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On February 8, 1985, Carl Andre wrote to his new bride: "Darling Ana: Your theme is the pregnant earth. My theme is the universe before the earth and after. Yours is the jewel, mine is the setting." (1) In this note, the avatar of Minimalism posits his work as the universal structure offsetting the humanity of Ana Mendieta's post-Minimalist work. As Minimalism informed post-Minimalism, so did Andre affect the direction of Mendieta's last years personally and artistically. Their emotionally volatile relationship was one of aesthetic convergence as well as conflict, of mutual give-and-take. While recognized for her early performance-based work and earth-body series Siluetas, the object-making Mendieta began in the final years of her life has been shrouded in the same obscurity as her relationship with Andre. Yet an examination of their creative synergy offers insight into Mendieta's intent as she searched for ways to bring her earth art into the gallery as permanent sculpture. Despite its deplorable end, their five-year partnership resulted in joint exhibitions, travels, shared friendships, political affinity, and artistic collaboration on a book of lithographs.
Critical assessment of Mendieta's last phase of work from the 1980s has been clouded by the circumstances surrounding her violent death at age thirty-six. When she died in a fall from the thirty-fourth floor of a Greenwich Village apartment building, she was married to Carl Andre. He was the only other person in the apartment on the morning of September 8, 1985, when she fell. Though indicted for her murder, he was acquitted in 1988. The intrigue and mystery surrounding her death deeply polarized the art world between the powerful establishment loyal to Andre and the feminist and Latino art communities. Personal loyalty has continued to play a role in the critical appraisal of both artists. In an emperor's-new-clothes situation, the points of comparison between their work are evident, but politically incorrect to discuss. Of essentially different generations artistically, they still found much to admire in each other's work. A Minimalist aesthetic and preoccupation with issues of scale, materials, presentation, and environment drew them together. Yet as post-Minimalism challenged many tenets of the style it subverts, Mendieta's gendered subjectivity distinguished her art from Andre's iconic Minimalism.
Mendieta met Andre in November 1979, but she was already well acquainted with his work. The writer and curator John Perreault recalls using a slide of Andre's Spill (Scatter Piece) (1966/69) a decade earlier to illustrate the element of chance in a seminar he taught on contemporary art, attended by Mendieta at the University of Iowa. (2) As well as seeing his work many times in art magazines, she owned the catalogue from the Whitney Museum's exhibition 200 Years of American Sculpture, and probably saw the exhibition in 1976. Curator Marcia Tucker's essay on contemporary sculpture features Andre as heralding "for himself and others, the end of art made in the studio." (3) His work is pictured seven times in the catalogue overall. Minimalism was no longer the avant-garde, but the established paradigm to react against.
Minimalism had literally knocked sculpture off its pedestal. Artists such as Andre, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin challenged the traditional conventions of sculpture: representation, illusionism, craftsmanship, permanence, and even the object itself. Minimalism presented a new set of formal strategies: the grid, seriality, identical modular units, geometric structure, industrial materials, and fabrication. Post-Minimalists eagerly adopted these precepts as new jumping-off points for sculptural invention: use of unorthodox materials, serial repetition, and physicality, but with allusive references and sometimes whimsy or erotica in their creations.
Termed "anti-form" by Robert Morris, "dematerialized" by Lucy Lippard, and "post-Minimalist" by Robert Pincus-Witten, the sculpture that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s was a subversive response to Minimalism. Eva Hesse is often cited as an influential iconoclast, as well as Mel Bochner, Lucas Samaras, and Bruce Nauman. (4) Because of her age and ethnicity, Mendieta has rarely been placed in this category, but most of the movement's characteristics apply to her work as well. (5) Adjectives such as anthropomorphic, biomorphic, handmade, mixed-media, psychologically attenuated, and organic apply equally to Mendieta and Hesse. Both accepted the pared-down, abstracted aesthetic of Minimalism, and each used the style to convey her own subjective meaning.
As Lippard foretold in her introduction to the Eccentric Abstraction exhibition in 1966, "The future of sculpture may well lie in such non-sculptural styles." (6) At the same time, as noted by feminist historians like Lippard and Whitney Chadwick, (7) women artists emerged as shapers of the art world, mirroring the larger cultural phenomenon of the feminist movement. With Mendieta, we include the impact of Black and Hispanic Power movements. These social forces combined to shift artistic production and the critical debate toward recognition of gender and ethnic identity.
As a student in the 1970s, Mendieta made earth-body works that exemplify art made outside the studio, influenced by the contemporaneous and overlapping movements of Conceptualism, body art, earth art, feminism, and Minimalism. She was exceptionally quick to absorb the cultural zeitgeist and adopt it for her own expressive purposes. The earth-body works were an inventive series of variations on her silhouette (silueta in Spanish), created in media ranging from the elemental earth, fire, and water to natural materials such as grass, flowers, moss, and snow. An angry and powerful "volcano" series made between 1978 and 1980 depicts an attenuated female figure, gashed into the earth, with a seam of gunpowder running down the center of the form. After setting the works alight, Mendieta filmed the incendiary burst of flame, smoking conflagration, and finally the charred remains. Representing her body in a dialogue with nature, the Siluetas also evoked her state of exile, her void in the North American cultural landscape.
Adopting the reductive, Minimalist aesthetic, Mendieta ventured into post-Minimalist territory with her personal point of reference, allusive content, and hands-on techniques. At first using her own body as the basis of the silueta, she then shifted to a cutout body substitute and finally to the void of an outline, still scaled to her five-foot frame. Both her early performances and the earth-body works refer to her Cuban heritage by incorporating elements of Catholic iconography, Santeria ritual, and Abakua symbolism. Unlike Flavin's factory fabrication of fluorescent tubes or Judd's plexiglass boxes, Mendieta's works are made from organic materials she found at sites in Iowa and Mexico; she conceived, shaped, and photographed them herself. In Minimalist style, she serially repeated an abstracted form and departed from the sculptural tradition of carving, casting, or assembling a permanent object. Yet, flaunting Minimalism's negation of subjectivity, she imbued her abstracted form, in a myriad variety of media, with personal, gendered import.
Painter Nancy Spero pinpointed Mendieta and Andre's …