Boil down art, all and any art, to its purest essence, and it's nothing more than a gesture that affirms a human ego. You do something to something, and thereby leave a mark upon the world. All of art's other goals, functions and aspects -- pleasing gods or creating beauty or crafting a commodity or exploring an idea -- come after that blunt fact. Any masterpiece, and every piece of schlock as well, has at its heart the graffiti artist's tag: "Yo, I'm Michelangelo." "Picasso was here!" "This is Pollock's turf." Or even "Feast them eyes on Grandma Moses."
Few artists have ever captured that fundamental, peculiar essence of art as powerfully as Ana Mendieta, whose performances and installations are the focus of a comprehensive retrospective that opened Thursday at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.
There's no point beating about the bush: Mendieta is still best known to most newspaper readers for how she died. In 1985, the 36-year-old artist fell 34 stories from a New York apartment building; her husband, Carl Andre, the great minimalist sculptor, was tried and eventually acquitted -- in court, if not necessarily in the public mind -- of her murder. Mendieta's posthumous notoriety certainly helped spread word of her art. But it took this show, organized by Hirshhorn curator Olga Viso, to make me fully lament her the notoriety of her death. I left the Hirshhorn wishing she'd had a duller but longer and more productive life. This exhibition finally gives us the chance to take the measure of the art, and leave the tabloid story of the artist out of it.
Which doesn't mean Mendieta as a person isn't present in the show.
Throughout her work, Mendieta sets her body down in nature and then records its simple presence on the planet. There are photographs that document her lying naked on the ground, almost hidden by the wildflowers stuck between her legs and clutched between her arms and body.
A three-minute color film, shot on the modest Super 8 stock Mendieta always favored -- and now preserved on digital video -- shows the naked artist floating in a burbling creek.
Other pieces leave the artist herself out of the picture, but record a trace she's left behind.
In one series, begun in the early 1970s when she was still a student in the experimental "intermedia" program at the University of Iowa, she dipped her hands in red paint mixed with blood, then dragged them down the wall or along a piece of paper stuck to it. This is art's fundamental proclamation, "I was here," captured using everyone's most basic tool, the hand, in our most immediately available and instantly impressive pigment, blood.
Mendieta also had a branding iron made that mimicked her handprint, and used it to burn her mark into the ground or onto the blank pages of a book.
Eventually, Mendieta developed a kind of surrogate for her own presence, which she called a "silueta." It was a generic sign or icon of the supine female form, just legible as marking the contours of a human body. It was a shape Mendieta could cut into mud, or outline in wet sand, or carve into a cave wall. She could render it on the ground in burning cloth, or build a kind of silueta scarecrow, cover it in fireworks and splash her body's outline across the evening sky. With these silhouettes, it's no longer a case of "Here I am." It's not even "Ana was here." It's the less specific "Someone has been by."
The silueta, now almost a generic form, begins to distance the artist herself from the mark she leaves behind. Mendieta's no longer acting as a kind of distillation of the heroic Jackson Pollock, whose ego-laden drips she had reduced to a single, bloody, hand-shaped smear. The siluetas aren't much about the person that made them. They're more like the prehistoric human hands we find outlined in pigment on a cave wall. We don't take pleasure in these kinds of ancient markings because of how they look or even for what they tell us about their makers. We just marvel that they're there, and love the way they point back at the absent ancestor who made them.
And now a caveat: My reading of Mendieta's work has nothing to do with how she billed herself or with how she's almost always talked about. She was often inspired by portentous talk of timeless human symbols and unchanging psychic archetypes: The pseudo-anthropology of Carlos Castaneda was a favorite source, along with the so-called "central" (read "vaginal") ideology of early feminism, with its mumbo-jumbo about earth goddesses and a mythic, rosy past when women ruled the world and men were not yet sexist brutes. Mendieta and her fans have also cited sources for her art, and explanations of its meanings, based in the "traditional" native cultures of Latin America. Mendieta's trips to Mexico, and her study of various Afro-Cuban rituals, are supposed to have infused her art with potent insights into her ethnic roots -- even though she was born into the well-off Cuban middle class, whose links are arguably closer to Columbus and his butchers than to the island natives they exterminated. Her roots are even further from the very different Indians who managed to hang on in distant Mexico or to the blacks imported to Cuba as slaves. And then, of course, there's the fact that Mendieta came to the United States when she was 12, studied with some of her adopted homeland's most advanced artists, and didn't even return to Cuba for another 20 years.
I prefer to give all this mess a miss -- after all, it has turned many serious art lovers off Mendieta's art -- and insist that a work's inspiration, wherever it comes from, can be miles from its meaning. We ignore the wild Rosicrucian ideas of the French symbolists, and the obscure Theosophical beliefs of Mondrian and other early abstract painters, so it seems fair to look for meaning in Mendieta without worrying too much about where she may have thought it lay. Mendieta's work is, I think, best understood in terms of the peculiar traditions and preoccupations of the modern Western avant-garde, rather than in terms of distant ethnic origins, of her personal history, or of some "authentic" Latina self looking to express itself.
Not that a Mendieta silueta is just a neutral record of some generic human's presence.
In this art, that human being is specifically a woman.
From muscle cars to the Taj Mahal, the world is full enough already with the markings of male ego. On a recent visit to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, I got to see the famous "oxidation paintings" Andy made by having young men pee onto metallic-painted canvas; you could say that it's a stand-up example of what Western culture has mostly been about over the last few thousand years. Mendieta corrects the gender balance by imposing a distinctly female presence on the world.
In some of her siluetas, the outline of her wide-hipped woman's body gets so reduced, it's just a kind of narrow almond shape: It's woman as vagina, the thing that marks her off most clearly from the men who've ruled in art until now.
In one installation, Mendieta rendered her silueta as a dark, cement-lined gash in the ground, filled it with gunpowder, then set it ablaze. (The concrete form has now been set into the Hirshhorn floor, alongside a video of the piece in action.) It's a gesture of female self-affirmation that is so aggressive, it's got a kind of dark Don Rickles comedy to it. This is Freud's man-eating vagina dentata, happily baring its teeth.
But then there are also Mendieta silhouettes that show a figure with hands raised so they sit beside its head. Simplify that form enough, as in one Mendieta silhouette whose rough outline is traced by 47 candles standing on the floor -- the Hirshhorn will be lighting the piece once a week -- and you get a long shape with two bulges at one end. There's now a phallus where the female "essence" used to be -- the ancient Venus of Willendorf, that tiny prehistoric sculpture that's an icon of woman's fertility, gets turned on her head and reimagined as a bulging sign of masculinity, her fecund hips now recast as testicles. It's as though Mendieta's interest in who we are is flexible enough to let her undermine the whole idea of unchanging gender essences.
Mendieta wants to assert the possibility of a female presence in the world, but that means also insisting that the "feminine" can include the kind of macho, ego-boosting gesture that has been the preserve of male artists. If there's no choice but to spell it out in old symbolic archetypes -- and that is just how art has almost always spelled things out -- the vagina has to be allowed to have its phallic side.
A very early series of photographs shows Mendieta trading genders with burly poet Morty Sklar: She clips off his hippie beard and glues it on her tiny face. The piece insists on the possibility of gender-bending, while acknowledging the vexed issues involved.
Walk through this show and watch Mendieta make her mark, again and again but always with a subtly different twist, and you find impressive toughness mixed with wit; something close to rigor mixed with something not too far from comedy. The almost compulsive exploration and re-exploration of a single set of themes makes Mendieta's finest work measure up to any of the best examples of conceptual art. And yet there's always some subtle underlying sense of how ridiculous, even pointless, the whole enterprise of making an artistic mark -- any artistic mark -- turns out to be. Though she's poker-faced as she lies down in her creek or covers herself in flowers, there's always still a sense of how absurd and meaningless those cryptic actions are. (I bet there were sometimes outbreaks of giggles before the camera began to roll.)
In Mendieta's work, art becomes the sheer, absurd impulse to impose your presence -- which can include a female presence -- on the world. Art becomes a kind of accidental side effect of being born to act, and of being conscious of your special presence as the person acting. Like consciousness itself, artmaking may be just another byproduct of our having evolved such massive brains; they're cognitive machines so huge that some of their power gets blown off as creative steam.
Look at Mendieta's work, and you sense that art at its most basic isn't the noble assertion of a unique human self, as a romantic might insist. And it's not about the arguments of metaphysics or morals that we go on to find in it. Art is just a funny thing we humans do -- like styling our hair or humming a tune -- because of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that's bred into us.
You also sense that this impulse, concentrated in Mendieta's art, also underlies even the most fabulous objects produced by an Old Master.
No matter how powerful and full of meaning a great artwork turns out be once it's complete, it starts life as some dumb human simply doing something for the sake of doing it. It begins as action performed simply to prove agency: a bloodied hand dragged down the wall; a woman floating her own body in a brook.
Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972-1985 is at the Hirshhorn Museum, on the Mall at Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW, through Jan. 2. Call 202-357-2700 or visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu.