The Death of Ana Mendieta, Explained: Why Carl Andre Faced a Murder Trial, and How He Was Acquitted

No artist’s death continues to spur quite as much talk, furor, and sadness within the art world as that of Ana Mendieta, who fell out of a window on September 8, 1985, at the age of 36.

At the time of her death, Mendieta had been married to the artist Carl Andre, who was subsequently charged with her murder. He faced trial three years later, in 1988, and was acquitted.

But the results of the trial have done little to change the minds of many, with feminists across the globe continuing to allege that Andre killed Mendieta. And with Andre himself having died at 88 on Wednesday, those theories have resurfaced anew.

Below is a guide to the legal proceedings surrounding the death of Mendieta and the allegations that Andre faced.

Who was Ana Mendieta?

For many, Mendieta is now considered one of the foremost artists of the feminist art movement of the 1970s and ’80s, despite her short career. Her performances, sculptures, photographs, and films often sought to understand the relationship between the natural world and her own body, with an implicit emphasis on her experience as a Latina woman living in diaspora.

Born in Havana in 1948, Mendieta was sent to the US in 1961 by her parents via an American initiative that migrated Cuban children fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime. She ended up in Iowa, where she attended college and made a body of work about the rape of women.

Her “Siluetas” series, produced starting in 1973, included pieces in which she would inset a corporeal form in the landscape of countries like Mexico and elsewhere, then set it on fire or leave it exposed to the elements. (Films and photographs act as the remaining documentation of these works.) Borne out of an investigation into pre-Colombian sites in Mexico, these pieces also paid homage to Afro-Cuban religions like Santeria.

Who was Carl Andre?

Andre, who was born in 1935 in Quincy, Massachusetts, is among the artists central to the Minimalist art movement of the 1960s. He produced sculptures that relied on industrial materials, like rolled magnesium plates and firebricks, that he then arranged according to strict rubrics.

Many, including Andre himself, have stated that his works are characterized by a cold, unfeeling quality. He once said his goal was to “get down to something which … resembles some kind of blankness,” a nod to how he wanted to move beyond the aesthetic qualities of his materials, toward the concepts they embodied.

A number of Andre sculptures are exhibited on the floor, without pedestals, lending them a plainspoken, unadorned look. But during the ’70s, some claimed that the institutions showing them had already lent them too much credence. When the Tate in London acquired one for $1,000 in 1976, for example, an uproar followed. Yet these days, Andre is accepted by institutional figures as a fixture of the era, with the Dia Art Foundation organizing a retrospective for him in 2014.

How did Andre and Mendieta become romantically involved?

The two met at a 1979 panel held at A.I.R. Gallery, the New York feminist space with which Mendieta had by then been involved. (She would go on to leave A.I.R. in 1982.) Andre was at the time far better known in New York than Mendieta. He was older than her as well, by about 13 years.

Andre and Mendieta continued their relationship and ended up marrying in 1985, the year that she died. As curator Helen Molesworth recounted on her 2022 podcast Death of an Artist, some in the New York art world recalled that they got into fights.

How did Mendieta die?

In the early hours of September 8, 1985, Mendieta fell from the window of the New York apartment where she and Andre lived. Andre called 911; a recording of the call was played at his 1988 trial. “My wife is an artist, and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was. And she went to the bedroom, and I went after her, and she went out the window,” he said on that call.

According to a 1988 Village Voice report, when the police arrived at his apartment at 5:40 a.m., Andre did not seem drunk. “I think she jumped,” he told one police officer, but when pressed about how he knew that, Andre did not elaborate.

How did the police initially begin their investigation?

At around 8 a.m. that day, police interviewed Andre at his apartment. He told them that Mendieta had been drinking heavily the night before, and that they had watched television and movies together. She went to bed at 3 a.m., Andre said, and that when he went into the bedroom, she was not there. He did not explain what he thought might have happened to her. Police officers reported that Andre had a mark on his nose, which the artist said resulted from a door banging against him following a gust of wind while he was on his balcony days earlier.

Contradictions seemed to emerge when Andre’s written statement was taken. In his written statement, he did not say that he and Mendieta had an argument, something that he did note on the 911 call, and he did not say her death was a suicide. The police also questioned the timing of the call, saying that it should’ve been made around 4 a.m. instead of 5:29 a.m.

Less than 24 hours later, Andre was asked to make a video statement. “Oh shit, this is serious,” he said. “I want an attorney.” A lawyer did show up, keeping Andre from having to make a video statement, but when he refused to be photographed, he was arrested. He spent two nights on Riker’s Island, and was bailed out after a group of friends—among them the artist Frank Stella, whom Andre had known since the ’50s—raised $250,000.

How did the New York art world respond?

Many have claimed that it split the city’s art scene in two, with artists, curators, dealers, and writers choosing sides. The death of Mendieta became an important cause for feminist artists in the city, many of whom had known her personally. Some raised the possibility that her death was not a suicide, and others claimed that there had been a “whisper campaign” to have her viewed as a “loony Cuban,” as one attendee did during her memorial service.

“It was totally blame the victim, but with an extra twist,” the scholar B. Ruby Rich said on Molesworth’s 2022 podcast. “It was completely racist. It was constructing this idea of the hot-blooded Latina who drank and misbehaved and quote-unquote went out a window.”

As for Andre, some powerful figures continued to rally behind him. His gallerist Paula Cooper, who continues to represent him today, exhibited one of his sculptures for the entire duration of his trial in 1988.

What happened at the trial?

Prior to the 1988 trial, Andre had been indicted three times for murder. Once the case finally headed to court, a frequent point of inquiry was the differential between Andre’s level of fame and Mendieta’s.

Andre specifically requested a bench trial, an unusual move for a murder trial; instead of a jury deciding the verdict, a judge did so. The Village Voice reported that it did not receive as large an audience as ones held at the same time. The Village Voice said a joke about the proceedings was repeated by many: “Carl got a Minimalist trial.”

Andre’s lawyer stuck to the explanation that her death was a suicide, saying, “She went to the window to open it. She got up on that sill to open it, she slammed the window open with both hands, her body swiveling, and she lost her balance. She hurled out of the window accidentally.”

But a doorman at the building said he heard a cry of “no, no, no” not long before her body hit the ground. “He was able to overpower her and caused her to fall from the window,” said the assistant district attorney.

A white man in overalls and a dark shirt turning around.
Carl Andre at his 1988 trial.PHOTO MONICA ALMEIDA/NY DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES

What was the verdict?

Andre was acquitted on charges of murder on February 12, 1988. “The defendant’s guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” the judge presiding over the case said.

Though reports on the proceedings state that Andre was largely nonreactive as the verdict was read, he said as he was exiting, “Justice was served. Justice was served.”

Mendieta’s family members continued to tell the media that Andre was a murderer. “I know he killed my daughter,” her mother, Raquel Oti Mendieta, told the New York Times at the time.

What was the response to Andre’s acquittal?

The verdict enraged many, in particular the feminist artists who came to see Mendieta as iconic. When O.J. Simpson went to trial for the death of his ex-wife Nicole Brown in 1995, the Guerrilla Girls, a famed feminist collective, created a poster that compared Andre to him. “What do these men have in common?” the poster asked. “Every 15 seconds, another woman is assaulted by her husband or boyfriend.”

How did Andre respond to the trial after it ended?

Andre ended up spending a significant amount of time abroad, where, as Calvin Tomkins wrote in a 2011 New Yorker profile, “the tragedy seemed to have no effect on his reputation.” Andre generally did not comment publicly on Mendieta’s death for years after the trial.

When Tomkins queried Andre about her death, he did not expect to receive an answer. And yet, Andre did end up reiterating his prior story, telling Tomkins, “It will be with me for the rest of my life. But it’s something I don’t dwell on.”

He credited his current wife, Melissa Kretschmer, with having “saved his life.” She said she was devoted to protecting him from what she called “the haters.”

Andre’s career does not appear to have been significantly hindered in the long run. His work continues to be shown in major museums, and the Dia Art Foundation mounted an Andre retrospective in 2014. In 2013, he figured in the Venice Biennale, marking his second appearance in the world’s biggest art exhibition. As of 2024, Ana Mendieta has never been included in the Venice Biennale.

How has the art world reflected on the death of Mendieta?

For many Latinx, Latin American, and feminist artists, the death of Mendieta has continued to be bruising, painful event. As a result, when Andre shows are mounted, protests tend to follow.

In 2015, during his Dia retrospective, performers walked around the gallery for 20 minutes and cried to honor Mendieta. Marisa Crawford, who performed in that event, wrote in Hyperallergic, “As I walked around the show, my tears came more quickly than I expected. My anxiety about the day came to a head as I looked around at Carl Andre’s sparse, linear art — metal, wood, and other industrial materials arranged in crisp geometric rows and shapes. They felt to me in that moment like elegant exercises in cool logic, a stark contrast to Mendieta’s violent death, and to the messy tears we cried in her honor.”

In 2018, in a sign that Mendieta’s art had officially infiltrated the mainstream, the New York Times retroactively gave her an obituary. Its first sentence reads: “Ana Mendieta’s art was sometimes violent, often unapologetically feminist and usually raw.”

In 2022, curator Helen Molesworth devoted an entire podcast to the death of the Mendieta, the trial of Andre, and the fallout that resulted. The podcast was partly spurred by her own experiences at MOCA Los Angeles, which had traveled the Andre show and witnessed protests of its own. (She was fired by the museum in 2018, and is thought to have objected to the Andre exhibition behind closed doors.) Molesworth told Vanity Fair, “What’s devastating about the story at its largest level is that our justice system doesn’t protect people without power.”

 

 

 

Source:https://www.artnews.com/

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