In the stocks

Carl Andre’s touring retrospective Sculpture as Place recently reached its final destination at MOCA in LA. As was the case in New York and Berlin the show was met with protests, this time organised by a group named the Association of Hysteric Curators (you can read their demands here). At the protests, people held signs asking “Where Is Ana Mendieta?”, a question that has been a defining feature of the protest history since it was first chanted outside the opening of Guggenheim SoHo in 1992.

The Guggenheim SoHo’s inaugural exhibition From Brancusi to Bourgeois: Aspects of the Guggenheim was intended to showcase the best of the institution’s collection. Of the six artists selected five were men – the only woman was Louise Bourgeois – and all were white. For those still reeling from Mendieta’s death and the art world’s response to it, the fact that one of these men was also Carl Andre was salt in a particularly raw wound.

Among the actions taken, the Guerrilla Girls distributed a postcard to be sent to the exhibition’s curator Thomas Krens. “Welcome to downtown”, it reads. “We’ve been hearing all about your opening show: “Four White Boys at the White Boys’ Museum.” This Saturday evening I will be giving a talk on my research into Ana Mendieta at NLS, where I will also be exhibiting some of the ephemera from the protest history including this postcard.

From that first demonstration in 1992, “Where Is Ana Mendieta?” has been a question that operates on multiple levels. It asks us to consider why Mendieta is no longer alive, and in doing so seeks to remind people of Andre’s suspected involvement in her death. It asks us to consider why Mendieta’s work is not on show – at the 2016 protests at Tate’s Switch House extension, for example, one of the main concerns of protesters was that Mendieta’s artwork was absent while Andre’s was on display. In a broader sense, it also asks why the work of women and in particular women of colour is absent from museums. In this way, the death of Ana Mendieta has become a symbol for the erasure not only of one woman’s life but of the erasure of entire demographics from the cultural sector. This, to my mind, explains why over 30 years later the subject of her death still draws such heat.

Following the protests at Tate’s Switch House last year I put the question “where is Ana Mendieta?” to Tate’s press office. “Tate owns five works by the artist Ana Mendieta” came the reply. “All of these have been shown at Tate Modern in the collection displays and they have been included in temporary exhibitions such as A Bigger Splash at Tate Modern and Afro Modern at Tate Liverpool. Tate also lends these works to other institutions both in the UK and abroad. In recent years they have been lent to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and to Salzburg in Austria.”

In short, the Tate’s answer to the question “where is Ana Mendieta?” is that she is in the collection. One of the more complicated aspects of my research has been how to account for the fact that Ana Mendieta is considerably better represented after death than she was in life – and, crucially, how to marry this with prevalent notion that she is being overlooked. I put this question to Coco Fusco, who knew Mendieta briefly, and who is an outspoken critic of her posthumous canonisation. “Ana Mendieta suffered during life from being undervalued, not after her death”, Fusco replied. “She has become a kind of postmodern Frida Kahlo. She has not been overlooked at all – on the contrary, she is one of the few Latin American women artists of her era who is widely known and exhibited.”

To give some sense of the turn-around in Mendieta’s exposure, in the years following her death in 1985 I have counted 16 books published in which she is the prime subject. There have been 20 solo shows, a number of them touring to various major institutions. The list of group shows in which her work has been included is so long it spans multiple pages, and her work has been bought by 91 public collections, in the US, Latin America, Europe and Australia – collections that include the Guggenheim and the Tate, the same institutions outside of which “where is Ana Mendieta?” has been chanted. To put this in context: before Mendieta died she was yet to have a single museum show.

Mendieta’s posthumous CV reveals an uncomfortable truth regarding the appeal of dead women artists to markets and institutions. Art history is dependant upon plot-lines and characters. I might venture a guess that this is because art operates in abstract and provisional terrain, and being able to associate artists with stock types give us something to hook our understanding of their work and their significance on to. The most prominent of these characters is the male genius, who is almost exclusively white, and comes in variations including the brooding philosopher (Andre), misunderstood madman (Van Gogh), naive outsider (Wallis), and pedagogical master (Beuys).

In recent years, the character of the emerging artist has become something of a market fetish, playing into a lustful fascination with youth and promise, and the thrill of cherry-popping for those introducing new blood to the professional stage. Women have largely been excluded from the modern project, which revolves by and large around the feats of male cliques. (Without forgetting the deeply misogynist reasons for this exclusion, we might also begin to see this as a boon, given the Vatican-esque ability to cover-up misdeeds, insist upon canons, and uphold inequality that all too often seems like modern art’s MO.)

In this theatre of art history, women artists appear alone, cast in the role of the overlooked, the tragic and the unhinged; as ghosts who haunt the stage. We need only look to the posthumous appeal of Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo, and, of course, Ana Mendieta. The recent spate of retrospectives of Austrian painter Marie Lassnig is testament to the sort of narratives of female success institutions seem to desire. Despite having been producing work for decades, Lassnig’s biggest exhibition in the UK was held at Tate Liverpool last year. Lassnig was not in attendance: she died, aged 94, weeks before the opening. Perhaps the paradigmatic example of this trend is Louise Bourgeois. Over 90% of Bourgeois’s exhibitions happened after she turned 70. Over half of them took place when she was in her 90s.

Like Lassnig and Mendieta, Bourgeois – the one woman included in the Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition back in 1992 – is of course an artist worthy of attention. But the romance of the overlooked woman artist blinds us to the fact she should have got it decades sooner. In an art world so willing to congratulate itself on the discovery of overlooked women, we must also acknowledge – as curators, viewers, writers, collectors, dealers, and as protesters – the extent to which we are complicit in a collective type of narrative abuse, in which the ideal woman artist is either dead or close to dying.

Image courtesy Jillian Steinhauer

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