Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Body Tracks) (1974), color photograph, 10″ x 8″; © The Estate of Ana Mendieta
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However much she may be revered as a forebear of feminist art, however much her work is driven by a “passionate desire to connect with a wider, collective human heritage,” however much space the Whitney Museum of American Art devotes to her oeuvre, Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) will forever be known as the woman who fell to her death from the 34th-floor window of the apartment belonging to her husband, the Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. (Mr. Andre was charged with her murder and subsequently acquitted.)
“Forever” may be overstating the case, and callously so, yet the circumstances surrounding Mendieta’s death continue to cast a sensationalistic pall over her art–a pall the curators at the Whitney studiously avoid. A “brief yet prolific career” is the lone allusion to be read on the wall labels accompanying the exhibition Ana Mendieta: Earth Body-Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985. The curators want to redirect our attention from an untimely death to work that “has particular resonance in a global society struggling to grasp the overwhelming points of correspondences and differences between individual, nation, and culture.”
Born in Cuba, Mendieta came to the U.S. in 1961, a 12-year-old fleeing Castro’s revolution. She came of age during the artistic free-for-all that followed in the wake of Conceptualism. Photography, performance, film, sculpture, drawing, process art, earth art, body art, earth-body art–there wasn’t a medium Mendieta didn’t dabble in. Feminism and eco-politics are a constant in the work, as is the desire to tap into the symbolic archetypes of non-Western cultures. The prevailing attribute of Mendieta’s art, however, is its narcissism.
Whether altering her face with cosmetics, lying naked in a stream, sweating blood in a video from 1973 or “intervening” in the landscape by creating primitivistic effigies within the earth, Mendieta never took into account that art is a matter of communication–with someone else. She operated under the misconception that arrant self-absorption is a viable form of artistic and political expression. The best thing you can say about her art is that its psychological desperation is real. The worst you can say is that it isn’t real enough–you leave the Whitney with the nagging sense that Mendieta was something of a dilettante, playing the artist to lurid and often hyperbolic effect. That she’s being lauded as a figure of contemporary relevance says as much about our culture’s failings as it does of Mendieta’s.
© 2010 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 19, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.
Postscript: The line about art and communication makes me nervous, particularly given Ernst Gombrich’s brilliant essay, “The Visual Image: Its Place in Communication” found here. Perhaps the problem with Mendieta’s art is that it communicates too overtly. Whatever the case, I think (and pray) my point is made all the same.