The sociologist Howard Becker once described “the art world” as “cooperative activity” that, “organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of art works that the art world is noted for.” I first read his text on the matter, Art Worlds, as a freshman in college … by which I mean I skimmed the first few chapters, as my soft brain folds had yet to develop the capacity for dense prose. But what I presumed to be the main takeaway did leave a lasting impression: What we broadly recognize as the art world isn’t necessarily the art world but an art world. It just consists of a relatively small network of people and institutions that’s disproportionately powerful and influential over the creation, distribution, and value transfer of artistic works.
So when there’s an event that threatens to interfere with the cohesion of that network, it’s a problem for the art world. As emphasized by Death of an Artist, a new audio documentary series by Pushkin Industries and Somethin’ Else, the death of the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta is one of those problems.
Celebrated in its time, Mendieta’s art was provocative. The series opens with host Helen Molesworth describing one of her earlier works, a staged scene in Iowa City commenting on the rape and murder of a student at the local university that starts with the laying of blood on a busy sidewalk in front of her apartment.
Mendieta would become a rising star in the New York art scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. She eventually developed a relationship with Carl Andre, the celebrated minimalist artist with whom she would enter both a creative partnership and marriage, one generally described as “turbulent.” Andre was present the night of Mendieta’s death. As it’s usually recounted, they were having an argument when she fell out the window of their Greenwich Village apartment. Andre would be charged with second-degree murder and was later acquitted.
Mendieta’s death divided the art world — and as Molesworth notes, it still does. As the series settles into its premise, she describes a veil of silence that has emerged in decades since: “Most folks don’t want to discuss what happened that night. They don’t want to talk about what the ramifications of that night were on the art world, they don’t want to contemplate what it means when a community is torn apart by violence, and they don’t want to discuss whether or not justice has been served.” What exactly happened to Mendieta was seemingly swept aside by the Establishment. Meanwhile, Andre’s reputation and legacy progressed largely unimpeded.
Molesworth, who also wrote the series, makes for an intriguing shepherd of this story. She’s a veteran art-world operator whose career as an influential curator was shaped by her outspoken views on the art world’s insularity and deficiencies. Most prominently, Molesworth was the chief curator of MOCA Los Angeles from 2014 to 2018, when the museum abruptly and controversially dismissed her. The exact details of what happened are somewhat obscured from the public, but the Los Angeles Times reported that the institution’s director, Philippe Vergne, had fired her despite her head-turning run, during which she elevated artists not traditionally associated with the formal art world. The underlying story appears to be clear: She rocked the boat too much for the powers that be.
Death of an Artist does that thing you want from a narrative series that means to be more than a genre exercise: It’s itching to hang in a bigger frame, to transcend merely being a routine crime procedural. To that end, the podcast serves a window into another world, its threads as launchpads for larger ideas. (Of note: Among the series’ producers is Maria Luisa Tucker, who worked on The Line with Dan Taberski.) The world in question is the New York art scene of the ’70s and ’80s, composed of a network of galleries, institutions, and dining establishments artists frequent to dine, socialize, see, and be seen. Part of the podcast’s appeal lies in how it handles quick descriptions of these pasts; they might lead non-art-world listeners to wonder what those scenes look like today.
But the core of Molesworth & Co.’s interests are allocated to the weightier concerns the Ana Mendieta–Carl Andre saga evokes: the construction of legacy, the process of historical reckoning, the balance between art and artist. It’s all thorny, meaty stuff, rendered even more compelling by Molesworth’s interest in the potential of complicated answers. “Could I love Mendieta’s work while also still being a fan of Carl Andre’s sculptures?” she asks early in the series.
However, based on the three episodes publicly available at this writing, Death of an Artist still operates within genre. There’s a moment in the opening chapter when Molesworth seems to locate the podcast’s narrative thrust within a standard procedural question: What happened on the night of Mendieta’s death? It’s a classic true-crime mechanic, intimating that finding the answer to that specific question could perhaps contribute insight into how we should process lingering moral and philosophical questions about the art world of the present. It’s a false premise. Andre’s presence during the death of Mendieta is not really the story; rather, it’s about how the art world responded to that tragedy.
Of course, Molesworth & Co. know this. The series displays impressive sensitivity toward how the sensational circumstances of Mendieta’s demise have overpowered her human and artistic legacy. Death of an Artist, then, seeks to be a reclamation project, and its adoption of the true-crime frame seems to be purely functional — something necessary to sell the message. In that, the podcast mirrors another reality of the art world: There is the art, and there is how you sell the art.
Produced by Maria Luisa Tucker, Puge Ruhe, and Eloise Lynton with Tally Abecassis. Edited by Lizzie Jacobs. The managing producer is Jacob Smith. Audio engineered by Sam Bair. Fact-checked by Andrea López-Cruzado. EPs are Lizzie Jacobs, Tom Koenig, Leital Molad, Jacob Weisberg, and Lucas Zwirner.
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