Stacking and Unpacking
AFTER A FIVE-YEAR worldwide tour, sculptor Carl Andre’s major retrospective has reached its final stop at MoCA in Los Angeles. The museum has appeared to make minor fanfare on its behalf.
There has been little to no advertising of the show. The opening wasn’t well attended.
A friend who did attend told me it felt awkward, what with protestors on the outside and angry women walking beside embarrassed boyfriends on the inside. The protests and anger had to do with the fact that in 1985 Carl Andre’s wife, artist Ana Mendieta, was found dead on the concrete outside their building, having fallen over 30 stories. Did she jump or was she pushed? Andre was acquitted for the murder due to lack of evidence and has continued to make art and money over the past 30 years. But many people remain convinced he was responsible for her death, and every opening of the retrospective has inspired protests.
Philippe Vergne, director of MoCA and co-curator of the retrospective, makes little mention of Mendieta. He has only publicly referred to the incident once — briefly, in Calvin Tomkins’s 2011 New Yorker article, itself a master class on elegant persuasion under the pretense of even-handed storytelling. “Voluptuous” Ana, “enchanting, insecure, hot-tempered, and fiercely ambitious” married Carl; she was “clearly talented,” but took advantage of his access to the heights of the art world to promote her own “original and somewhat morbid” work. Tomkins insinuates that Mendieta brought something violent out in Carl that hadn’t been there before — he hadn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, abused countless other women (at least not physically). Carl’s “many friends” remained supportive of him even though “many of [Mendieta’s] friends in the art community and the feminist movement [emphasis mine]” believe he killed her.
At the climax of the article, we land at Tomkins’s thesis, delivered through Vergne’s words: “Carl broke something, and he was ostracized, and it’s part of the story. But the work is there. We are a museum, not a court of law, and he is one of the most important artists of our time.”
My mom likes to talk about Piaget’s experiment on learning — he had students push on a foot pedal while they were doing cognitive tasks, and it helped them learn better.
Over the past few years when I’m working in the studio, I find myself compulsively playing a movie as background noise — one movie, on repeat, for weeks at a time. There’s no logic to the selection — Sense and Sensibility, Primary Colors, All the President’s Men; the movie just has to provide enough of a force against which I can work, while not interrupting my flow of thought. Over the past three months, on repeat, it’s been O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour documentary about O. J. Simpson — my mind pushing against it as I push against my own mind trying to make art.
Edelman tells the story of Simpson’s meteoric rise and fall as one of an extraordinary talent who attempted to “erase race” from his identity in a city where the black experience had been so brutally defined by decades of racism from the LAPD.
Edelman also sensitively reveals a man increasingly corrupted by the successes and rewards of such erasure. Simpson’s need to be constantly loved, wanted, adored, and served, meant that in his 30s, with a wife and three children, he targeted a beautiful 18-year-old girl barely out of high school and made her the queen of his castle to serve that role, on his terms. When she challenged those terms — his womanizing, his narcissism, his control — he beat her, stalked her, terrorized her. In the last years of her life, Nicole Brown got a safety deposit box in which she stored the evidence: photos of her bruised face, his apology letters, her diaries — an archive of abuse to be found in the event of her death. By that point, she was convinced that no one would intervene while she lived — not her family, not their friends, not her lovers, not the police.
Director Peter Hyams, a longtime friend of Simpson, says of him: “He was Baryshnikov. When somebody is that great at something, when we see those people, they are special. They just can do stuff that other people can’t do.”
Carl broke something. Something. Not someone, not a woman, or an artist on the verge of a major career who hasn’t been able to make work for 32 years because she’s dead. He broke something. Not just a thing, but some thing. Some thing over there. He broke it.
And he was ostracized. For the thing he broke, Andre has been made to suffer by a society determined to punish him, push him out. But push him out where? Not out of a window, surely. Out of the art world? Tomkins’s article conveys that poor Andre was rendered all but invisible — all the while mentioning Guggenheim appearances, his loyal gallerist selling millions of dollars of work to blue chip collectors. The article itself heralds Andre’s “overdue” recognition via the retrospective now coming to MoCA at the end of a six-year-long worldwide tour.
And it is part of the story. Only part of the story. But it’s not the whole story. How can you reduce a man’s life to his breaking of something? Mike Gilbert, O. J. Simpson’s agent, quoted Sister Helen Prejean to reporters for years after his acquittal — we can’t judge a man by the worst day of his life. But that’s only true if it’s the man’s story we are telling. Mendieta’s story ended on the day she died.
It’s not the whole story — because the work is there. The work is there. It is present, it sits up and speaks. In the realm of conceptual sculpture, some objects push forward the conversation during a community’s moment of artistic innovation — and are then forgotten. But then some objects remain relevant — and that’s Andre’s work. Now, if Carl had made shitty work then perhaps we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But the work displaces Carl’s breaking of something.
We are a museum, not a court of law — we are an institution of historical and market validation. So we are a type of court. Just not of law. We have no legal responsibility. Thus, we have no moral responsibility. We only have the responsibility of being the gatekeepers to cementing Andre’s status in art history as one of the most important artists of our time, with consequences financial and otherwise for which we, again, claim no legal nor moral responsibility.
That is the position of Andre’s supporters, who weave together the belief in Andre’s innocence with the caveat that, even if he isn’t innocent, it doesn’t matter. Proper respect for his art-making has been darkened by this event, which had nothing whatsoever to do with his art-making. And that’s not fair. Because Carl Andre is a genius.
I’ve been wrestling with this notion of the male genius for years. I can’t get away from it. Around the time I had my first child, I made a series of videos and performances exploring the ways in which my own yearning for success has been defined by this construct into which I will never belong.
I was then struck by what seemed like an endless parade of bizarrely complex sex crimes then being reported in the news media: Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who kept his daughter trapped in a secret basement for 24 years, fathering seven children by her so that she would be unappealing to other men; Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapping by Brian Mitchell as part of a detailed Fundamentalist Mormon religious ritual having to do with his own status as a prophet; Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping by Philip Garrido, who would go on 48-hour meth-fueled sexual “runs,” during which he would rape her repeatedly “so he wouldn’t do it to other girls”; Ariel Castro’s home prison, in which he kept the kidnapped Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina “Gina” DeJesus chained to walls, subjecting them to an endless cycle of sexual abuse and torture.
In all these stories, the perpetrator required a complicated set of actions to derive sexual satisfaction. They also seemed to labor over this set — engineering and designing elaborate physical installations, writing detailed narratives in their own minds to justify their desires, performing and switching between personae so that the world would never know the monster — hero — tyrant — who lurked within.
It made me think of nothing else as much as the art work of Matthew Barney, the ne plus ultra male genius artist of our time.
Barney’s own recent show at MoCA was centered around the conflation of the dead civilizations of Ancient Egypt and Detroit Motor City through enormous sculptural objects, expensive metal poured into giant shapes readymade for the mausoleum. One sculpture/performance video piece features a pack of young girls in hot pants dragging a large sculpture against the museum wall, leaving a mark. And then there was the packaging of all of his scattered thoughts and process, placing the man out in front of the dozens of studio assistants who produce his work: bodily fluids on paper, sketchbooks, drawings, his clipped-out image files. This material was an assertion: everything that falls from Barney’s head (and body) is worth the viewers’ consideration — his doodles, his semen, even his eyesight striking upon a found image. That’s Barney’s incredible persona, so much bigger than his work — he is dripping with, redolent of, ejaculating genius at every moment of every day.
In my young days as an artist, as a human, I encountered multiple men who, inspired by Barney and convinced of their own genius (perhaps by having done enough of the right kind of psychotropic drugs), went: My cells! My hand! The planet! A tree! All one! They felt they had cracked the code to all Systems of Ancient Human Knowledge — through their art work. I called them the Prophets. I was always envious of their profound psychic entitlement.
Maya, Maya, these are not the same things, Maya. Sex criminals and Matthew Barney and O. J. Simpson and Carl Andre and the Prophets — these are not the same thing.
But what I’m saying is that they’ve become the same thing to me.
Death of the Author
Is Carl Andre a genius? When people ask me about Andre’s work, the briefest description I give is: “Minimalist. Stuff on the floor.” He’s the minimalist-stuff-on-the-floor guy. He creates environments by delineating space in elegantly arranged stacks and configurations of industrially fabricated objects. It purposefully does not speak or articulate. It just is. It just — be.
It’s kind of dumb, in a way. So dumb it’s brilliant? Perhaps. With conceptual sculpture, the object is supposed to catapult the viewer toward some existential consideration of the notion of being, of the Body in an encounter with Things.
Andre’s work survives Mendieta’s death and this kind of judgment partly because the work itself doesn’t speak to any emotional life. Death and blood and womanizing and his open alcoholism (which he conveniently blames for his memory loss) doesn’t stick to his orderly metal plate and brick arrangements.
In the art-historical context that Andre emerged from, Vergne might feel entirely justified in not dealing with Mendieta’s death. Andre’s sculptures exist as the Viewer’s Body qua Body encountering Art Thing qua Thing — outside of time, history, cultural context, memory, morality, responsibility. Andre is the perfect artist for institutions that are not courts of law.
Minimalism attempted this phenomenological shift from authorship by the artist to what passes between the viewer and the work: the Death of the Author, and a spit in the eye of Abstract Expressionists, who valorized the individual male gesture.
And yet it is interesting to consider that these white male conceptual sculptors were killing the Author, making “identity” unimportant, at the exact cultural moment when women and people of color were asserting their own identities in their art-making.
It is also interesting that, as actual death approaches many of these artists, they seem less willing to let their authorial importance — their authority — go; they want to assert their personal place in the history of art. Donald Judd’s Foundation stresses to visitors touring his baronial Marfa holdings that they were left exactly as they were the day he died. Michael Heizer bitterly spits and howls that his work doesn’t hold the spot as Most Famous Land Art (that would be Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty).
And while Andre’s objects and constructions attempt to and often succeed at just being, curators, writers, and collectors insist that these works require a hand — his hand — his strong male hand — to arrange them. They love to linger on the biographical detail of Andre’s few early years spent as a train engineer as proof of some blue-collar authenticity that allegedly flows through his works.
One friend who collects art tells me, “Oh come on, I know most of these artists are assholes, but it doesn’t matter who they are as people.” But of course it does.
Death of the Author 2
It’s funny, not in a ha-ha way but in an excruciatingly ironic way, that Mendieta’s death feels like a culmination of her work, because her work was all about blood and death and the female body — broken, fulfilled, violated, sacred, present, absent, in nature, in the landscape, engaged in the ritual act. The Silueta series shows the imprints of a woman’s body in the earth. Mendieta’s body cracking an imprint in concrete 35 stories down. It is partly because of the power of her art that her death cannot be extracted from it.
And sadly, this cuts both ways — into the elevation of her talent, and into the denial of it. In the comments section from one Hyperallergic story about the protests of Andre’s retrospective, there’s this:
I went to art school with Ana and I completely believe what Carl Andre said, that she jumped out the window in a fit of anger at him. Consider it her final performance. If you really want a target for righteous anger, you might consider her art school professor who would technically now be considered a rapist by assertion of his position of authority. Ironically, he was grading her on rape performance artworks.
Let’s briefly unpack the contempt and misogyny and professional jealousy of this anonymous commenter. He wants so desperately to believe it is more likely that Mendieta threw herself, her talent, her imagination, her burgeoning career, out of a window in a fit of pique rather than being pushed by her drunk husband in the middle of a violent fight. He wants to believe that anyone angered by her death is simply looking for a target for righteous indignation over sexism. He tells us to get hysterical over something else — that her teacher, the first person to document her work and support her talent, was also her lover. He equates her death with her sex life, her death with her performances, her death with her art — and reduces women’s agony over this life to feminist hysteria.
Murder, She Wrote
I can’t get this out of my head — an episode of a TV show I remember from when I was a kid. While filming a music video a young woman, a dancer, gets shot by an obsessed fan. She isn’t killed but ends up paralyzed, unable to dance ever again. At the end of the hour, after the stalker has been caught, we watch this woman in a wheelchair, choreographing dance using a virtual hologram of herself. It’s such a strange moment of technological utopianism — the dancer’s agony minimized because a virtual version of herself is dancing.
For the story to work, this needs to be a horrifying crime — a woman’s life and livelihood and highest expression of self destroyed — but it also needs to be resolved. And that’s the happy ending.
I had remembered this as being an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I could see Angela Lansbury smiling benevolently over the paralyzed dancer as she demonstrated her virtual moves.
I was wrong. It was an episode of a show that lasted one season, called The Wizard, in which a genius inventor with dwarfism (played by David Rappaport) spends his life making the world better with his inventions while avoiding evil forces who want to exploit his skills. He invents the dancing hologram of the woman so she may entice and entrap her stalker.
In my memories, the male genius has disappeared and all I remember is the woman, smiling, choreographing a hologram of her body, really feeling like it’s a replacement for the body she lost.
Ana Mendieta. Untitled (Silueta Series, Mexico), 1973–’77 (printed 1991). Collection of Diane and Bruce Halle. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection. Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York.