operation Peter Pan, a Catholic program to save children from Castro’s anti-Catholicism. She and her older sister were plopped down in sinister Iowa, where they were moved among orphanages and foster homes. They didn’t speak English, had dark skins (particularly Ana), and were cut off from their family. Was this spite? Did the Church know that, although now a counter-revolutionary, Mendieta’s father had once supported Fidel?
Iowa must have been pretty tough going for two little girls whose great uncle Carlos Mendieta had been provisional president of Cuba in 1934 and 1935. Oscar Mendieta, another great-uncle, had founded a museum of Cuban history and culture. Apparently to balance things out, the family also employed at least one maid who was a covert practitioner of Abakuá, an underground spiritualist practice that, like the better-known Santeria, is an offshoot of Africa’s Yoruba religion. Good Catholic girls did not pay attention to such things, but the spiritual side of Cuba’s working-class, Afro-Catholic culture would surface later in Mendieta’s art, providing considerable inspiration.
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My first teaching gig was as a visiting professor in the summer of 1970 at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Mendieta was a students in my graduate seminar. A teacher in an adjoining classroom complained that my class was unbearably rowdy; there was too much laughter. I was busy explaining the role of chance in art (I demonstrated Carl Andre’s spill piece made of little cubes just dropped on the floor), Streetworks, and, of course, Earth Art, Body Art, and even the more obscure reaches of Conceptual Art. I made assignments. The one I remember best was that each student was to create an invisible artwork. One exceptionally brilliant convert added a single coat hanger identical to the coat hangers already on the coat rack at the back of the room. I found this particularly amusing because I had never been to anyplace as hot and humid as Iowa City in July, and coats, coat hangers, and coat racks were totally superfluous.
I was also teaching an undergraduate class in modern art with nearly one hundred students in an amphitheater-like lecture hall. It was all new. Before Perreault, the modern art classes usually stopped at Renoir; I actually took them as far as Pop Art and Minimalism. Judy Collischan, my teaching assistant at the time, continues to be a friend. She attended the advanced seminar. Recently she revealed what chaos I had caused to the workers in the slide library with my requests that slides be made of various works in the copies of Avalanche magazine I had brought. Since the library had categories in modern art only for painting and sculpture, they simply could not figure out where to put Streetworks or Body Art by Vito Acconci (or Earth Art by Dennis Oppenheim).
After Mendieta moved to N.Y. in 1978, she resurfaced in my life. With what I thought was more than a tolerable dose of irony, she always introduced me as her teacher. I countered tongue-in-cheek, and always introduced her as my student. Of course, later I found out that a lecture I had given in Iowa City in 1975 (as a guest of artist Hans Breder’s Intermedia Center) had, she claimed, really been an influence on her. It was called “Art and Everyday Life.”
Some years later, after she had just married minimalist Carl Andre, we visited her when she was at the American Academy in Rome. It was porcini season. My partner was then the food critic for the Village Voice. We feasted on the thirty-three ways the Romans have of preparing this very seasonal fungus. He adored Ana too. Like a true Roman, Ana had no qualms about ignoring traffic lights, zooming with her Bug into one-way streets, up and over any sidewalk that got in the way. We also took a car trip to visit Sol LeWitt, who was then living in Spoleto. Trouble ahead: Ana confessed she felt at home in Rome and hoped to stay. Andre had different ideas.
I offer these details as a way of condensing information and, more importantly, as a way of breaking art criticism’s usual frame of objectivity. Too often, critics conceal their friendships and interrelationships with the artists they are writing about, and the reader is left thinking critics are divorced from social life. Transparency is the best policy. The fact is that I have had thousands of students, but Mendieta stands out. She took the new forms she was exposed to at the University of Iowa and made them her own. But back to the exhibition….
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“Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985” was curated by the Hirshhorn’s Olga Viso. The exhibition and Viso’s thorough catalogue essay demolishes the Latina marginalization that Mendieta’s art has been heir to. Viso’s essay weighs the various influences upon Mendieta’s art: from bloody Vienna Action Art, through Earth and Body Art, feminism, and even Afro-Cuban religion. The effort is to get Mendieta into the mainstream, and it works. Finally we can see Mendieta’s blood-smeared walls as answers to Yves Klein’s Anthrometry paintings, in which nude models coated with blue paint were imprinted on canvas. Paradoxically, as her moment recedes she will more and more embody the ethos of her time.
The exhibition presents Mendieta’s art in a new way. DVD technology makes it possible to show her films as wall projections in fully lit rooms next to the related photographs and, later, sculptures. The Whitney’s Chrissie Isles did the installation, and it is brilliant. I particular like the out-of-sequence climax that functions as a kind of memorial for the artist: Nonigo Burial (1973) made up of 47 black, lit ritual candles, the wax from which will form Mendieta’s silhouette.
The timing is right.
We have now put behind us whatever it was that actually happened that night in 1985, when Mendieta somehow ended up dead on the roof of a delicatessen, far below the open window of her husband’s high-rise apartment. Andre was cleared of murder charges, but the mystery divided the art world. And it wasn’t just the women against the men.
We have also now put behind us the pluralism fracas. Learned critics and art historians on the left attacked the openness and generosity of pluralism as if it were a reincarnation of the United Front. Are all art arguments really disguised political arguments? Was the choice really between socialism and communism, between, as it were, Kerensky and Stalin? On the right, pluralism was attacked as being too populist.
We have also put behind us, I think, the late ’80s essentialist/social-constructivist, feminist debate. Because she embraced the Goddess-imagery being explored by some of her female friends, Mendieta has been simplistically relegated to the loosing essentialist camp. We now all agree that gender is not preexistent, but socially constructed, right? Well, sort of. The argument was as pointless as nature vs. nurture. Both apply.
In Artopia we are supremely suspicious of either/or propositions. In fact, we disdain them, preferring — at the risk of anxiety and uncertainty — both/and formulations. We embrace freedom and will not be beholden to either/or language of social control.
Mendieta’s art, beginning with the Silueta series in all its manifestations and ending with the inscribed tree-trunks, seems dedicated to the Goddess of essentialist feminism, but it can also be seen as equally dedicated to the White Goddess “discovered” by Robert Graves several generations before Mendieta was around. In other words, her photographed body, her incised silhouettes are always in the process of melding with earth, returning to earth. The Goddess eats her young, demands sacrifice, is not only the Goddess of procreation but also the Goddess of destruction.
I cannot prove the artist was conscious of those fierce and worrisome aspects of the Goddess. I think she understood the Western exile from nature all too well and adhered to the Nature/Goddess metaphor, but neglected nature’s wrath. She should have known the dual (and dualistic) nature of all “pagan” deities through her investigation of Cuba’s Afro-Catholic religions. Perhaps she did. There is fear in her work and that’s what saves it from illustration. She did not, after all, ever return to live in Cuba (Cuba = Nature), but seemed ultimately to have chosen New York and Rome.
Graves never understood that animal mothers sometimes eat their female children as well as the males, that girls as well as boys have love-hate relationships with both their parents. Is it that the myths of women eating their children have been totally repressed? Or is it that in constructing The White Goddess, poet Graves forgot whom he was living with at the time? (It was the brilliant but apparently monstrous Laura Riding.)
The metaphors in Mendieta’s art, unlike the work of the minimalists and the post-minimalist, are on the surface. They are not hidden. This does not mean that once we see the metaphor, we have seen all that the work has to offer or, most provocatively here, what the work really means. This is why I think that the equations between nature and the so-called goddess, between nature and the female body, is the surface, not the substance.
Exile in Mendieta’s universe is not only about exile from Cuba and nature but from the body itself. Going even deeper, we are in exile from the spirit.
Note: I forgot to mention last week, that I went to check on the three most visible public Noguchi works in New York City. They are still there. I was particularly concerned about the Red Cube (140 Broadway in front of Brown Brothers Harriman) and the Chase Manhattan Plaza Sunken Garden because of their proximity to Ground Zero. They are intact. In fact, if you enter the Chase entrance on Nassau Street you can go down an escalator and see the fountain from the underground level. From above it is still fine, but from below it may even be better, since many more views are possible. The wall fountain at 666 Fifth Avenue is till there too, but be aware you have to enter the 666 lobby from either 53rd or 54th Street. There is no longer direct 5th Avenue access.