Tag Archives: Calvin Tomkins

Letters to the Editor of the New Yorker, Unpublished

The theme of my previous post, “Still ‘Naked By The Window,'” was the fascination of watching patriarchy take care of its own, in this case tracking the orchestration of efforts, over a period of years, to restore Carl Andre’s personal reputation in advance of his retrospective at Dia, there being no question of needing to restore his artistic reputation which is unquestioned and secure. One step in this process was the publication of “The Materialist,” Calvin Tomkins’  December 5, 2011 New Yorker profile of Andre.

As a result of my post, I was made aware of two letters to the editor of the New Yorker that were sent immediately following the publication of Tomkins’ profile. One was from Mendieta’s gallerists, Mary Sabbatino of Galerie Lelong in New York and Alison Jacques of Alison Jacques Gallery in London, and from Mendieta’s sister and administrator of her estate, Raquelin Mendieta, and one from art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau. Neither letter was published.

The letters are both interesting, they go over similar points but with important different emphases and information, and they contain material that I was not able to articulate as knowledgeably in my brief text. It is important to know what these letters contain, but also important to know that these letters were not published. It is important to know how hierarchies are maintained as much by what is left out of the historical record as by what is allowed in. It is in that spirit that I asked for permission to reproduce these letters here for the record and I thank the signatories for allowing me to do so.

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From: Mary Sabbatino

Sent: Wednesday, December 07, 2011 8:45 PM

To: themail@newyorker.com

Subject: Letter to the Editor

Letter to the Editor: re: December 5, 2011 Calvin Tomkins “The Materialist”

It is disturbing to read how easily Calvin Tomkins, one of the most respected and beloved journalists of our time, fell sway to the same strategy of blaming the victim as was employed by Mr. Andre’s defense team in Ana Mendieta’s murder trial. Equally alarming from a writer and editorial team of such caliber is the repeated presentation of conjecture or opinion as fact “(an) artist who fell from the bedroom window”, “loneliness made Mendieta a rebel,”… “her anger spilled over in public..”– and the omission of crucial facts about the murder investigation. Mr. Tomkins characterizes Mendieta;s art as “morbid”, but would he use the same pejorative lens when discussing a male artist dealing with violence in his work? Regrettably, this reveals an underlying bias, in which Mr. Andre is repeatedly portrayed with positive attributes and Ms. Mendieta with negative ones.

Mr. Tomkins omitted two notable points from Mr. Andre’s recollection of the event. According to Mr. Andre, whose present memory differs significantly from his contemporaneous statements, Ms. Mendieta lost her balance in the action of opening a stuck window in their apartment and fell to her death. This story is in direct contradiction with Mr. Andre’s recorded conversation with the 911 Operator on the night/early morning of Ms. Mendieta’s death. Mr. Andre told the operator that he and his wife were watching television and began to argue, that she went into the bedroom and he followed her. Mr. Tompkins may not have been aware that when the police came to the apartment they noted scratches on Mr. Andre’s face and that no footprints nor fingerprints by Ms. Mendieta were recovered on the windowsills. Because of irregularities with the police’s collection of the evidence and with the search warrant, neither was admissible in the trial, but both were part of the pre-trial hearings. As evidence of Mr. Andre’s community of support, Mr. Tomkins points out that none of Mr. Andre’s former companions would testify against him, but this is not the only possible interpretation. Richard Finelli, the detective who investigated the case for the prosecution, told the artist’s sister, Raquelin Mendieta, that many were reluctant to testify because they feared a negative effect on their art careers.

We are rightly horrified when a woman in Afghanistan is “pardoned” for rape but must marry her rapist. We should reserve at least a shred of indignation that Ana Mendieta’s character, as many victims of rape or domestic violence find out, is on trial all over again.

Sincerely yours,

Mary Sabbatino,

Vice President, Galerie Lelong, New York

Alison Jacques, Alison Jacques Gallery, London, UK

Raquelin Mendieta, Administrator, Estate of Ana Mendieta, Los Angeles, CA

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To the editor:

Unlike all of Calvin Tomkins’ essays on contemporary artists, his recent one on Carl Andre must necessarily discuss the circumstances by which the artist faced the charge of homicide. Acquitted on the charge after two trials, and as all who have written on her death (Tomkins included) acknowledge, the truth of what happened that night will never be known by anyone except by Andre. In this respect, Andre’s own memories seem surprisingly more detailed now then they were at the time of his trials, as the transcripts reveal. This, despite his current problems with memory loss as a result of a fall two years ago. Tomkins’ characterization of Andre as an “invisible” figure in the art world is absurd. His work sells for huge sums, is housed in museums throughout the world, and is discussed in greater or lesser detail in every survey book on contemporary art in the English language. His bibliography is substantial. Dia does not exhibit “invisible” artists.

That said, I am writing only to remark that Tomkins’ treatment of Mendieta, both as an artist and as a person, is in depressing conformity with a certain narrative first developed in the mass media. In this scenario, Mendieta’s ethnicity and character (i.e., young, hard drinking, tempestuous Latina), her own artistic stature (null, aside from her grants) is contrasted with Andre’s own commanding reputation as an internationally lauded and indeed, canonized figure within contemporary art.

Given the figures marshaled in his legal defense, not a few people declined to testify, thinking of its possible effects on their own artistic reputations. Thus, the inequities embodied in the trials themselves are skirted. Although no one was privy to the events of her death, Andre’s character witnesses were a Who’s Who of the art world’s most powerful artists, gallerists, museum professionals, and critics; this tells its own story about art world politics. On the side of the prosecution, a Cuban American family and (implied by Tomkins) some vindictive feminists, a cabal of which, as Tomkins implies, have, like the furies, spitefully pursued the stoically laconic artist.

For the record, too, I would like to mention that Mendieta’s artistic reputation, ended at the age of 36, is constantly growing and is, of course, posthumous.

Sincerely yours,

Abigail Solomon-Godeau

 

Ana Mendieta: a retrospective, catalogue, New Museum 1987

 

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Still “Naked by the Window”

It is always fascinating to watch patriarchy take care of its own. A major retrospective of Carl Andre is about to open at Dia and first off let me just say that it looks like it will be a good exhibition, maybe a really good exhibition, one with some interest to contemporary artists struggling to reconcile the real, theory or something like rigor with materiality.

Now for the patriarchy takes care of its own side of the story: there are many people in the New York artworld who believe that Carl Andre threw his wife Ana Mendieta out the window of their thirty-fourth floor apartment at 300 Mercer Street in the Village, September 8, 1985. At the time of the event and of Andre’s trial for second degree murder, people were divided by personal loyalties that transcended even dearly held shared political beliefs, so that not just prep school classmates such as Frank Stella, Andre’s dealers (Konrad Fischer and Paula Cooper), and ex-wife, but also some major feminists including Lucy Lippard sided with Andre because of their personal relationships with him, romantic and otherwise. Old friendships were shattered by which side people testified for at the trial, the defense or the prosecution. I strongly recommend Robert Katz’s 1990 book Naked By the Window: The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta. It’s really a fascinating book, a rich view of the New York art world at the time, especially if one knew even a few of the cast of characters, which I did, it is very layered, both objective and passionate, impressionistic in structure but very well researched, and convincing. The point where Assistant DA Elizabeth Lederer stood at the window and considered what had happened from the point of view of how short Mendieta was and how high the window sill was, stands out in my memory. The other thing that stands out in my memory of the story as told in the book is when Frank Stella writes a personal check for a quarter of a million dollars to post bail for Andre: “Ordover [Andre’s attorney] was called back and told that the entire quarter of a million in cash could be picked up at once at Stella’s bank.” (Katz, 85). The forces of patriarchy at work.

OK so then flash forward to December 5, 2011 when the New Yorker published “The Materialist,”  a Calvin Tomkins profile of Andre, which was a kind of laying of the ground work for the Dia show. One of the basic premises of the profile was laid out by Andre’s current wife at the outset, that Andre has short-term memory problems as the result of a fall a few years ago, might be vague about a lot of stuff, bla bla.. So that’s patriarchy at work, first, creating a softer image, calling for sympathy, although in fact in the article Tomkins noted that finally he detected no signs of any memory problems.

Tomkins did point out that some of the women who were Andre loyalists were former girlfriends, but at the same time if you read the article it sounds like “some feminists” thought he was guilty and would harass him if they saw him in public places–that is, the implications is that only feminists thought he was guilty, you know, those harpies, whereas in fact the judge’s wording of the verdict (and implications in Katz’s text based on interviews) suggested a relation to the judgement available in British jurisprudence but not in the US, that is, what would have been a verdict of “not proven,” meaning he probably did it, but in the end the verdict was “I have concluded that the evidence has not satisfied me beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.” It was a “he said” situation, there would be no “she said.”

Then today, May 5, 2014, print copy, New York Times, full court press, “Minimalist Retrospective Gets a Master’s Touch,” installation of the show at Dia, Carl Andre is depicted completely differently, as perfectly sharp, no memory problems, totally on top of the installation of the show, “he is as quick-witted and dryly caustic as he was said to be in his youth.” Which is it? Short term memory loss but sharp as a tack when it comes to his retrospective?

I posted a version of this post on Facebook this morning, jumping up from breakfast after reading the New York Times article, and there has been a passionate response (I’ve made the Facebook post public so that the comments thread can be accessed by anyone who is on Facebook ). Some of the comments and also private messages to me were fascinating as they reflected some of the splits of opinion which had riven the artworld at the time. One message to me quoted Richard Prince’s view apparently as expressed in his stream of consciousness blog entries BIRDTALK,  “I don’t know what happen to Carl Andre’s wife. No one will. Lawrence Wiener says Carl didn’t have anything to do with her death, and that’s enough for me.” [I take this quote of Richard Prince in the same light one may take his Playboy joke paintings, as actual sexism or as satire, take your pick or take both]. Others recalled details from the trial, or related personal experiences of what a violent drunk Andre could be (presumably back in the day, before he became a dithery retiree). Another person mentioned an art project by Michael Stevenson, which apparently was based on Katz’s book, and included “a ‘sculpture’ that was a scale model of the window sill,” (unfortunately no image of this work could be found in a Google image search). Another pointed out that “It would seem that the powers that be were waiting for a generation to literally ‘pass’; some of us, however, have confounded them, with our memories fully intact.”

It is an old story that some very good art is made by some very awful people and that people are both good and bad, but it is really important that the story be told, not just that it happened, but the way Carl Andre was protected and continues to be.

 

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