Carl [Andre] gathered up his coat, scarf and cap, slung his book bag over his left shoulder, and rushed up the center aisle towards the double swinging doors… Artist Barbara Kruger pushed her way through to Carl as he started through the doorway. “Congratulations, Carl,” she said sarcastically, “it’s the best press you’ve had in ten years.” He was a free man now. He shot a remark back at her, sharply, proudly. “Justice has been served!”
The art world would break into skewed, inimical camps: Carl’s camp, Ana’s camp, and a small camp who would try to cast a plague on every camp, gaining nothing for their efforts but universal scorn. But that fragmentation was only in its infancy…
(both excerpts from Robert Katz, Naked by the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta)
Carl Andre‘s work is intentionally bloodless, fiercely intellectual, eschewing anything other than a pure (arguably defined by his epoch) aesthetic: an appeal to order that might best be encapsulated in an empty box, perfect rectangular space, unsullied. Ana Mendieta is of the body, of memory and history, and has a rawness that spills like blood on a clean tile floor. One could picture Mendieta having the same germane grievance as Atwood‘s painter in Cat’s Eye, complaining that galleries are always trying to remove the smell of blood from the space.
In some ways, when considering their artworks and their legacies, it seems fitting to reference their contemporary Lucy Lippard. In a piece she wrote during the religidiot bigot American Senator Jesse Helms’ attack on the NEA, with his ignorance focused upon artists like Mapplethorpe, Finley and Serrano, Lippard made the point that Helms, being of the ‘merican white evangelical flavour, was manifesting that cult’s ideological distaste for anything bodily or ‘messy’ within that framework.
Robert Katz‘ book Naked by the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta is not only a thorough, yet balanced, accounting of the death of Mendieta, but also offers a very detailed glimpse of the art world within which both lived.
Katz offers some engaging insight into Andre’s work. It’s a testament to his skills and ethics as a journalist that I came away from his book with a finer appreciation of Andre’s aesthetic and ideas – while also convinced that Andre is a murderer, even if ‘just’ one overwhelmed by a red haze of rage, immediately tinged – perhaps – with regret. Katz accomplishes this despite the following admission – or condemnation, edit as you will: ‘Before long, however, I discovered that I had been living in, or at best in the neighborhood of, a fool’s paradise. I had underestimated the old-boy insularity of the art world, where a suspicion of strangers had been ingrained long before my time; these old boys and old girls were more attached to the code of omertà, as it is called in the Cosa Nosta, than the Cosa Nostra.‘
Something that also resonates as strongly as Katz’ omertà observation is that many in the art world of that period lacked the courage of their convictions. It isn’t just Andre’s silence, or stony opaqueness, that Katz doesn’t criticize so much as simply chronicle. Reading this book made me look on people like Lippard, or groups such as the Guerilla Girls, with a new skepticism for their wilful absence from the ‘public’ argument over Andre’s guilt. Alternately, it was sad to see the usual dismissals by many, named or anonymous, voiced to Katz of a ‘feminist cabal’ out to smear Andre. Besides the aforementioned Kruger, several strongly self identified feminist artists and activists did speak loudly for justice for Mendieta. Some attempted a more calm honesty, at least to their own definition of such: ‘Carolee Schneemann…had refrained from forming an opinion, wanting, above all others, to get this one right. “my sense was that I just had to stay in neutral. Everybody around me was championing Carl and saying, ‘we’ve got to protect him from this awful accident or this dreadful thing that she did, this wild, destructive creature.’ That was coming mostly from male associates of Carl’s, with the women saying, ‘He lost it. He went berserk. he has to be made to realize what he did.’ So I was threading my way between all of that, saying, ‘We weren’t in the room.'”
Andre is terse, if not firmly silent (he didn’t speak to Katz, but this is neither unique to Katz or even the situation). Katz casts this as an aspect of how Andre is an extension of his artwork. Within the man and his sculptures are what Robert Hughes has appropriately named “…the deliberate, polemic emptiness of Minimalism.” But for someone like myself who is often seduced by the intent aesthetic of utopic visions, I find them even more important – or endearing – due to their hamartia. When looking at his works (Crux, for example), Andre’s economy of thought is manifest in his succinctness of word and creations: ‘I realized the wood was better before I cut it, than after. I did not improve it in any way [by carving it].‘ (from Abstract Art by Anna Moszynska)
Katz positions Andre firmly in the Modernist lexicon, often indicating how Andre’s interaction with many in those spaces define him and his practice. More of Andre’s words: ‘Art excludes the unnecessary.‘ (from here).
In looking back at this, wearing my art historian’s hat, it seems appropriate that Andre’s time has passed, while Mendieta seems more vibrant than ever. As is so often the case, my brethren of critics and art historians are engaged in what is ignorantly damned as ‘revisionism’ when it is, in fact, looking backwards more critically so we might be more truthful, both in the present and in the future. This excellent article on Mendieta’s artwork and significance culturally – beyond the white gallery walls – is an important piece (even with its #hashtag of saying Mendieta ‘made art out of things we tried not to see’). ‘Where is Ana Mendieta?’ is a forlorn but fiercely frequent cry heard in many places, bringing comfort to some, and discomfort to others…
The story, is, of course, not over: this echoes how, in Katz’ book, he admits he only wrote it as new evidence came to light post trial. And more allegations have appeared. Katz offers an epilogue where he mentions documentation (excluded from the trial, which would have surely changed everything) that Mendieta was seeking a divorce from Andre for his repeated infidelities. But Katz himself concludes that although Andre received a fair trial, he doesn’t believe Mendieta – or her family – received justice.
At the risk of sounding crass and cynical, Andre – as a sentinel of order and ‘modernist’ aesthetics – may have ‘won the battle’ on the front of his marriage, but surely has lost the war in the larger dialectic. More double edged words from Andre, that fit well here: ‘But then my work went out of fashion 3, 000 years ago…when people ask me what my art communicates I cannot help but think of what the grave stone says to the corpse beneath.‘
It’s a valid question to ask why revisiting this book is important now. That’s simply answered, without even stepping into the art historical legacies of the two artists here. The initial 911 call that Andre made, on the night of Mendieta’s death, records him saying “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.” That was in 1985: in 2013 “[Georg] Baselitz, who was lauded by the Royal Academy five years ago as one of the greatest living artists, dismissed women painters, saying that they “simply don’t pass the market test, the value test”, adding: “As always, the market is right….Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact,” the 75-year-old German artist told the German newspaper Der Spiegel. (from here).
Forgive me, but I must briefly express amused contempt for someone, in Baselitz, puling that the ‘market is always right.’ The Marxist in me would remind the painter that taste and the market are less about absolutes than context and social conditioning (such as the idea of how all figures must be upright, not upside down, as we see in his work, or his own narcissistic privelging of painting above other forms). Less formally, as I said to a horrid painter on the prairies who averred that her work sells, so it must be good, pornography and crystal meth also sell very well…excuse my tangent. Let’s move on.
If one chooses to interpret Mendieta’s death as Andre murdering her not because of his alleged outburst of rage, so be it. But Andre’s stature and the respect he garnered in the art world suffuses the entire book, and coloured the trial (an absence of dissenting witnesses for the prosecution, by their own volition). Perhaps in looking back at this, and seeing how Mendieta is (arguably) more relevant now than Andre was then, the sometimes overt (as with Baselitz) but more often implicit misogyny of the art world has not changed, in the decades since her death.
Did she fall, or was she thrown? Katz doesn’t explicitly say, but he lays a plethora of facts and circumstances before us that seem clear. Even his prose, which is wonderfully vivid and never pedantic or dull, strongly hints at violence, not accident. When the respective courtroom arguments have been made, Katz wryly observes that “the war of the evidence was over. The warring ground was read. There remained only advocates to pick from the bones and a one – headed jury [as Andre had opted for a judicial, not a peer or jury one] to eat of the flesh.” Katz’ sources are well considered and amusing in their erudite flavour. When he cites Murray Kempton from Newsday, Katz accurately describes Kempton as ‘scathing.’ This isn’t just for the correlation Kempton makes between Andre and the tawdry, tabloidish Robert Chambers’ ‘yuppie murder’ case that was being tried simultaneously and nearby.
Kempton: ‘Carl Andre says his wife defenestrated herself after he reminded her that he was a better artist than she. Evidence of deplorably bad manners aside, it takes a towering self-esteem to ask us to believe that the shock of recognizing her own incurable inferiority on no one’s say-so but yours was enough to cast a strong and sane woman into suicidal despair….To think of oneself as the planet in whose orbit everyone else is but a satellite is finally to be not worth thinking about.’
But I’d take a step further than Kempton, and channel Atwood again: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” That is, harshly and with a dark flippancy, what I feel underscores the ‘murder mystery’ that Katz relates to us…
There’s a harsh sentiment from two stories by Timothy Findley, that share with us the travails of Bragg and Minna, when they first meet and years later, when Minnna has passed. Theirs is a turbulent relationship of very different artists, like Mendieta and Andre. At one point, the ‘narrator’ observes that we’re fed a lot of lies about love, about how we all shall find completion in another, like a circle. But, Findley archly ventures, we are not ever told that circle may be mutual self destruction…
Robert Katz’ Naked by the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta is a fine book. Seek it out, as it’s worth the effort. This isn’t solely because of his familiarity and depth of research regarding the cultural considerations of the story. At one point in his narrative, he mentions, in passing, his own experience with double jeopardy laws. No stranger to difficult topics and contested narratives, ‘‘Katz was involved in a criminal-libel in Italy over the contents of his book Death in Rome, in which he was charged with “defaming the memory of the Pope” Pius XII regarding the Ardeatine Massacre of 335 Italians, including 70 Jews, at the Ardeatine Caves in 1944. He was found guilty but the charges were rendered moot by a general amnesty‘ (from here). This is somewhat amusing, as the debate around that Pope’s inactivity – if not arguably complicity – with Adolph Hitler is still a hot topic (some papers are soon to be released as regards that historical ‘question’). But more pertinent to Naked by the Window is that Katz is aware, through experience, of how some trials exist in the courtroom, but truly live outside of it…
Naked by the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta is still relevant and speaks lucidly and just as loudly now as when it was published, decades ago. That’s both a very good thing, as an illustration of his work and skill; but also a condemnation, as the worst aspects of the art world and wider injustice (whether race or gender, or class) in his book are still easily recognized today.
The title of this article is taken from a poem by Carl Andre, cited in Katz’ book, written by Andre when he was twenty two, which Katz described as ‘lugubrious then, but chilling now.” All quotes in this piece, unless otherwise attributed, are from Katz’ book. The header images to this article is by Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood), 1973, which is part of a series under the same name.
This is the latest in my series of articles, reviews and artist features produced during my extended writer’s residency at AIH Studios in Welland, in 2020. As always, I extend much thanks and gratitude to them for both the opportunity as well as the extensive library that has often fed my work.