Passing of Carl Andre reignites debate over Ana Mendieta’s suspicious death

By Sophia Lennox

Elm Staff Writer

On Jan. 24, 2024, influential minimalist artist, Carl Andre, died at the age of 88.

Andre had an extensive and successful career. His brand and work are represented by the prestigious Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, and his work has been shown or is owned by nearly every major museum in the United States, including, but not limited to, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. As a foundational minimalist artist, he inspired future generations that took inspiration from his grid structures, use of industrial materials, and physical weight of his work.

Based on Andre’s career and artistic importance, his death had every reason to devastate the art world. Initially when his death was announced, some media outlets published articles raving about his contributions to minimalism, his legacy, and other musings that are typical in a death announcement. However, some members of the art community noticed that there was one major aspect missing from these articles. The conversation quickly changed to dissecting the many controversies of Andre’s life, and most importantly, a revival in the debate surrounding the suspicious death of Ana Mendieta.

Mendieta was a Cuban-American artist who experimented with performance art, experimental sculpture, and photography. She explored race, cultural displacement, femininity, the female body, and ephemerality, and she pushed the boundaries of what people considered art. Her well-known series, “Siluetas,” is an example of her “earth-body” art, in which she engaged in a number of ritualized performances connecting her body to nature and the world around her. She documented the private performances through video and photography so that they could be shared. Her work is pivotal to the feminist, eco-art, and conceptual art movements. Her death was a major loss to the art world that is still not fully realized by the community.

In 1985, she married her long-term boyfriend, Carl Andre.

On Sept. 8, 1985, nine months after marriage, Mendieta died after falling 34 stories from a window in the apartment she and Andre shared.

Neighbors reported hearing Mendieta and Andre arguing that night, and the doorman testified that he heard Mendieta scream “no, no, no” right before her fall, according to the BBC. The police report noted that Andre had scratches on his face and arms. The evidence led the New York Police Department to suspect that Andre pushed Mendieta out of the window, and that same night he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

According to the initial police report, Andre claimed that they had an argument over whether he was better known then Mendieta, and during a break from yelling, she went to their bedroom and jumped or fell out of the window. It is important to note that Andre famously loved the spotlight, while Mendieta was more private, despite the vulnerability in her work. When the police interviewed Andre again, he changed the story to exclude their augment. He stated that they were watching television, that she went to bed before him, and disappeared.

After a two-and-a-half-year investigation, Andre requested a bench trial, where he would face only a judge instead of a jury, according to Artnews. Over the two-week proceedings in 1988, Andre’s lawyers tried to argue that Mendieta’s death was a suicide, and that her mental state was reflected through “death wishes” and “voodoo” in her work. The prosecution argued that Mendieta could not possibly have fallen since the base of the window came to her shoulders, and she was only four feet and ten inches tall. Additionally, they claimed she could not have jumped on her own accord since she was afraid of heights.

In the end, Andre was acquitted on the grounds that the prosecution had not delivered anything more than circumstantial evidence.

The reaction to Andre’s acquittal was divided and hotly debated. It is clear that sexism and racism influenced people’s perception of what happened. The fine art world is dominated by wealthy, white, and often hyper-masculine male perspectives. Mendieta’s femininity and Cuban identity were used as a way to discredit her capabilities instead of valuing her work. The court looked more favorably at Andre due to his reputation as a “pioneer” and “founder of minimalism.” That should not have been relevant to whether or not he murdered Mendieta.

Immediately after the trial, Mendieta’s family spoke frequently about how they believed Andre’s acquittal was a miscarriage of justice. In the years that followed, there were protests at Andre’s exhibitions, gallery showing, and other events, and people carried images inspired by Mendieta’s “Siluetas.”

40 years removed from her death, some of the immediacy of the protests had begun to dwindle, with the notable exception of two major protests in 2016 and 2017 against the Tate Modern and Museum of Contemporary Art, respectively, for their decision to include Andre and not Mendieta in key retrospectives. The phrase “Where is Ana Mendieta?” has been used at protests since 1992, and on social media recently to call attention to the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death, and to push people to ask questions about what really happened.

Andre’s death has revived much of the frustration from people who believe that he was never held accountable for Mendieta’s alleged murder. How can we do so now that he’s dead? When an artist dies, there tends to be a surge in interest in their work, especially if they’re considered foundational. As art historians, galleries, and critics begin to contend with his work posthumously, they should connect to a larger conversation about legacy, and how an artist is both a person and public persona. When talking about Andre, people should not erase Mendieta from his life. She should not come up as a moment of  “controversy,” or as an unnamed victim, but as a fully formed individual and artist in her own right. 

Mendieta was a foundational feminist artist whose life and career was cut short at the young age of 36. After Andre’s death, it is important to keep Mendieta’s memory alive, and not let Andre’s legacy overshadow hers.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo caption: Art galleries showcasing works by both Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta have been subjects of close scrutiny following Andre’s death.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *