LOS ANGELES — “Dónde Está Ana Mendieta?” (Where is Ana Mendieta?) This was the question posed by cards distributed at the recent opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) blockbuster retrospective of pioneering Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Thirty-two years ago, the Cuban-born Mendieta, who was also a deeply influential artist, fell to her death from the 34th-floor apartment she shared with Andre, her husband. Although he was acquitted of her murder in 1988, controversy has followed him ever since, and the issue remains deeply divisive; many in the art world still hold him responsible for her death. So, on the evening of April 1, a loose group of artists and activists hastily assembled at the opening reception to quietly protest what they consider Mendieta’s erasure from the art historical canon, and the disassociation of her death from Andre’s story.
Although this is a monumental exhibition — Andre’s first career-spanning museum survey — there was little publicity or fanfare in advance of its opening, perhaps a conscious attempt by the museum to preempt protests. And it had good reason to be wary: when the show debuted at Dia:Beacon in 2014, protesters staged a public cry-in and splashed chicken blood and entrails in front of Dia’s Chelsea offices.
“I didn’t know about it until a week before, and that’s when I decided to print the cards up,” said Joy Silverman, a documentary producer and former director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions who was also a close friend of Mendieta’s. Silverman has been involved in similar protest actions, most notably at a 1992 Guggenheim SoHo exhibition featuring work by Andre. “I thought, ‘People can hand the cards out, and she can have a presence, and the history can have a presence,’ because people don’t know about it,” Silverman told Hyperallergic.
Coincidentally, Metabolic Studio, an experimental architecture and art studio, had planned to hold an event on the same day as the Andre opening that related to its project reanimating the archives of the Woman’s Building, which was a landmark feminist art space that existed from 1973 to ’91. Since the studio had a critical mass of important female artists assembled, it invited them to lie down on a long fabric scroll and have their silhouettes traced, recalling some of Mendieta’s most famous works, a number of which reside in MOCA’s collection. “Ana Mendieta was a figurehead for and a collaborator with the Woman’s Building, and it felt important to all of us to acknowledge and make her presence felt, in the spirit of feminist art practice,” Lauren Bon, the founder of Metabolic Studio, told Hyperallergic via email.
The scroll was unfurled on the ground outside of MOCA Geffen during the Andre opening, so that visitors had to pass it on their way to the entrance. At the same time, small groups of protesters stood outside the museum handing out the cards, and placing them on Andre’s works inside. According to Silverman, there seemed to be extra museum guards on hand in anticipation of a protest; they would swoop in and pick up the cards on Andre’s floor works, which are intended to be walked on. His other sculptures are not supposed to be touched, so guards were unable to remove the cards from them right away.
The day after the opening, Mary Anna Pomonis, an artist and cofounder of the Association of Hysteric Curators, penned an open letter to MOCA Director Philippe Vergne, saying that the decision to stage the exhibition “communicates to us, as feminists, that the museum has no allegiance to women or victims of domestic abuse.” Over 200 people signed the letter, but Pomonis has not yet received a reply from Vergne. MOCA also declined to comment when contacted by Hyperallergic.
“We don’t want the show to be taken down, but we would like an Ana Mendieta show in 2020,” Pomonis told Hyperallergic. “We want people to know her story and for her legacy not to be diminished. One of the things that somebody said walking into the museum was, ‘Well, she really didn’t make as much work as he did.’ That’s the frustrating thing to hear. Of course she didn’t — she was cut down in her prime. What could she have made had her life and career not been extinguished?”
For a number of the artists involved, the protest was about much more than just the controversy surrounding Mendieta’s death. “It’s a culture war to me, because Andre represents a very Eurocentric, academic, rarified version of what art is,” said artist Corazon del Sol, whose mother was the conceptual artist Eugenia Butler and whose grandmother, also named Eugenia Butler, was a pioneering Los Angeles dealer. “Ana Mendieta’s version of a creative act was more based in indigenous, non-European models. It’s the opposite of capitalist logic, whereas [the controversy surrounding her death and the defense of Andre] is so wrapped up in the marketplace and the protection of capital.” Many of Mendieta’s pieces were ephemeral earthworks that, although they were captured on film, resisted easy commodification. On her way to the opening, del Sol bought a roll of black lace, which she cut into a series of veils that she and her friends wore.
Alexandra Grant, an artist whose work also resides in MOCA’s collection, questioned the timing of the decision to stage an exhibition by a widely acclaimed straight, white male artist. “Under Trump, Carl Andre is such a poor choice for a progressive institution. It’s actually a super exciting time as a woman to ask, ‘Is MOCA really serving who LA is?’ The city is 50% Latina and female, so why are we showing Carl Andre?”