The Controversial Death of Ana Mendieta: Here’s What We Know

Performance artist Ana Mendieta died three decades ago, yet her death remains a subject of great controversy.

Jan 8, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
ana mendieta controversial death

 

Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta tragically died in September 1985 after falling out of her 34-floor New York apartment window. Her husband, minimalist artist Carl Andre, was soon arrested under suspicion of murder but cleared of all charges three years later. Still, many of Mendieta’s friends and supporters believed that justice was not served correctly. More than three decades later, the Ana Mendieta case is still full of unanswered questions.

 

Who Was Ana Mendieta?

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A still from the film Ana Mendieta: Fuego de Tierra, 1987, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

During her tragically short life, Ana Mendieta left a lasting mark on the history of art and activism. Born in Cuba in 1948, she fled the country when she was just twelve during Fidel Castro’s revolution. As a child refugee, she was moved to Iowa, where she later attended university. At the beginning of 1985, she married a famous and established minimalist sculptor Carle Andre, who was thirteen years her senior.

 

Mendieta’s art was centered around her cultural identity, femininity, and the idea of challenging patriarchal norms through nature. She focused on performance art, film, and photography. Her main artistic tool was her own body. For example, Mendieta left prints of her body in mud and soil and covered herself with blood and feathers. During the last two years of her life, she began creating sculptures, often shaped like female body silhouettes. Mendieta was a powerful activist even outside of the world of art. She initiated several projects aimed at reconnecting displaced Cubans with their relatives and worked on creating safe working environments for women artists.

 

Blood and Violence in Ana Mendieta’s Work

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A still from the film Untitled (Moffitt Building) by Ana Mendieta, 1973, via Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

 

Blood as a symbol and an artistic material was important to Mendieta, although it did not always have morbid connotations. Mendieta mostly used blood as a symbol of rebirth and life force, and as a thing that was connecting art with nature. Nonetheless, her first major work Moffitt Building focused on darkness and blood. As a stream of blood flowed from under the door to the street, Mendieta filmed people passing by, noticing the blood but taking no action. Tragically, the same would happen years later to the artist herself.

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Moffitt Building was one of Mendieta’s works reacting to the brutal rape and murder of a student called Sarah Ann Ottens on the campus of the University of Iowa. Just like many other women on campus, Mendieta was concerned with her safety and the officials’ indifference. The murder of Sarah Ann Ottens still remains unsolved.

 

September 8, 1985: A Sequence of Events

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Untitled by Ana Mendieta, 1973, via Ana Mendieta Estate Collection

 

On September 8, 1985, Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre were at home, at their 34th-floor apartment on Mercer Street. Mendieta called her friend Natalia Delgado and told her about her plans to divorce Andre. She talked about Andre’s cheating habits and her lawyer’s suggestion to gather evidence of his infidelity. She even told Delgado that she collected Andre’s phone call transcripts because of this.

 

Later on, something happened between Mendieta and Andre. Andre mentioned a fight over their success in the art world. During this time, on the street below the couple’s windows, a doorman heard a woman scream the word No several times. After this, he heard a loud thud.

 

Distressed Andre called 911 and claimed that he had a fight with Ana during which he followed her to the room from which she jumped through the window. When the police arrived Andre told them that he was watching TV while Mendieta was in the other room. He also told them that he noticed that she was not in the apartment only when he went to bed. When confronted about these different claims, Andre started yelling and denying his previous statements.

 

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Carl Andre next to his works, via ThoughtCo

 

During their inspection, officers found Andre and Mendieta’s bedroom filled with overturned furniture and empty wine bottles. They also noticed that the windowsill was unusually high and that Mendieta could not have climbed up there on her own without using a chair. While the police examined the scene, Andre showed the officers catalogs of his artworks and told them how Ana had been jealous of his fame. Afterward, he made several calls to cancel dinner plans. He did not, however, attempt to call Mendieta’s family.

 

Natalia Delgado, to whom Ana talked right before her death, called to check on her. Andre picked up the phone and simply stated that Ana was not home and promised to tell her about the call. The New York police placed Andre under arrest on suspicion of Ana Mendieta’s murder and the apartment was sealed. Delgado called for the second time. This time, Andre’s lawyer, who was alone at the apartment, picked up the phone and told her Mendieta was dead. Delgado later claimed that Andre sent his lawyer to find and destroy the evidence Mendieta collected for their divorce.

 

Carl Andre’s Trial

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A still from the film Sweating Blood by Ana Mendieta, 1973, via The Smithsonian Institute, Washington

 

Three years after Mendieta’s death, Andre stood trial on the charges of second-degree murder. While Ana Mendieta’s side of the room was full of her friends, relatives, and colleagues, Andre deliberately asked his supporters not to attend. Some understood this as a way of protecting the artist’s ego, while others saw it as gatekeeping of information.

 

One of Andre’s lawyers’ top strategies was based on overt racism. To shift the focus from Andre’s inconsistent claims, the defense insisted on Mendieta’s Latina temper and her problems with alcohol. They presented Mendieta’s posthumous blood test, which showed a substantial amount of alcohol. Still, Andre never took the same test, despite his reputation as a heavy drinker.

 

After the trial, Andre had a legal opportunity to seal all documents related to the case, including call transcripts and forensic expertise results. According to American law, the only person able to unseal the documents is Carl Andre himself. Thus, all publicly available evidence of the case relies on transcripts from the trial.

 

Defense’s Version: Suicide

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Imágen de Yágul (Silueta Series) by Ana Mendieta, 1973, via San Francisco MoMA

 

Carl Andre’s lawyers insisted on his innocence and emphasized his high-ranking position within the art world where he was seen as the pioneer of minimalist sculpture. After the testimony of the doorman who heard Mendieta scream, Andre’s lawyers stated that the man had a history of mental health issues and could not be trusted because of it.

 

A large portion of the trial turned into a discussion of Ana Mendieta’s works, and not in a good way. The defense claimed her use of blood and soil was a sign of a subconscious desire to kill herself. They also relied heavily on Mendieta’s interest in indigenous occult practices and beliefs like Santeria, a Cuban-African polytheistic religion. They insisted that an interest in such matters meant Mendieta was mentally unstable and therefore could have killed herself during a part of a Santeria ritual. In reality, Mendieta was not a practitioner but a researcher of Santeria and never affiliated herself with it on a personal level.

 

Prosecution’s Version: Murder

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Untitled (Silueta Series, Mexico) by Ana Mendieta, 1976, via Ana Mendieta Estate Collection

 

The prosecution tried to rule out the possibility of a suicide or an accident from the start. As noted by police officers on the day of the tragedy, the windowsill in the apartment was too high, starting around the chest level of an average man. Mendieta, who was less than five feet tall, could not have climbed there on her own without using a chair, and certainly, she could not have accidentally fallen out. Moreover, her friends repeatedly stated that Ana was hysterically afraid of heights, and the thought of her willingly climbing on a windowsill was absurd.

 

Some witnesses noted that Carl Andre had scratches on his face on the day after Mendieta’s death. Andre insisted that a sudden gush of wind closed the door in front of him and injured his face a week before his wife died. Others recalled Andre’s alcohol abuse and violent behavior, while the ex-wives of Andre spoke about it in private but refused to testify in court.

 

The prosecution insisted on the upcoming divorce as a motive for the fight and subsequent murder of Ana Mendieta. However, Andre and his witnesses denied knowing about these plans. As for the evidence that Mendieta was supposedly gathering, none of it was found in the apartment by the time the trial took place.

 

The Art World’s Reaction

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What Do These Men Have in Common? by Guerilla Girls, 1995, via Gallery98

 

The sudden and tragic death of Ana Mendieta uncovered not only the flaws and questionable methods of the justice system but the ugly side of the art world, too. The unspoken power dynamic revealed itself in its full glory. People who stood up for Mendieta were mostly artists of color, feminist and queer activists, and immigrants. Carl Andre’s supporters were gallery owners, museum curators, and collectors. They were predominantly white, male, and privileged, whose wealth relied on the status quo of the market. Public discussion of the case from Andre’s side focused mostly on his artistic genius and not on the fact that a young woman has been found dead.

 

Until the present moment, most of the people involved in the case from Andre’s side remain silent and decline to answer any questions. Three decades later, Mendieta posthumously became a prominent and respected artist, yet the seeming shift of power dynamics barely left any mark on how the art market talks about the artist’s death. Some activists, including the anonymous feminist art group Guerilla Girls, staged protests and even compared the Carl Andre trial to the infamous case of O.J. Simpson, but it barely made any impact.

 

The Aftermath of Ana Mendieta’s Death

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Flower Person, Flower Body, by Ana Mendieta, 1975, via Ana Mendieta Estate Collection

 

On the day following the verdict, The New York Times published an article on the trial, paying special attention to the alcohol found in Mendieta’s blood and Andre’s impact on the world of contemporary art. Mendieta’s artistic career and aspirations received only a passing remark in the middle of the article.

 

But what happened to Carl Andre? Pretty much nothing. He moved to Europe for several years after the trial was over and kept exhibiting there until things calmed down. Today, he still lives in the same apartment where Ana Mendieta died, selling his works to the same galleries. He acknowledged Mendieta’s death only once, right before a series of major retrospective exhibitions of his work in Europe. Andre presented another story about her death, which again did not add up with the previous ones. This time he took into account all his previous inconsistencies. Around 25 years later, he remembered that Ana was closing the windows at night because of a sudden drop in temperature (which, according to meteorological data, never happened), climbed the windowsill, and fell out.

 

As noted by the art curator Helen Molesworth, silence was and remains the main character of this story. While supporters of Andre deliberately avoid any discussion related to the elephant in the room, the people on Ana Mendieta’s side have moved on, trying to preserve her legacy without addressing her tragic ending.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.