During the Paula Cooper Gallery move from SoHo to Chelsea, the owner, Paula, ordered the destruction of 40 blocks of wood (1’ x 1’ x 4’) - a work of art created by the artist Carl Andre whom she represented. Paula’s employees were destroying the work by removing, longitudinally, opposite corners of each block and throwing it all into a dumpster.
I asked the gallery director if I could have some of the wood blocks. Seizing the opportunity to save space in the dumpster, the director told me that I could have them all. When I asked him not to cut the corners, he said that it had to be done so that they could not be sold as a legitimate work by Carl Andre. I remarked that if Paula Cooper could not sell them, how could I? He answered that he had strict orders to destroy the pieces by cutting them all.I took all 40 pieces and decided to use them to build a raised vegetable bed for my wife’s garden. While I was building the bed I was thinking of the connection between Nature, a vegetable garden, Carl Andre, Ana Mendieta’s art, and the recycling of his wood. I could not get her out of my mind and the more I worked on building the garden the more I thought of her and her untimely death.
Ana Mendieta, born in Havana, Cuba, was a performance artist, sculptor, painter and video artist. Best known for her "earth-body" works, Mendieta often focused on a spiritual and physical connection with the Earth. She created female images using natural materials such as mud, sand, twigs and even blood for her paintings and videos.
Ana died from a fall from the 34th floor of her New York apartment, where she lived with her husband of eight months, sculptor Carl Andre. Just prior to her death, neighbors heard the couple arguing violently. There were no eyewitnesses. Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder. A known acrophobic, Ana’s death was nonetheless attributed to a possible accident or suicide.
While working on the garden, I felt as if Nature was guiding me to create a work of art as a tribute to Ana Mendieta. My feelings toward her were mostly linked by the knowledge that neither Ana nor her work had been allowed to shine due to the eclipsing fame of her husband. Although feminists protest at art exhibits of Carl Andre, finances prevail over justice. Had he been found guilty of causing Ana’s death, this would have dealt a devastating financial blow for those who catapulted him into stardom. We live in a world controlled by men, and talented women are perceived as a threat; anyone who sides with feminine issues is condemned to anonymity.
As I lifted one of the heavy blocks of wood, the inspiration came to me as clear as if I were reading instructions. The block that I had just lifted was the only one with a natural crevice caused by the grain of the wood. All I had to do was to follow the grain. With an ax, I started removing the gray weathered layer on the surface of the block. I felt as if I was peeling a fruit, revealing the beautiful pink color of the wood inside. With every blow of the ax, I felt as if I was eliminating every vestige of corruption and at the same time revealing the untouched beauty concealed within. It was an old weathered gray rectangle with dangerous splinters and assaulting corners being transformed into a rounded, pleasing image like the entrance to a womb. The pleasure of divesting the wood of Carl Andre’s touch with every blow of the ax was as inebriating as the elixir of life itself.
I was very young when I came to realize that Nature communicates with me in the form of inspiration. I felt then as I feel now that I am one of Nature’s Messengers, and as such, my duty has been to translate Nature’s messages into a transcendental language that everybody can understand; the language of Art. This revelation drove me to create works of art that expose any form of injustice, abuse or destructive acts against Nature. I consider any form of assault on Nature as a personal offence: a destruction of my source of inspiration. Ana Mendieta was one of us, and they are very few and far between.
When the news of Ana’s death became known it was if I had lost a member of my own family but I didn’t know how to communicate my feelings. I felt as if I had to do some work of art to express my concern, not only because of her demise, but because of the way her death was treated by the media and the rest of the art establishment. When I was given the 40 pieces of wood from Carl Andre’s work I did not think of it as an opportunity to vent my feelings toward him. All I saw was an opportunity to create some art from them. It just happened that my wife needed a raised vegetable garden and I had these pieces of wood with which to build it. Every time I lifted one, Ana’s spirit kept guiding me as if trying to tell me something.
Like Ana, I am a feminist who has come to understand since puberty that women, and what they represent, are the closest we can get to experience Nature’s omnipotence and benevolence. In my quest to find a symbol that would represent all women equally, regardless of physical attributes, I came across the only thing that identifies them, as women at birth: the “Sublime Image.” I decided to adopt this image to represent me and my philosophy. I don’t believe - I know - that there is nothing more powerful than that upon which every woman sits. The Sublime Image is indeed the Seat of Power. This is why all religions and male dominated groups feel the need to vilify this image. The Sublime Image renders men impotent to control their animal instincts. Its sight makes men transparent. Men need it, women have it.
Ana was conscious of the power that Nature bestowed upon her and the context of her art is an indication of this awareness. I could sense through her art her desire to scream it from the highest mountain. But as a female living in a man’s world, her artistic talent was suppressed. I am sure that Carl Andre was aware of it as well. For a man so powerful among his peers, in private Ana was a painful reminder of the contrary.
Recently I came across a revelation concerning the Sublime Image. Until now I had referred to the image formed by the petals that surround the entrance to the birth canal as the Sublime Image. I allude to the labia as petals as if this image was a flower. A more apt name is La Fleur de Vie or Flower of Life. From this moment forward, in honor to Ana Mendieta, I will call the Sublime Image, La Fleur De Vie.
After completing “Ode to Ana Mendieta” I experienced a sense of serenity.
René is a Venezuelan artist and philosopher living in New York. Using art to express his theories, nature and especially women’s issues are at the hub of his philosophy. You can view his website at http://www.reneiamthebestartist.com.