The Fatal Marriage of Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta

By Robert Katz

Atlantic Monthly Press. 428 pp. $19.95

JUST BEFORE dawn in Greenwich Village on Sunday, Sept. 8, 1985, a beautiful, ambitious Cuban-born artist named Ana Mendieta plunged 34 floors to her death. She was 35 years old.

Immediately afterwards, 911 recorded a call from her husband, the well-known minimalist sculptor, Carl Andre, who stated that his wife had committed suicide by "going out" the bedroom window, after they had quarreled about why he was "more exposed to the public."

Wearing his art world uniform, blue overalls, Andre was charged with second-degree murder, arrested and spent an uncomfortable night in the Riker's Island detention center before his dealers and his friend, the celebrated artist Frank Stella, came up with the $250,000 bail.

The much-publicized case had vicious repercussions in the art world: The powerful international art establishment lined up behind Andre (as the "victim of a feminist cabal") while Ana's family, a wide circle of her devoted friends and groups of younger artists were convinced that Andre had shoved his wife out the window.

The evidence against Andre presented in Katz's Naked by the Window is impressive. Two and a half years later however, Andre was acquitted when a top criminal lawyer with no shortage of courthouse savvy was able to convince the judge of that necessary "reasonable doubt." The legal strategy that set Andre free appears to have been the waiving of the defendant's right to trial by jury, thus, in this case, leaving the decision to a skeptical male judge.

Because of a little-known quirk in New York law, with Andre's acquittal all the court records of the case were automatically sealed. So not only was he protected by the law against double jeopardy but in effect he was born again. As the author notes, the acquitting judge "in effect turned back the clock on the case to the moment before Carl picked up the phone and called 911 . . ."

The evidence that failed to convict was circumstantial, true, but nevertheless persuasive: Ana, on discovering that Andre was having affairs with two mistresses, had been collecting documents to use as divorce weapons. A lawyer-friend advised her earlier that night on the telephone to confront Andre so that there might be some pre-trial resolution, but she said she was too frightened -- he tended to be vengeful. The couple consumed quantities of champagne, watched TV, fought; some furniture was overturned; Andre's nose and arm were scratched enough to bleed. Not least, clad in bikini underpants and only 4 feet 10 inches tall, Ana would have been only a head and neck above the level of the window sill.

Four seconds before the crash of her body on the roof of a delicatessen, a witness on the street testified, he heard a woman screaming "No . . . No . . . No . . . No . . . Don't." Many remarked on Ana's fear of heights; she had been making plans to leave Andre's 34th-floor sparse modern apartment for her own cozy 2nd-floor pad on Sixth Avenue. No witness could be found who believed Ana Mendieta was suicidal. On the contrary, she was high on her art, had an important commission and hoped to negotiate in the divorce proceedings that she retain their apartment in Rome.

BECAUSE Ana's family gave Katz access to her memorabilia and because he interviewed many of her acquaintances, she comes alive to the reader as a vibrant, passionate, forthright and slightly bitchy woman. The character of Carl Andre, however, remains a cipher. He -- and several of his supporters -- refused to talk. Consequently Katz had to rely on secondary sources, and here he takes indefensible liberties. Like a novelist he somehow reads Andre's mind, interjecting what "Carl thought" or said here and there throughout.

Unfortunately, outside of the crime accounts, the book sprawls all over the place and falls flat. The art world background is pockmarked by errors and some pretty unforgivable sins of California-style syntax ("Today's victory in court was an inrush of steroids melting the flab on his self-esteem.") Among the errors: Katz in a long sequential diatribe claims Abstract Expressionism had "proved to be a most unAmerican commercial flop" by 1958. Famous artists like de Kooning, Kline, Rothko and Still, Katz says, were still "living in cold-water flats and paying their bar tabs with famous but depreciating paintings." Their dealers were "hard pressed to pay the rent." Like Sidney Janis? None of the above happens to be true; by the late 1950s and the advent of Pop, prices for the major Abstract Expressionist painters' works had risen to five figures and have continued to spiral upwards since.

Other flubs and fluffs: Rothko did not frequent the Cedar Bar; I suspect Clement Greenberg and the feisty ghost of Harold Rosenberg will bristle at the candid camera picture of them as "art solons" bellying up to the bar and "handing down the immutable laws of flatness, inscribing in extravagant prose meant to be eternal how utterly marvelous it was and ladies beware." More quibbles: the Tibor de Nagy Gallery was on 57th St., not 72nd, in 1965. Also the Center for Inter-American Relations on Park Avenue was not a gift of a "Hispanic dowager" but an American Rockefeller who had married the Marquis de Cuevas.

But discounting the art background muckups, why did the author leave dangling a maddening loose end in the drama at hand? Since Katz lectures on "investigative journalism" at Santa Cruz (he thanks 10 of his students for helping with research and claims to have interviewed 230 people), it is hard to see how -- writing a book about a man accused of murdering his wife -- the author did not bird-dog what might have been a crucial bit of biographical information: Katz tells us that Andre's first wife, whom he married in 1959, "vanished without even leaving her name" and by 1964 "the first Mrs. Andre had done her disappearing act, replaced by the second, Rosemarie Castoro." Please, sir, who was the numero uno and which way did she go? Up, down, sideways?

Lee Seldes specializes in reporting on trials and is the author of "The Legacy of Mark Rothko."