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The Tragic Story of Ana Mendieta Is Uncovered in Death of an Artist

When Ana Mendieta died after a fall from a 34th-floor window in September 1985, she was a rising star in the art world whose promise was tragically cut short. When her husband, high-profile minimalist artist Carl Andre was acquitted of second degree murder three years later, a sort of détente emerged in the art world. His art was still displayed in museums and galleries across the world, but occasionally protests erupted to raise the issue of the artist’s late third wife. It was an uneasy equilibrium that has become increasingly familiar in the post–#MeToo era.

In a new podcast called Death of an Artist, which premieres on September 23, curator and art historian Helen Molesworth revisits that standoff with a focus on illuminating Mendieta’s life and work and documenting the complex reactions to her death among her social set. In new interviews with major art-world figures, like New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl and the anonymous feminist collective Guerrilla Girls, contributions from scholars, and archival audio from Robert Katz, a journalist who interviewed roughly 200 people connected to the couple’s case in the 1980s, it vividly presents the story anew.

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In a video interview, Molesworth told Vanity Fair why she was interested in trying out a new format. “In my museum career, one of the things I really loved to do was give public tours and I think I really honed my ability to talk about works of art in an open language,” she said. “I was interested in seeing if I could migrate to become more of a storyteller, and to see if it was possible to do the visual in the podcast form, something I was interested in experimenting with.”

Molesworth was first approached to work on the podcast with Pushkin back in early 2020, and what followed was a personal journey. She remembers her first introduction to Andre’s work in the 1980s, and describes him as an early artistic “hero” in the first episode for his radical politics and heady approach to art. A few decades later, she was working as a curator at a museum that was considering bringing his retrospective to their galleries, when she started thinking more and more about what her moral responsibility might be when presenting Andre’s work.

So, signing onto work on Death of an Artist was a natural fit. “Selfishly, I knew if I took it on, I’d really have to deal with it,” she said. “If I didn’t take it on, I could continue to just pass it off, but dealing with it was something I was interested in doing.” By the time she finished, she had really confronted “the stark reality” of what happened to Mendieta, and it was “overwhelming.”

Helen Molesworth

By Brigitte Lacombe.

The show also weaves in a third strand, the growth of Mendieta’s legacy after her death. There was one thing that few anticipated back when Andre was acquitted and the community around him closed ranks: Over the next few decades, Cuban-born Mendieta’s work reached a new generation of artists and art historians, who saw its relevance and prescience to the preoccupations of the modern world, like the environment, migration, impermanence, and the body.

Studying the work closely helped Molesworth understand its thematic relevance in ways she hadn’t when she was first introduced to it in the context of second-wave feminism. “I don’t think I saw how important she is when it comes to things like migration, diaspora, the ridiculous fallacy of geography,” she said. “I didn’t understand her as in really thinking about the land, the earth, and environmental issues.”

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