Had she lived to complete it, artist Ana Mendieta’s La Jungla would have occupied a triangle of grass in MacArthur Park, near where Wilshire Boulevard meets Park View. In 1985, Mendieta was 36 years old and beginning to receive recognition for her elegantly visceral installations and performances. She had been planning the MacArthur Park project for over a year. She called it La Jungla because it would consist of seven redwood tree trunks, kiln-dried to ensure their permanence. They would have images carved or burned into them representing different spiritual powers.
Adolfo Nodal, who would go on to direct L.A.’s Department of Cultural Affairs, then oversaw a public art installation series in MacArthur Park. He invited Mendieta, a fellow Cuban American and a longtime friend (she was “like a sister,” he says), to participate. “I actually spoke with her an hour before she got killed,” Nodal remembers.
On September 8, 1985, Mendieta fell from the 34th floor bedroom window of the Greenwich Village apartment she shared with her husband, Carl Andre. Andre, 16 years her senior and already well established as a Minimalist sculptor, was charged and then acquitted of her murder. A number of factors — including the lack of material evidence supporting the theory that she jumped, her friends’ insistence that she feared heights, a 911 call in which Andre described chasing her into the bedroom and the judge’s comment that “he probably did it” — have left many feeling the case is unresolved. Andre is “not exactly the art world’s O.J. Simpson,” wrote Christopher Knight in a complimentary but complicated L.A. Times review of the exhibition currently up at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, “Carl Andre: Sculpture as Place, 1958-2010.” But he’s the closest thing to O.J. the U.S. art world has.
MOCA’s Andre exhibition, like many exhibitions of his work since the 1990s, prompted protests. Members of the Women’s Center for Creative Work and the local Metabolic Studio lit candles and laid out a long white sheet with black outlines of falling bodies painted on it. “Donde Esta Ana Mendieta?” read the 5,000 postcards curator Joy Silverman, a friend of Mendieta’s, printed to distribute the night of April 1 when MOCA’s show opened with the goal of inviting conversation among L.A. artists about how to honor and understand Mendieta’s legacy. Members of the feminist collective Association of Hysteric Art Curators, are proposing an answer to the question those cards pose: the late artist should be here in Los Angeles, represented by a nuanced, comprehensive retrospective, held perhaps in the same place Andre’s work is now.
“Everything happened collaboratively,” Silverman said of the protests on April 1. “People did what they felt comfortable with.” She and her collaborators tossed some of the cards onto Andre’s imposing zinc and wood sculptures. Twenty-five years ago, when Andre had a retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York, Silverman put the same image of Mendieta — with furrowed brow and wispy hair, wearing big hoop earrings — on T-shirts, which she and other feminist members of the organization WAC, the Women's Action Coalition, wore to the museum. Silverman still feels frustration when she considers representations of Mendieta at the time of her death. A New York magazine cover story showed Mendieta sitting on the floor surrounded by wine bottles, looking wild rather than incisive.
Silverman, who believes that Andre killed her friend, recalls a quote she read in a 2011 New Yorker profile of Andre, spoken by Philippe Vergne, MOCA’s director and the show’s original curator: “'Carl broke something and he was ostracized and that’s part [of it].’” She asks, “If it’s part of the story then why isn’t it addressed by the museum?”
MOCA director Vergne, who originally began planning the Andre retrospective as a senior curator at the Walker Art Center, realized it as director of Dia Art Foundation in New York, then brought it to MOCA. Protesters threw a bucket of chicken blood and guts on the sidewalk outside the Dia headquarters, an homage to a 1974 performance by Mendieta, in which she stood nude in front of a creek, emptied a flask of chicken blood onto her flesh, then dropped to the ground to roll in white feathers. “It makes sense; it’s normal,” Vergne says of the protests. “We didn’t know what kind of shape and form it would take here.”
Vergne isn’t certain whether the museum should acknowledge Andre’s indictment and acquittal in Mendieta’s death. “It’s a complicated question,” he says. He points out that the catalogue for the show mentions Mendieta — and it does, in an essay by the art historian Arnauld Pierre that considers the phallic connotations of Andre’s brick, wood and metal art in contrast to Mendieta’s earthy tributes to the matriarchal, suggesting the two could be a fertile combination ‘despite [their relationship’s] tragic end.”
The difference between Mendieta and Andre’s aesthetics often factors in to discussions of the tragedy that ended her life. She made work about domestic violence and the body in nature. He made work that was formally controlled, out of industrial material.
“The conversation has to be about aesthetics,” Vergne says. “This is an art exhibition.” But he does not think Andre’s work has been well-served by conventional descriptions of Minimalism as authoritative and austere.
“We have a very closed notion of Minimalism,” he explains, noting that Andre refused to “produce” new work. “He would recycle,” using readily available, found material. “It was a very kind of low-key, ad-hoc un-monumental work,” says Vergne. “We just bought a new body of [Mendieta’s] work; she has a very important place,” Vergne notes, before pointing out that the critic Anna Chave will be coming in June to speak at the museum.
Chave spoke at Dia three years ago, on the occasion of the Andre shows debut, and then published a fierce article in Art Journal about the routine failure of institutions to grapple with Mendieta’s legacy in relation to Andre's exhibitions. She cited the 911 call Andre made after Mendieta tumbled from the window — “My wife is an artist and I’m an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, uh, exposed to the public than she was and she went to the bedroom and I went after her and she went out of the window” — tying her tragic fall to career comparisons just moments after. “Some male critics have suggested that, as Mendieta’s posthumous reputation grows, ill-feeling toward the more celebrated Andre might accordingly subside; but the reverse may just as easily be imagined,” she wrote.
Alma Ruiz, the former MOCA curator who helped spearhead the acquisition of a suite of Mendieta's “Silhueta” photographs and then organized a small show in 1997, tried unsuccessfully to organize a screening of the artist's film work at MOCA in 2014. She would like to see a full museum treatment of Mendieta's legacy, if not in 2020, then soon after. “I do wonder, though, why her work resonates so much with artists and the general public but not with local institutions.” she says via email. “I think we should find out by organizing a show here. But, it may take a few years and a new generation of curators and museum leaders.”
On April 29, the morning before MOCA would host its annual gala amidst Andre’s work, a group of feminist artists sat around artist Mary Anna Pomonis’ dining table in Glassell Park. The group, called Association of Hysteric Art Curators, had published an open letter on Facebook on April 2. “One has to wonder why an Andre show?” they wrote. “As both a woman and a person of Latina descent, Mendieta, rather than Andre, has a historic connection to the city and the residents of Los Angeles that should have been recognized as important to MOCA.” That April morning, Pomonis explained that they had shifted the focus away from protesting the Andre show to advocating for a Mendieta show, and celebrating her work. They debated wether they should adopt “Ana Mendieta, 2020” as a slogan, and made plans to wear shirts with Ana Mendieta’s face and work printed onto them on Thursday, May 2, when MOCA curator Bennett Simpson led a walkthrough of Andre’s exhibition.
Adolfo Nodal would have liked to realize La Jungla in MacArthur Park, but Mendieta never sent drawings and he felt he had too little information to go on. A Cuban refugee herself, Mendieta engaged the sizable community of Cuban refugees living in the park at that time; some had mental illnesses and others were drug addicts. “She went over and hung out in some of the seedy places that they hung out,” Nodal recalls. She wanted to get to know them and to give the park a sculpture that would empower its disenfranchised residents. The redwoods would charge “the space with tenseness,” said Adolfo Nodal, reading from a hand-written description Mendieta sent him over 30 years ago.
Artist Cindy Rehm plans to perform a tribute to Mendieta on June 9, ideally at the same place in MacArthur Park where La Jungla would have been. “She had always been really important to me as an artist,” says Rehm, whose performance, Traces (for Ana), pays tribute to the “Silhueta” work Mendieta made in the 1970s, when she inscribed the shape of her body into the earth. “Some of the earlier work captured that fragility between the inside and outside of the body.” Rehm wants the conversation to be more about making Mendieta’s work and legacy visible, though she acknowledges, “It is complicated, because you don’t want to ignore her death either. I don’t know what her trajectory would have been if she had continued.”