Rear Window: The Mystery of the Carl Andre Case
March 29, 1988
It was on the third day of the murder trial that the defendant’s voice was heard in the court for the first and only time. The prosecutor punched a cassette into a cheap portable, and cranked up the volume of the recorded phone call made to a 911 operator on September 8, 1985, at 5:29:26 a.m. The man’s voice, pitched high, is severely distressed, wailing, as he struggles to tell his story. It dissolves into broken cries and moans of pain and bewilderment. His wife just committed suicide, the caller says. What happened, exactly, asks the operator:
“What happened was we had … my wife is an artist and I am an artist and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was and she went to the bedroom and I went after her and she went out of the window,” said Carl Andre, 52, the museum-class Minimalist sculptor whose work is far more exposed to the public than that of his wife, the sculptor Ana Mendieta, whose body moments before had landed on the roof of the Delion Grocery, 32 floors below the couple’s apartment. Twelve hours later, the police arrested Andre for murder.
After two and a half years of investigation and two overturned grand jury indictments, Carl Andre went on trial on January 29. In the absence of crowds and TV cameras like those attending the Robert Chambers trial down the hall, without a jury to grandstand to, the Andre trial went through 40 witnesses in just nine days. “Carl got a Minimalist trial” went the line. Emotionally dense and packed with detail, the trial left observers mesmerized, drained, frustrated, and bewildered by the end of each day.
The prosecution’s case had been shaky from the outset. After the pretrial suppression hearings — when Judge Alvin Schlesinger ruled key evidence and testimony inadmissible — it was weaker still. Then the defense outmaneuvered the prosecution by abruptly requesting a nonjury trial. A jury can be swayed by sympathy for the victim; a judge must look hard to find that the circumstantial evidence proves murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
What did the prosecution have on Andre? A scratch on Andre’s nose; a bedroom in disarray; Andre’s conflicting statements to police and puzzling behavior on the day he was arrested; one witness (who had a history of auditory hallucinations) said he heard a woman screaming “no, no, no, no”; and, finally, the heart of the mystery: how could a four-foot-10-inch tall woman who was mortally afraid of heights fall out of a window that came up to her breast and had a 20-inch deep radiator cover and sill?
It could only have been an accident, a suicide, or a murder. The prosecution tried to prove murder as much by arguing against the other two possibilities as by presenting its shreds of evidence. Carl Andre never took the stand, and there was little testimony about his character. So throughout the trial, the case turned on Ana Mendieta, the dead 36-year-old Cuban-born artist.
Before courtroom spectators who included artists, curators, dealers, and critics, the prosecution and defense argued over the meaning of Mendieta’s art, the source of her inspiration, careerism in the art world, the social life of artists, and the comparative success of Andre and Mendieta. As the lawyers tried to cope with this unfamiliar language, there were inadvertently comic moments. While the defense was preparing to call yet another expert to testify to Andre’s enduring genius, prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer jumped up in exasperation to protest, “I don’t understand this ranking of artists! They’re not like baseball players!”
Jack S. Hoffinger, Andre’s highly regarded attorney, brought in art critic David Bourdon to describe his client as “a modern master.” Hoffinger intimated that Mendieta’s performance pieces and earth works betrayed themes of violence, voodoo, and death wishes. Lederer brought in the new editor of Artforum. As Andre sat impassively, wearing his trademark “artworker” blue turtleneck and blue coveralls, Ida Panicelli testified that his career had peaked — it was Mendieta’s that had been surging.
On February 11, 1988, Judge Schlesinger found Carl Andre not guilty of murder in the second degree. The testimony in the trial had only deepened the mystery about Andre’s actions on that Saturday night and the following Sunday at the Sixth Precinct. The circumstances of Mendieta’s death had grown murkier still; aspects of her personality had become blurred.
Throughout the trial, the relationship between Andre and Mendieta — two generations of artists, two fierce and arrogant temperaments, two heavy drinkers — was an unspoken presence in the courtroom. Judge Schlesinger, who had ruled in the suppression hearings, understood this. So did the lawyers. So did Andre. So did Mendieta’s friends and relatives who came to court every day. And so, presumably, did many members of the art world — not those who took sides without having even met Andre and Mendieta, but those opinionated people who abruptly became so tongue-tied. Particularly women. “If my name is used, I’ll never get shown at Paula Cooper [Andre’s gallery] and the Modern,” said one young woman artist, who like the nearly two dozen artists willing to be interviewed, requested anonymity. “Nonsense,” retorted artist Laurence Weiner, “Carl just doesn’t have that kind of power. They were afraid to speak out in in support of him because they feared the feminist backlash.”
In the days after the verdict, two witnesses whose testimony had been inadmissible agreed to talk. It’s impossible to know whether their statements would have affected the verdict; certainly a jury would have been slowed by them. But the missing testimony reinforced a suspicion that prevailed through the nine days: the murder trial of Carl Andre was actually more about what was not exposed to the public than what was.
“Jumper down at 300 Mercer.” The man in overalls who answered the door of apartment 34-E around 5:40 a.m. on September 8, 1985, was distraught and rumpled, according to police officers. (There were innumerable contradictions in the police officers’ testimony through three grand juries, the pretrial hearing, and the trial. This reconstruction is based on the statements repeated and corroborated most frequently.) The complainant’s hair was messy, and he had a “fresh, wet mark” on his nose. He didn’t smell of alcohol, nor did he seem drunk. He said, “My life is over … my wife is gone … I can’t believe it happened. It’s a tragedy.” Carl Andre then asked the cops if he could wash his hands.
There were numerous empty wine and champagne bottles in the kitchen — some on the counter, some in the garbage. In the bedroom, the window over the bed was wide open. The sheets were strewn about, a chair was overturned. One officer leaned out the window, placing his hands on the sill for safety. When Andre came out of the bathroom, he was noticeably calmer. The officers asked him what had happened. “I think she jumped,” Andre said. Did you see her jump? “No.” Then how do you know? “I just know.”
Andre said he and his wife were watching a movie on TV and having a glass of wine. His wife said she wanted to go to bed and that he should go with her. He didn’t. “… if that’s what she wanted … then maybe I did kill her then. You see, I am a very successful artist and she wasn’t, and maybe that got to her and in that sense I did kill her.” After his wife got up and went into the bedroom, Andre watched the rest of the movie. He looked in the bedroom, and she wasn’t there. He went out to the living room. About 20 minutes later, he checked again and she was still gone, and he called 911.
While another officer phoned for the supervising lieutenant, Andre took a catalogue out of the bookcase. “He said, ‘These are pictures of my work’ — he wanted to show how successful an artist he was. There was one picture in particular … a bunch of boulders in lines, 10 or 20, I don’t know,” testified Officer Michael Connolly. “He says, this is his art, his work.” (Apparently he was showing the officer Stone Field Sculpture, the controversial 1977 outdoor work for which the city of Hartford paid $87,000.)
The police took Andre to the West 10th Street precinct. When the day-shift detectives arrived around 8 a.m., he was sitting quietly, reading a book. Andre told detectives Ronald Finelli and Richard Nieves that he and Ana were sitting at home, watching TV. At about 9:30 they ordered Chinese food. Ana was drinking wine heavily (the level of alcohol in her brain tissue was .18; legal intoxication is .10). They watched the U.S. National Tennis Open semifinals, a Yankee game, Dracula, and Without Love with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. At 3 a.m., Ana said that the acting was good but the plot was absurd and she went to bed. The film was over at 3:30, and he went to the bedroom. She wasn’t there. “Mr. Andre,” asked the detective, “did you look out the window?” No. “Well, what do you think happened to your wife?” I don’t know. “Do you think she went out the door?” No, he would have seen her. “Do you think she took a pill and disappeared?” I don’t know. He repeated the same story he’d told the officers earlier — that 20 minutes later he checked for her again and, without looking out the window, called the police.
“Do you remember what you said when you called 911?” No. “Do you remember when you said you had an argument with her?” “What I said, I said.” When Detective Finelli asked Andre how he had gotten the scratch on his nose, he said he’d been out on the balcony a few days earlier; a big gush of wind rose and the door struck him in the nose.
By mid-morning the police returned with Andre to photograph the apartment. The artist made a few phone calls — none to Mendieta’s family — saying to one answering machine: “Hello, this is Carl. Ana is dead. We’ll have to cancel our dinner engagement for tonight.” A friend of Ana’s named Natalia Delgado phoned. When Carl answered, she asked to speak to Ana. “She’s not here right now,” was the response. Delgado was nonplussed; when she had spoken with Ana around midnight, Ana had asked for a wake-up call so they could continue their conversation. “Ask Ana to call me when she gets in,” Delgado remembers saying. “I’ll give her the message,” replied Carl.
Even though Mendieta’s death was still being called a “fall,” officers were canvassing the building and the neighborhood for witnesses. A doorman was on his way to get coffee at about 5:30 in the morning when he heard “no, no, no, no — as if someone was pleading” and about four seconds later a loud crash.
By mid-afternoon, the detectives said they wanted to run through Andre’s story one more time. Detective Finelli started to take notes, paused and handed the paper and pen to the sculptor: “I says, ‘Mr. Andre, you can write and read English better than I. Why don’t you do it?’ ”
Andre’s written statement essentially recapitulates the story he’d given both at the police station and the apartment. It’s vaguer, though: Instead of saying he waited 20 minutes, Andre writes that “later,” the second time he checked for his wife, he had “the horrible belief” that she had gone out the window. But the account is troubling because it differs from what he said to the 911 operator. There is no mention of a quarrel. There is no indication that he was in the bedroom when she died. He no longer uses the word suicide, leaving open the possibility that her death was an accident. And the major contradiction raised by all his statements to the police: according to his version, the 911 call should have come in at around 4:00 a.m., instead of 5:29.
The detectives alerted the assistant district attorney on duty, Martha Bashford. A little after 6:00 Sunday night, the police video unit arrived to tape Andre making a statement. “Oh shit,” Andre said to the police, “this is serious. I want an attorney.”
A friend’s lawyer showed up and prevented the video statement. Detective Finelli, who noted the scratch on Andre’s nose and one on his arm, as well as one on his back (though this was not mentioned by any other officer), complained to the district attorney that Andre refused to be photographed. “So she says, ‘Fuck him, he’s under arrest.’ ”
A few hours later, Carl Andre was sent to Central Booking, and then to Riker’s Island, where he remained for two nights, when his $250,000 bail was posted by a group of friends, including the artist Frank Stella.
They were a striking art-world couple, a marriage of seeming opposites. He was Scottish and Swedish, a working-class New Englander; severe, opaque, a brilliant autodidact 14 years her senior; and a pioneer in Minimalism, the art movement that her feminist generation broke with. She was a high-born Cuban; instinctive rather than cerebral; a forthright, often obnoxious prankster who, as a friend said, “never hit anyone in the neutral zone.” When he stood next to Ana, Andre looked hulking and overweight; at five foot seven he was 175 pounds, with an unkempt beard down to his chest. His daily uniform of overalls was almost a reverse dandyism, and an effective way of covering what former lovers say was a discomfort with his body. Mendieta was tiny and lithe, 93 pounds, a vegetarian and a jogger, beautiful, with thick straight black hair that hung well below her shoulders, and a fondness for unusual bracelets and dangling earrings.
“You and I are going to be friends,” Mendieta announced to sculptor Marsha Pels when they met in Rome in 1984. Pels, who did become close friends with Ana and who testified at the trial, disliked her instantly. “Ana came across as selfish and egotistical but it was a facade,” she recalled. ”She was really very generous and very vulnerable. She didn’t like to be alone, and she loved to party, to drink. We always had a blast together.
“She was judgmental and honest: if she thought you were full of shit, if she thought you were fat and ugly, she’d say so. She’d bitch, she’d make a stink — she’d send a glass back at a restaurant if she thought it was dirty. She could be endearing, and then you’d want to punch her in the face. She was so small that she looked like a child, so all her power and presence came through her voice. She was incredibly loud, she screamed, she was a little volatile person.”
Ana Mendieta was the pampered younger daughter of an old and remarkable Cuban family that includes a past president of Cuba, a general for whom a municipality is named, and the founder of the country’s first museum. Summers were spent in her maternal grandmother’s beach estate, a 11-bedroom mansion of cedar and mahogany.
This idyllic childhood was ruptured in 1961. Her parents, like thousands of Cubans, feared Castro would ship children to the Soviet Union for education. Ana, then 12, and her older sister Raquel were shipped to the United States in care of Catholic Charities for what the family assumed would be only a year or so. The sisters landed in a refugee camp in Florida and were sent to Dubuque, Iowa, where they spent their teens being shuttled among orphanages, reform schools, and foster homes.
It would be five years before they saw their mother, a professor of physics and chemistry, who fled Cuba to live with them in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and almost 18 before they were reunited with their father. Imprisoned for anti-Castro activities in 1966, Ignacio Mendieta, a lawyer, did not rejoin his family in the States until 1979. Lonely and humiliated, Ana raged at her parents for sending her away. The longing for homeland would inform her politics — as an adult she was sympathetic with Castro, actively organized cultural exchanges between Cuba and the States, and, during her return trips in the 1980s, became an art star there. It would also inform her art. In caves and on hillsides in Iowa, Mexico, and Cuba, she’d use gunpowder to silhouette breasts and wombs — iconographic images of goddesses from Cuba’s ancient Thino Indians, and from santeria, the popular religion of Cuba, a syncretism of Catholicism and African deities.
“She spoke of how it was to be a dark girl in Iowa, to be called a little whore,” recalled another friend, the Cuban-born artist Nereyda Garcia. “She felt insulted and discriminated against by the attitudes in the art world. To them, she was just a loud Cuban. She had a mocha [a small machete for cutting sugar cane], and when her work wasn’t in shows she would joke, ‘This would be so good to hit the Americans with.’ ”
After obtaining a graduate degree in painting from the University of Iowa, Mendieta came to New York in 1978, and, while supporting herself as a waitress, was invited to join A.I.R., a women’s cooperative gallery. Years later she told a friend that at the opening of her first show there, in November 1979, a man walked up to her and announced, “I’m Carl Andre and I would like to take you to dinner.” Amused and put-off, Mendieta turned him down.
The words “courtly” and “old-world romantic” perpetually come up when ex-lovers describe being pursued by Andre, one of the art world’s most notorious womanizers. Mendieta said he made her feel feminine, beautiful, adored, even worshiped. Recounts one former lover, “He wrote incredible love letters and poetry — I still have them. Champagne, roses, expensive restaurants. He’d send me a ticket from Europe, waiting for me to join him. I’d say, ‘Carl, I can’t. I have obligations in New York.’ So he’d fly over and show up on my doorstep to take me back. But when he got me he wouldn’t be all that nice to me, full of mad passion one day, and withdrawn the next. I believe he was a misogynist — women weren’t real to him. He had that incredible, almost compulsive succession of them, and he was unfaithful to almost every one.”
(After Mendieta’s death, the prosecution tried to track down the persistent rumors that Andre had physically abused a few women. Though one influential art-world figure claims he saw Andre hitting a woman on a street in Washington, D.C., some 15 years ago, the woman herself spoke with Jack Hoffinger and denied it. Through his attorney, Andre declined to be interviewed for this article. According to Hoffinger, “There was no confirmation of any beatings or assaults by Carl Andre.”)
Mendieta told everybody that she was seeing a “famous sculptor.” To a woman who’d been fatherless for most of her life, this older man became an approving mentor. Friends say he genuinely respected her work and made introductions for her to his influential acquaintances.
In 1970, when Carl Andre was only 34, he’d had a one-man retrospective at the Guggenheim. Along with fellow Minimalists Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin, Andre’s status as a blue-chip sculptor, his place in the art history books and international museums, was assured. In the art world he remains a well-known, if hardly beloved figure.
Though many find his Marxist line incompatible with the prices his art is commanding and his association with world-class museums, Andre has been politically active for years, particularly in such leftist groups as the Artworkers Coalition and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change. In 1973, as an anti-Nixon protest, he made a sculpture with 100 pounds of cottage cheese and 50 pounds of ketchup. In 1976 Andre helped organize a May 1 demonstration to protest the Whitney Museum’s “200 Hundred Years of American Sculpture” show. Artists went up to passersby in Soho, handed them longstem red roses, saying “Happy May Day” — an action that an old friend, the artist May Stevens, describes as “typical Carl: that strange offbeatness, not very political, but kind of gallant.”
Those who have known him for two decades describe Andre as withdrawn and dignified, spellbinding and charismatic, but, said a man who’s played poker with him, “essentially unknowable.” “Carl is brilliant and not at all likeable,” says a crusty old friend. “I’ve had fights with him and he has a certain intellectual arrogance. He says things people don’t want to hear. He carries a certain mystique. He’s a pompous, isolated character, peculiar, shy, dependent on a small core of friends who don’t feel all that close to him.” Laurence Weiner, a longtime friend who testified for Andre, commented that “he’s extremely eccentric and ritualistic. You could set your clock by when Carl goes to the post office everyday.”
In public he has been characteristically reticent about his own working-class childhood in Quincy, Massachusetts. Andre went to Phillips Andover Academy on scholarship, graduating in 1953, then left Kenyon College after less than one semester. He eventually came to New York where he worked as a freight brakeman and conductor for the Pennsylvania Railroad in the early ’60s. Meanwhile, he was mixing with the art bar scene at Max’s Kansas City and the Cedar Tavern and arriving at his mathematically precise, factory-tooled, apersonal, ground-hugging sculptures. Minimalist art, which rose as an elegant, impersonal, and theoretical retort to the romantic excess of Abstract Expressionism, had triumphed in the mid- to late ’60s. By mid-decade, Andre had become well off.
Mendieta’s own career did not take off as rapidly as Andre’s. But in less than five years, she’d won guest-artist appointments, two NEA grants, a Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1983 the prestigious Prix de Rome, which provided her with bed and board for a year at the American Academy in Rome. Andre didn’t want her to go, she told her sister; he said he was lonely and always needed to have someone around him. They broke up. He wooed her long distance, and they reconciled, only to split a year later when Mendieta accused him of having affairs in New York while she was away. Mendieta stayed on in Rome for a second year, and Andre went to Berlin on a fellowship. They traveled together in Europe and patched things up. Mendieta told friends that the commitment of marriage would make Andre faithful.
They were married in Rome on January 16, 1985 — Ana’s first marriage, Andre’s third. That night they attended a gallery opening that celebrated a joint book of their lithographs, Duetto Pietro e Foglie. The night before their wedding, a radiantly happy Mendieta telephoned her mother in Cedar Rapids to break the news. Then Andre got on the phone. “I want to marry your daughter,” he said, “because I think we have so much in common.”
“Oh Ani,” teased her mother, “does that mean he has your bad temper, too?”
In the first few months of the marriage, Mendieta was ecstatic. Between their two worlds — in New York and Europe, his well-heeled dealers and collectors and Mendieta’s connections in feminist, Latin, gay, and performance art circles, plus their mutual ties to leftist groups — they socialized with an extraordinary range of people.
Mendieta, whose idol was the feminist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, was vociferous about presenting herself as a Cuban woman, and yet it was that identity, she felt, that shut her out of the art establishment. “It was her biggest conflict,” said her friend Nereyda Garcia. “She thought she could sit at all those big fancy dinner parties with Carl Andre and still be Ana Mendieta. It backfired.”
A friend of theirs ruefully observed that, “They both had fierce, oversized artist’s egos” — that blazing confidence in their own talent, combined with a fine-tuned insecurity that could pick up the only criticism in a roomful of applause — “and they were drinking partners.” Though Mendieta could spend a social evening knocking back wine spritzers, she would accelerate with Andre. He was such a heavy drinker, says an ex-lover, that he occasionally had alcoholic blackouts. Often when they were out in restaurants, they would drink and argue about art, politics, each other, their voices growing louder, more derisive and taunting, the quarrels taking on an erotic charge. Mendieta, who loved to shock, enjoyed an audience. She would be the attacker, but Carl, as mortified dinner guests have recounted, could respond in kind. “Ana could outshout him,” says a friend. “But Carl could go for the jugular.”
By the mid-’80s, Andre, whose work was in almost every major museum collection in Europe, complained bitterly to friends about his declining recognition and slumping sales in the American art market, which was in the first flush of Neo-Expressionism. Mendieta’s list of grants and group shows was impressive and growing and in her two years in Rome, she’d had three gallery shows.
By the summer of 1985 she’d decided to move there permanently. Though she fretted that the New York art world would forget her, she felt at ease in a Latin climate. She spoke fluent Italian and eagerly chauffeured her visitors around the city in her VW. And she’d made a breakthrough with her sculpture: for years her female forms had melded with natural settings and eroded with them too. But in Italy she’d brought nature into her studio, working with freestanding objects like tree trunks and sand molds in the shape of leaves. She was also preparing an outdoor commission for MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Although Andre would maintain his New York apartment, they had rented a new one in Rome. At the end of August she returned to New York for a brief visit and to tie up some business arrangements.
According to testimony in the trial, Mendieta had numerous appointments during the week of September 1. Friends said she was effusive, happily chattering about her plans. On Tuesday, September 3, she stopped by her favorite Cuban restaurant, Sabor, to arrange a dinner party for 12 friends the following Sunday night. On Wednesday, she spoke with Marsha Pels about moving things out of her old, prenuptial apartment into Andre’s, so Pels could sublet it. On Thursday, Andre and she dined with the artists Nancy Spero and Leon Golub at Janice’s Fish Place.
Also on Thursday night, according to testimony from a neighbor down the hall, Mendieta ran down the corridor crying and screaming, “I’m going to do it, I’m really going to do it.” Friday morning she called Pels. She couldn’t really talk then, she said, but there’d been a change in plans and she was going to move her things “the other way.” Could they meet on Monday afternoon? On Friday night, she and Andre dined at Pirandello with the painters May Stevens and Rudolf Baranik.
Saturday morning she jogged in Washington Square Park, and that afternoon she spoke with her sister, Raquel Mendieta Harrington. She was pressed for time since she was flying back to Rome on Thursday. Ana would be having Sunday brunch with friends at noon; the dinner party was set for eight. Could they get together Sunday afternoon at three? Saturday night around midnight she spoke in Spanish for about 20 minutes with her friend in Chicago, Natalia Delgado. And by 5:30 that Sunday morning, Ana Mendieta was dead.
During the Carl Andre trial last month, every morning would begin something like this: prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, a 35-year-old senior staff attorney, scarcely taller than Mendieta herself, would briskly march into Part 93, either lugging an oversized model of the Mercer Street high rise or pushing a shopping cart full of folders. Jack Hoffinger, a dapper, sixtyish, silver-haired six-footer who is vice-president of the New York Criminal Bar Association and on the faculty at Columbia’s law school, would soar in with his team, carrying handsome leather boxes full of documents. Andre, reading either the Times or The New Republic, would already have been there. And waiting impatiently for them all, his bespectacled eyes gleaming, as if he’d just swallowed his morning glass of lemon juice, would be the Honorable Alvin Schlesinger.
“Mr. Hoffinger!” he would scold, during one endless cross-examination, “I used to live in the faith that there was an end to everything, good and bad. Well, I’m losing my faith!” And on other occasions: “Miss Lederer! I’ve heard your objection and sustained it! Don’t look so anguished!”
She certainly had good reason. The assistant district attorney from whom Lederer inherited the case had obtained and then lost two grand jury indictments. The judge who’d overturned them (before Lederer herself made the third one stick) wrote that this was “a close circumstantial case.” The original police work had been sloppy — they didn’t photograph the kitchen full of wine bottles or give Andre a breathalizer test, so there could be almost no testimony by the prosecution in the trial about his behavior when drunk — and their memories of key details didn’t improve over two-and-a-half years. And, after police canvassed neighbors and residents at the 35-story building, they’d produced only one witness, of sorts. He’d managed to hear the short screams, identifying them as a woman’s voice, from 34 flights below, a distance longer than a football field. Moreover, he had problems of his own.
So by the time prosecutor Lederer crawled out from the preceding week of pretrial, suppression hearings, only a fool would have bet she could still prove murder beyond a reasonable doubt. (Dealers and artists said the prosecution was seeking witnesses up through to the last day of the trial.)
Schlesinger had ruled inadmissible the set of partial fingerprints found on the bedroom windowsill because the search warrant didn’t specify dusting. The identity of the prints (possibly those of the cop who’d leaned out the window) weren’t as important as what they indicated was missing: if Ana Mendieta had jumped from the window, why were no footprints found? (“Negative evidence,” the prosecution would have argued, suggesting Mendieta had been thrown out or pushed.)
But what hobbled the prosecution most was that the substance of the conversations Mendieta had with her sister and Natalia Delgado the day before she died were ruled out as prejudicial hearsay. There went Mendieta’s “state of mind” and a possible scenario for a murder. Without elaborating, Raquel Mendieta Harrington could only testify that on Saturday afternoon, “Besides the fact that she was very angry and spiteful towards her husband, she [Ana] was in good spirits about the rest of her life.”
If a defendant does not take the stand, the prosecution cannot explore his character in depth. So Lederer, working backwards and forwards in time, built her case around the victim. She recreated the last week in the life of Ana Mendieta, even as her witnesses painted a dramatic (but judiciously sanitized) portrait of a “vibrant, forceful, independent young woman,” an ambitious artist. An artist who — in contrast to Andre’s description of her as despondent over her career — was well on her way up.
Witness after witness, both for the prosecution and for the defense, testified that Mendieta was afraid of heights and avoided standing near windows. In August 1985, narrated Marsha Pels, she and Ana were going to take a vacation at a cliffside house on an island. But halfway up the footpath, Mendieta screamed. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” she said. “I’m an acrophobiac.” She froze, and Pels had to take her by the hand as if she were a child and slowly walk her the rest of the way up. They left the next day, because Mendieta could not bear to go up and down the path to the beach.
While Lederer’s courtroom style was to stand stock still, back stiff, arms crossed, and drill away, Hoffinger would swoop and pace, getting worked up, throwing his shoulders and long arms skyward, then come to a sudden halt, push his glasses up on his forehead, wheel and face the witness. His portrayal of Mendieta was not nearly so sanguine. Her traumatic childhood, he suggested in his own presentation and as he cross-examined her friends and family, left her full of resentment. She was angry at men, particularly her father, with whom she’d broken because of their differing positions on Castro (in fact, Mendieta had reconciled with her father a year before he died). Why else would she drink so much? And her behavior when she drank!
His witness, Dr. Filip Bool, chief curator of the Museum of the Hague in Netherlands, recounted a March evening in 1984, when the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was hosting a dinner in honor of the Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt. Everyone was eating rijstafel and drinking beer, but “Carl and Ana were drinking wine. At a certain moment, in front of 75 people, Ana Mendieta stood up on her chair, very excited, very unexpected, and she did fall down with this chair.” How was the behavior between the two, asked Lederer. “Carl wasn’t too glad with the food … I don’t know what she was doing, what was the reason for the chair. She was a Latin American or South American type.”
Before a courtroom filled with well-known figures from the avant-garde, feminist, and Hispanic art worlds — Yvonne Rainer, Maria Irene Fornes, Barbara Kruger, B. Ruby Rich, Lynne Tillman, Marina Gutierrez, Howardena Pindell — Hoffinger tried to turn some of Mendieta’s art against her, particularly the body works from the mid-’70s. “Did you know she used her own body … to depict blood running down her face? … That she created art … in which her own body was lying face down, melding into the earth?” And he also went after Mendieta’s fascination with primitive religions and rituals, particularly santeria (which he kept calling voodoo). Didn’t she tell people she could cast spells?
He called Alice Weiner, who with her husband Laurence, has been a close friend of Andre’s for over 20 years. In late May or early June of 1985 when Mendieta was visiting New York, Weiner testifed, they went to a party together and began talking. Mendieta said, “‘I have this funny feeling … I don’t have a lot of time left, I want to get my work done.’ She said it had something to do with … falling out a window from a great height.'”
On a Monday morning midway through the trial, Lederer, who’d assumed a hollow-eyed stony mask, strode into court with a new manicure, her nails now fighting-angry red. The battle of the expert witnesses was on, as each side tangled over the scraps of evidence. Lederer got the testimony of Hoffinger’s expert “human factors engineer” kicked out. Then his medical examiner noted that the autopsy reported Mendieta’s bladder was empty: since urine fills at 1 cc. per minute, she must have gone to the bathroom just before she went out the window. But Lederer brought in a toxicology report that indicated that 70 ccs. of urine had been removed from Mendieta and sent to the lab.
And about that mark on Andre’s nose: scratch, scrape, or pimple? Laurence Weiner testified that on that Friday or Saturday he’d run into Carl, who had a reddish blotch on his face and appeared to be suffering from prickly heat or eczema. But Lederer pressed Weiner into admitting that maybe the mark was on the cheek near Andre’s sideburn, he couldn’t be sure. And about the screams. The doorman said that on the morning of September 8, his birthday, he was on the way to get coffee, when he heard a woman pleading “no, no, no, no,” from above on his left, followed almost immediately by a crash. Then Hoffinger brought out the doorman’s fondness for alcohol and history of being hospitalized for auditory hallucinations. The doorman stoutly maintained that he hadn’t suffered from hallucinations since 1981, when he began taking medication regularly. Later, Hoffinger called Andre’s former next-door neighbor Bobby Tong, who testified that he and his business partner had been up all night on Saturday, September 7, sending telexes to Hong Kong. They heard no screams, no arguments. But at 5:30 he heard a window being slammed open, and then a crash.
A few days after Tong’s testimony, Lederer announced she’d learned that his business partner, Angela Wu, hadn’t even been in the country on September 7. And though Tong said he’d dissolved his firm, he actually had been fired for stealing checks. Wanting to recall him to the stand, she sent police to the address he’d given in court, but they could not find him.
On February 10, each side offered Schlesinger their summations, which amounted to radically different versions of the death of Ana Mendieta and the behavior of Carl Andre on September 8, 1985. Point by point, Hoffinger went through the circumstantial evidence, evaporating it. The bedroom didn’t show signs of a struggle — a stool next to the bed had a lamp perched on it — but was a typical early-morning mess, the clutter of two artists getting ready to travel. Andre’s questionable scratches? There had been no tissue found under Mendieta’s fingernails, and if they’d fought, wouldn’t a woman of her agility, fearing for her life, have raked him? As for Andre’s conflicting statements — even innocent people have been shown to cover up guilt. Such statements are the weakest form of evidence and must be substantiated by the strongest evidence. Andre had probably passed out in front of the TV. Twenty minutes? Carl Andre didn’t wear a watch! He woke up when he heard the crash. And phoned the police. He was groggy and in shock. “These statements aren’t inconsistent. If they are … they don’t rise to the level of murder.”
Instead, suggested Hoffinger, Mendieta’s death was an accident or a possible “subintentional suicide.” She had been drinking and went to sleep. (There was a T-shirt hanging on the doorknob, a head indentation on one pillow.) It was a hot summer night. The temperature at 5:30 a.m. was 78 degrees, humidity 88 per cent. She woke up and went to the bathroom to urinate. She climbed up on the radiator in front of the sill to open the window. In the morning darkness, still drunk, sleepy, her visual acuity was off. “She slammed the window open with both hands, her body swiveling, and hurtled out of the window.”
After a brief recess, Lederer came roaring back. The radiator in front of the window was two-feet, 11 inches high, and it’s surface made the sill 20 inches deep. “For Ana Mendieta to fall would require more than half of her body to go over the ledge.” There had been no testimony indicating that she’d even go near a window, only that Andre, who disliked air-conditioning, usually kept the windows open.
“He is a man who chooses his words carefully,” said Lederer. “He was in that bedroom when she went out the window,” referring to Andre’s statement on the 911 tape. Throughout the long day with the police, he distanced himself further from that version, from the time and circumstances of her death. When the police arrived at his apartment, just 10 minutes later, he was already backing away. “‘I think she committed suicide, I think she jumped … I just know.’ ” By late afternoon, in his written statement, he offered a particularized account of what they ate, and when, and what they watched, who starred in the movies, even reviewed them. But his description of Mendieta’s death was “cloudy.”
And there still remains the unexplained hour and a half between when he claimed he called the police and when he actually did. “Are we honestly to accept the unbelievable conceit and arrogance of the defendant, that merely because he has this conversation with his wife saying he is more exposed to the public, that that should cause her to get up from the table, walk into the other room, climb up on the sill, and dive out that window?”
Lederer offered a different scenario: “We know Ana was angry at Carl … that when intoxicated she became caustic and taunting.” Perhaps Mendieta said something that cut Andre to the quick, and it escalated into a full-scale fight. He had a scratch on his nose and one on his arm. She was either too drunk or too small to defend herself successfully.
So the mystery of Ana Mendieta’s death had come to this: How could an acrophobe conceivably climb onto a windowsill that looked out on a 34-story drop? But how could Carl Andre possibly have lifted her — whether she was asleep or resisting him — more than three feet and forced her out over a 20-inch ledge? (The body was so badly damaged on impact that it was impossible to know if Mendieta had been assaulted prior to the fall.)
The next day, before a packed courtroom, Judge Schlesinger ruled that the evidence did not satisfy him beyond a reasonable doubt, so he found the defendant not guilty. In the ensuing tumult that spread through the courtroom, Carl Andre hurried out, saying only, “Justice was served. Justice was served.”
A few days after the trial, both Raquel Mendieta Harrington and Natalia Delgado agreed to discuss what they couldn’t testify about at the trial. They repeated the conversations they’d had with Mendieta in late May and June, 1985, around the time she’d mentioned her premonition of dying to Alice Weiner (many of Mendieta’s friends believed her to be slightly psychic), as well as the conversations on September 7.
During her June visit to New York, less than five months after her wedding day, Mendieta told them her marriage was in trouble. She was convinced that Andre had a girlfriend in Berlin and one in New York. But when she’d consulted a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, she learned that the marriage was too new for her to collect a settlement. She wanted at least a year’s rent in Rome from him. She’d have to sue Andre for adultery and provide proof — even photographs of Andre in flagrante delicto. “She said she was beyond being sad, she was really angry,” remembered Harrington. “She’d found letters, postcards, and two nude photographs of the woman in Germany.” Mendieta tried to entice Natalia Delgado to be an accomplice in a wild plan: “She wanted the two of us to disguise ourselves, follow him, photograph him, and then take off our disguises so he’d know she’d caught him. She needed someone to help her get away, fast — she said he had a terrible temper. I said, ‘Ana, you’re crazy!’ ”
Mendieta saw Andre intermittently over the summer in Europe. When she got back to New York, she spoke with her sister on Saturday afternoon, September 7. “Ana said that things had gone from bad to worse and that Carl was a compulsive liar. ‘Everyone in the art world thought he was so nice and so generous,’ she said, ‘I’m going to let them know what he’s really like.’ She said she was going to expose him.”
Raquel asked Ana why she didn’t confront Andre. Mendieta replied, “‘There’s something big happening in my career through some people Carl knew, something in northern Europe. I can’t screw that up. But don’t worry, I’m going to hire a detective and divorce him next spring.’
“Then she said, ‘Carl’s here. Let’s meet tomorrow.’ ”
By 12:30 or so on Saturday night when she spoke to Natalia Delgado, Mendieta had been drinking. “She said there was no possibility for the relationship. She had sufficient evidence collected for the divorce — charge slips, phone bills, pictures, and postcards. I said, ‘Why don’t you confront him and see if you can work things out?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, he’ll get so angry, I’d feel safer doing it another place.’ I told her I knew about a woman with an unfaithful husband who decided to stick it out so she’d be well off. Ultimately she was wretched. I said, ‘Confront him or forget about it and get out.’ ”
That night Raquel, who was six months pregnant, couldn’t sleep. So she watched a late movie called Without Love with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. As Raqucl recalls it, the film was about a young widow (Hepburn) who rents out a room in her basement to a scientist (Tracy). They work on a successful project and travel together, promoting it. But people keep wondering why they don’t get married. So they do, just for business. She falls in love with him, but he’s detached and nasty to her. “At 3 a.m., I didn’t want to watch anymore,” recalled Raquel, “because it reminded me of Ana and Carl. So I went to bed.”
On Sunday afternoon the family, who lives in Westchester, arrived in the city late, getting to Mendieta’s old apartment around 4 p.m. They waited for more than an hour, wondering if Ana had already come and gone. Around 5 p.m., they left a note on her door, went out to supper, and returned home after midnight.
Around 1 a.m. Monday, September 9, the phone rang. It was a Detective Finelli from the Sixth Precinct, and he had some bad news.
Almost two and a half years after she died, Ana Mendieta had her first one-woman museum show. The ample and stunning retrospective, which included an hour-long biographical video, opened on November 20, 1987, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. In the catalogue essay, art critic and co-curator John Perreault wrote, “She was well on her way to proving that a woman artist, an artist with Third World roots, and a so-called minority artist could establish herself as an innovator. Her artwork is a significant addition to twentieth-century art: it is expresssive without being maudlin; it taps primitive imagery and sources of energy without being exploitive. Mendieta did not appropriate; she found her own images of power and meaning.” The show closed on January 24, 1988, five days before the trial opened. The show was reviewed enthusiastically in Artforum, the Voice, and The New York Times. Mendieta’s oeuvre, owned by her family, has been catalogued and stored in a warehouse, awaiting future showing.
On the day Mendieta’s retrospective opened, the word SUICIDE had been scrawled in black paint on the sidewalk in front of the museum.
At art world dinner parties and openings, people took hardline pro-Carl or pro-Ana positions, convinced they knew what had happened by the window ledge at 5:30 a.m. on September 8, 1985. The artist and the art had become indistinguishable: Mendieta symbolized “the murdered feminist Third World martyr,” commented the painter Leon Golub. For others, he said, who considered Mendieta’s art “self-indulgent” and therefore believed she had commmited suicide, “Carl represented the purest embodiment of Minimalists, and so his fall was all the more shocking. He’ll be seen as a tragic Dostoyevskian figure, who has gone into the depths and come out of them making renewed, even purer sculpture.”
Among the many people who knew Mendieta and Andre, friendships ruptured, unexpected alliances formed. Some, who were pained, confused, uneasy about how to call this, preferred to be publicly neutral. They mourn Ana’s loss, but say that Carl has suffered, too. “Ana used to say to me, ‘Now, be nice to Carl!’ ” recalled an old friend of both. “So whenever I think of blaming him for her death, I wonder if Ana’s up in heaven, looking down at me and saying, ‘Now, be nice to Carl!’ ” Still, the pervasive suspicion remains that certain artists, critics, and dealers did not cooperate fully with the police. The art community, as one source close to the investigation put it, was “incredibly self-serving and cowardly.”
On February 10, the day before the verdict, a one-man show of Andre’s work opened at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. Throughout the trial, his dealer, Paula Cooper, showed a modest Andre from 1986, priced at $16,000; his prices, she said, range from $4000 to $250,000. In a February show of Minimalist sculpture, the Sperone-Westwater Gallery showed a 1968 piece, 2002 Slope (five steel plates placed on the floor), for $135,000; a 1975 work, The Way North, East, and South, (three red cedar uncarved logs) sold for $37,500. Some critics and Minimalist artists have noted that the art market has started swinging back toward Minimalism.
A powerful collector and patron, who has followed Andre’s career closely over the years commented, “I hope the resolution of this particular situation frees him. He’s exhibited very little in the last few years, you know. I thought she was a terrible artist, really.
“Carl is an American romantic as well as being a Minimalist. He came from a working-class background and had a chance of fulfilling the American dream. He can be naïve, like a child, and take a childish delight in things. I always thought he made a lousy Marxist. He’s not phony — he’s very sincere! He has such courtly, beautiful manners. I just care that he makes good art.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2020