Who is Ana Mendieta?

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Who is Ana Mendieta? brings the story of its eponymous central character into the public eye once again as a graphic novel detailing her career as an artist and her unsolved death.

In 1951, Theodore Adorno asserted that “every work of art is an uncommitted crime.” The claim is powerful, not just in its insight, but in its exclusion of creative works made in the service of normative values. Propaganda, pop culture, are omitted by Adorno’s criteria.

2010’s Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, by Sara Marcus, set the tone for the 2011 documentary !Women Art Revolution (a film by Lynn Hershman) and MOMA’s 2011 rescreening of The Heretics (directed by Joan Braderman). The two films reassert the influence of women artists, ’60s forward, rekindling a revolution—not just feminism but a wholesale social insurgency—that is remembered in the haze of whitewash. Given our own era, heavily dominated by corporation and consumerism, the reminder is life itself: the revolution was going down, it was underway.

The difficulty: bringing radical thinking and radical works of art to the mainstream. Mainstream distribution—the arts are no exception—requires a product that’s market and advertising friendly. If a work of art eludes market value, longevity falls to the discretion of historians, academics, and popular opinion; Sotheby’s has no vested interest.

In Who is Ana Mendieta?, the Feminist Press seeks popular opinion through the graphic novel. The newly released title launches a series, Blind Spot, that will invoke (in the words of the press release) “the spirit of revolutions past.” The cleverness of the vehicle is twofold: the use of broadly appealing comic and true crime elements; the direct appeal to a youthful audience seeking alternatives in the limited category of graphic books. Hill & Wang (Macmillan Publishing), with recent graphic biographies of Malcolm X, Trotsky, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and “The Beats,” paves the way for radicalism in graphic non-fiction. The Blind Spot series, if Who is Ana Mendieta? is representative, brings dynamism and creative kicks to the graphic biography, which is all too often academic and artistically lackluster.

Mendieta, a New York feminist artist native to Cuba, is an obvious standard-bearer. Her prescient “earth-body” works—live sculpture, performance and documentation—feature her own body and the natural world. (New York University hosted an exhibition of Mendieta’s projects, “Where is Ana Mendieta?” in October of 2010.) Mendieta’s concerns and interests—alternative creative modes, the mysticism and magic of close-to-the-soil religions, the biological essence of life—are firmament to today’s arts world; a major retrospective of Mendieta’s 70 films is inevitable.

Mendieta’s ranging, decaying, breathing projects are counterpoint to the works of Carl Andre, with whom she shared a tempestuous six-year relationship. If Mendieta’s maximal projects didn’t quite have a market solution (what to sell?), Andre’s minimalism offered the perfect entrepreneurial explanation: less costs more. In 1985, the couple on the brink of divorce, Mendieta mysteriously fell from the window of Andre’s 34th-floor apartment. While Andre was acquitted of her murder in 1988, Mendieta’s controversial death crystallizes the political position of the Blind Spot series. The question, the history untold—whatever the answer—is where we begin.

Illustrated by Caro Caron, and scripted by Christine Redfern, Who is Ana Mendieta? resists passing judgment on Andre. Rather, the book looks at the death and scandal in the larger context of an art world and culture not nearly self-aware enough. The infuriating failings of the police are indicative of an establishment simultaneously self-righteous and inept. Mendieta, as an artist, had made her own body, prostrate, the subject of her documentary investigations—film and photograph. In a nauseating irony, the performance artist’s scene of death wasn’t photographed by the forensic team.

Providing salient interview fragments and facts, Who is Ana Mendieta? is unhindered by a reductive “story.” Even Harvey Pekar, in his Hill & Wang graphic treatment of The Beats: a Graphic History, was force-fit into the narrative assumptions of the A&E biography: artist suffers, artist redeemed through recognition, artists suffers, etc. The model is in itself an arm of conservative propaganda: creativity is unhappiness, a sin that must be punished, or relieved through broad cultural acceptance; the artist must conform. The subtle insurgence of Who is Ana Mendieta?, and presumably the Blind Spot series, is the co-option of the pulp journal, which allows for a dissemination of information without a preordained moral.

In last year’s Graphic Woman, Hillary Chute explores 21st century autobiographical comics by women. Chute traces a weave of aesthetics and politics, which, with the dissolution of the American Comics Code in 2010, will only increase in the graphic category. With its considered construction and vivid reportage, Who is Ana Mendieta? heralds a better possible future, for the graphic book, for the arts, for the record of history, and for the revolution.

John Reed is the author of the novels, A Still Small Voice, The Whole, the SPD bestseller, Snowball's Chance, All the World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, and Tales of Woe. He has been published in Paper Magazine, New York Press, the Brooklyn Rail, Artforum, Bomb Magazine, Playboy, Art in America, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other venues and is current member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. More from this author →