That Time Carl Andre Wrote Me a Letter 

The envelope containing Carl Andre’s letter to Coco Fusco in June 1993 (photo Coco Fusco/Hyperallergic)

About 30 years ago, Carl Andre, who died in January, wrote me a letter. It was in response to an article I had written about Ana Mendieta. He wrote his message by hand, using the block letters that are a hallmark of his personal correspondence; but he didn’t know me. I had no idea how he found me, but he let me know that his message was for me and only me: He marked his letter “personal and confidential,” put a copyright sign on it, and ended it with “for your eyes only,” as if to say, don’t even think of showing this to anybody. For years, I was too afraid to mention the letter in public, imagining that he might take revenge. I had heard plenty of scary stories about Mr. Andre from Mendieta’s close friends. I had never met him, but I knew he was a famous White male artist who might also be a murderer.

Before I received that letter, I had imagined the scene on that fateful night in 1985 in his Mercer Street apartment a million times: the liquor-filled fridge, her furtive whispers about divorce on the phone with a girlfriend, his massive figure sinking into a sofa with a drink in hand, her taunts, his grunts, the window ledge that came up to her chest, the sound of her screaming “No!” filling the air as she fell. 

Andre knew how to throw his weight around. He had the power, the money, and the connections to walk free. And he had done so after Mendieta’s relatives and friends sat in a courtroom for days listening to a lawyer conjure a portrait of his dead wife as a suicidal Cuban freak. He was White masculine supremacy incarnate. As far as I was concerned, what I wrote about her had nothing to do with him. But by insinuating himself into my life with that letter, he made me feel as if I had done something wrong.

So yes, his letter scared the shit out of me. 

Carl Andre at the Whitechapel Gallery in London on March 15, 1978 (photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Why would this famous Minimalist with friends in high places bother with a nobody like me? Thirty years ago, I was a mouthy colored girl trying to kick the art-world door open. There were no bigshot art critics drooling over Black art the way they do now. After Mendieta’s first retrospective at the New Museum in 1987, I wrote about her work and what making art in Cuba meant to her. I loved the visceral quality of her performances and admired her defiance. She created work in the nude, which was nothing short of scandalous for straightlaced Cuban-exile Catholics; she embraced Afro-Cuban ritual as a source for her practice, even though she hailed from an upper-class White Cuban family; she returned to the island even though the Communists who had imprisoned her father were still in power; and she made fun of Americans’ stereotypical views of her culture by calling herself “Tropic-Ana.” She was a badass, and I was a 20-something who wanted to be like her. She had also befriended a group of iconoclastic young artists in Cuba who were stirring up trouble by throwing the rules of revolutionary art to the winds. They wanted to know about the New York art scene that Cuban apparatchiks deemed an expression of “Western Imperialism,” and she became their informant. I met those artists after her death in 1985. They were still in shock at her passing. Even though Andre had footed the shipping bill for sending artworks by US-based artists to the Havana Biennial in 1986 — which I took to be a gesture of remorseful generosity — they cursed him. As I began to travel to Cuba and developed friendships with those artists, I felt that in some way, I was following Mendieta’s lead. 

Here’s a bit of what I wrote about her 36 years ago:

Like many Cubans educated before or outside the Revolution, Ana had to make a self-conscious choice to go beyond a neo-colonial rejection of “popular” culture and nostalgic, simplistic attachment to folklore. Artist, lay archeologist and shaman, she excavated links that would reinscribe her self-expression into the world from whence she had been cast. Her intensity of vision and artistic integrity forced her to delve beneath the surface layers of religious and nationalist symbol and stricture that are so much a part of Latin cultural history. 

I have no idea if this is what resonated with Mr. Andre. Maybe it was this:

Ana’s understanding of Afro-Cuban ritual and music and Latin American history was the result of self-conscious research more than osmosis. Going to the heart of Cuban popular culture, Ana uncovered a history of cultural adaptation and response to the disruption and dislocation of the New World colonial experience and murmurs of pre-existent, precolonial forms. Appropriating from Santeria, the synthesis of Yoruba and Catholicism, what she called its “healing imagery”, Ana drew on rituals and symbols that affirm social bonds, connect the practitioners to the past and that seek to overcome limits of time, place and mortality. 

My essay was first published in The Portable Lower East Side, a small journal that featured art and writing from the New York downtown scene of the era. The journal’s editor, Kurt Hollander, moved to Mexico City in the 1990s and hooked up with a loosely knit group of artists and critics who envisioned their culture as eclectic, forward-looking, and open to foreign influence, rather steeped in tradition and nationalism. Hollander arrived just as hundreds of Cuban artists were relocating to Mexico, fleeing political repression and economic collapse brought on by the disappearance of Soviet subsidy. Together with his new friends, he founded another magazine, aptly entitled Poliester. For a special issue titled “Cuba Inside and Out,” Hollander asked me to update my piece on Mendieta, which I did, noting that she had inadvertently opened a door through which others had followed, since many other Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans wanted to make contact with the island and its arts community. At the time, she was the only Cuban exile who had been permitted to create artworks there.

That’s the version that somehow reached Andre. Eight years had passed since Mendieta’s death, but he felt some need to share his thoughts with me. And so, he let me know that I had truly understood her relationship with Cuba, which, he called “her lost Eden.” His letter was brief. He didn’t mention her death, nor did he consider any of her work. He instead focused on his view of her emotional life as an exiled Cuban who had been separated from home and family as a child. I am the daughter of a Cuban exile, and I grew up among people mourning the loss of that same homeland on a daily basis, so it wasn’t hard for me to grasp why the traumatic loss was so important to Mendieta. What irked me was Andre’s need to tell me about it. I felt like he was stepping on somebody else’s turf. Hers. Mine. 

Why did I have to know what he thought? Why did he want to tell me? Did he think I needed his approval of my interpretation of her relationship to her country? Was he looking for mine because I am Cuban American? Was I supposed to believe that he knew her better than anyone, or that he, an American who had always lived in his country of origin, and who had made a name for himself by placing flat sheets of metal on the floor, possessed some great insight into the psyche of an exile? He seemed to have embraced conceited views about the impact of his work. According to critic Jeff Perrone, Andre once stated that “If his wood sculptures are successful it ‘proves that the Indians won.’”  I’ve taken a look at Andre’s poems from the 1960s, to see if I could glean a sense of how he saw the world and if displacement, trauma, homelessness, or even members of the opposite sex were significant enough to mention.

The answer: hardly. His poem “short words” has several terms for men of varying social statuses, and only one reference to a female “wife.” His score entitled “Flags, An Opera for Three Voices” repeats the word “woman” several times along with “Wyoming,” “street,” “artichoke portrait,” “symbol,” and “totem.” He mentions Spanish conquistadores who had taken over Mexico, Aztec Emperors, and Native Americans from the Northeast by name but shows no concern for the losses endured by Indigenous groups. I realize that he was a member of the left-leaning Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) which advocated for artists’ rights and opposed the Vietnam War, but the only artwork of Andre’s related to AWC that I could find was an appropriated photo of a severely disfigured World War I soldier with a text that reads, “It was no big deal, sir.” Nothing at all about the Vietnamese who were being slaughtered by Americans.

Was there something slightly arrogant about his assumption that I needed to hear his point of view? Or was it a sign that he was unable to shake his guilt? Was this letter the manifestation of a desperate urge to talk about his dead wife with someone who wasn’t in a position to judge him? Was I overreacting because I had been to too many art parties in the 1980s with inebriated male Conceptualists who possessed a seemingly infinite capacity to lecture me on art and life? I didn’t get the sense from what Andre wrote that he was expecting me to write him back. It seemed that he just wanted to talk at me for a moment and intimidate me with legal phraseology so that I wouldn’t reveal his thoughts to anyone else. And oh my, I can imagine that some people reading this now may think that I am being very mean and disrespectful to a great artist who is dead and endured four decades of feminist ire. If you are one of them, don’t worry: There are plenty of homages to Andre for you to draw comfort from. I’ve never joined the feminist bandwagon that has protested Andre’s exhibitions because I believe that they fetishize Mendieta as a victim instead of celebrating her tenacity and resilience as an artist. That said, my reluctance to turn Mendieta into a poster girl for the oppression of all women doesn’t prevent me from resenting Andre’s intrusion into my life. 

It bugged the hell out of me that Andre sought to define Mendieta’s relationship with Cuba and call it “her lost Eden.” The Bible is not exactly what I would use to describe Cuba. Childhood trauma can influence the work of any artist, but Cuba was hardly a paradise for Mendieta, even if her early childhood was a happy and comfortable one. She joined the New York art scene at a time when there was little respect for and even less understanding of contemporary Latin American art. The only Cuban art form that was widely recognized back then was posters made for rah-rah revolutionary rallies and films. Cuba existed for Americans as an idea: a leftwing fantasy about tropical socialism and a Cold War foe for conservatives. For exiles, Cuba was — and still is — a wound. When home is a place you can’t return to, and when your house is no longer yours and your family is scattered and no one in your new environment knows anything about it but insists on spewing political banter and folkloric nonsense about your country, it’s hard to think of it as “Eden” or even a lost one. 

Part of what made the characterizations of Mendieta during Andre’s trial so offensive to me was the assumption that her art was driven unselfconsciously by trauma and her interest in ritual was tantamount to a belief in what his lawyer misrepresented as “voodoo,” according to Robert Katz’s book Naked By the Window (1990).  The mainstream art world had no trouble describing White artists’ interests in Buddhism or Indigenous cultural practices as anthropological, but a Cuban woman artist could be defamed in court as having been driven by impulse. This is much worse than the usual stereotypical characterization of Cubans as hot-blooded or excitable. Mendieta read Cuban author Lydia Cabrera’s El Monte (1954), a widely respected ethnological study of Santeria, during her graduate school studies at the University of Iowa. Her practice was informed by her research into pre-Colombian and ancient Greek art and her embrace of natural elements for her sculptures: earth, fire, water, flowers, and blood. Her trips to Cuba in the last years of her life were bittersweet: Yes, she made friends, saw relatives, and made her rupestrian sculptures in Jaruco, but her relationship with Cuban authorities was tense. When she tried to carry a few family heirlooms back to the United States, they were seized at the airport. Even if being sent away from home as a child and dumped in an orphanage might have made the US feel like hell, Cuba was far from being a paradise for Mendieta. 

“My art will reflect not necessarily conscious politics but the unanalyzed politics of my life.” — Carl Andre

I realize that it is not unusual for readers of published works to write responses to authors and send letters to editors. But I could not accept this note as just another one of them. I’ll never know why Andre wrote to me, but I won’t forget that he did, and how he did it. He is not the only bigshot White male artist who has presumed to know more about my cultural background than I do, but his was an especially unnerving form of mansplaining.

I can’t reproduce the letter in its entirety because copyright does not end with the author’s death. While it wasn’t pleasant to hold that letter in my hand more than 30 years ago, I’m not sorry that I received a small indicator that, whatever happened on that terrible night, Andre felt guilty and lived with that guilt for the rest of his life.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top