Ana Mendieta Haunts the Block

By GABRIELLE LUCILLE FUENTES

1.

Simon Marshall (interning tour guide, Art History, ABD) stands in the empty gravel yard of Donald Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas. The sun dips below the high walls of the compound, illuminating a perfect half of the courtyard. Behind Simon a wide expanse stretches, interrupted only by Donald’s outdoor dining table, still holding two copper pots, as if the artist has just stepped inside to catch a call and has not been dead for decades. Simon, having shooed away the final tourist of the day, crosses the courtyard to lock the gates. The gate rears far above his head, solid wood aged to black and buttressed by iron. He feels medieval whenever he does this—who else but a feudal lord would need such protection? Tonight, there’s a moment of resistance before the door shuts and a figure, shadowed and slightly blurred around the edges, pushes through him. Literally right through him.

At this moment he thinks not of Ana Mendieta, the Cuban American visual and performance artist, enfant terrible of the 1980s New York art scene, dead before her time, her famous artist husband tried and acquitted for her murder. Simon doesn’t know Ana yet, has never heard of her. Instead he thinks of Caridad Mendoza, a Marfa High School senior who comes to the museum on Saturdays to help her aunt clean. Last week he walked in on her reading a bilingual edition of Sor Juana’s sonnets in the bathroom she was supposedly cleaning. He doesn’t know why he thinks of Caridad, except that she’s coming again tomorrow and he hasn’t been able to not think of her all week.

Simon reaches for his phone, but it’s still daylight, nothing to be afraid of. No crunch of gravel and nowhere in this purposefully bleak yard to hide. Instinctively, Simon creeps over to Donald’s cement pool, edges sharp enough to crack a skull on, and gazes into the algae-dark water. But he gets there too early. Only his reflection and juniper bushes swell back at him. Ana has entered The Block, but she hasn’t yet gone for a dip.

 

2.

From September 8 to February 2, 20–, the feast days of Oshun and Yemaya respectively, Ana Mendieta haunts Donald Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas. The Block is Donald’s “studios,” a monument to the minimalist artist, who is most famous for his reflective squares of polished steel and aluminum. The Block is an old military compound, surrounded by a double layer of twelve- foot-high stucco walls and a gate it would take a battering ram to open. A footpath once ran between the studios, a shortcut from one end of town to the other; Donald put up the walls to stop that.

When visiting the museum, you enter the courtyard at a scheduled time, and the tour guide greets you and gives you instructions: No touching except for the outdoor furniture; absolutely no photos. Nothing, not even the books or stones set out on his desk, has been moved since Donald died. Part of the will. You enter the courtyard and gasp, because, yes, it is like the desert has been contained, in a space large enough to feel immense and small enough that it could be yours.

Ana’s first day here is an especially hot one. The tourists are sweating, and they keep reaching for the phones they surrendered at the gates. The heat is making them forgetful, making them irritable when they remember. After a dip in the pool, she stays out of everyone’s way; her entrance the night before was a little pushy, even for her. Instead she makes to-do lists in the soft adobe of The Block’s walls.

She’ll move slowly, starting with the obvious. Just rearranging one thing at a time, so only the tour guide will notice at first, then the small group of scholars who visit regularly. She’ll start with Donald’s grandfather’s toy tops, because they are toys and meant to be played with. Time the spinning so that the tour group enters just when the tops are slowing down, wobbling like eggs on the massive table—perhaps they’ve caught a breeze. The next day, the group actually sees the tops start moving, one by one, faster and faster. Maybe they think it’s a trick; maybe they believe the guide’s explanation of a strong draft and a tilted table. Simon himself is beginning not to know what to believe.

Obviously, the library. All those books, and no one’s read them since Donald kicked it. Probably not since long before. Start by messing with their order, organize them from worst artist to best. Then start removing them. Decide where they’ll end up later.

Piece by piece, hide the art on the library shelves until only the Yayoi Kusama is left. It’s a small clay sculpture: a tangle of red ropes like punctured snakes, about the size of four fat empanadas on a plate. Ana never met Yayoi, but she likes her. That Donald supported her is one point for Donald, though just one. Yayoi is famous now, outliving both Ana and Donald, and makes statues of pumpkins, some small enough to fit in your hand, some requiring a crane to lift, bright yellow and covered in black polka dots. Though Yayoi is Japanese, Ana takes this pumpkin motif as proof that the artist is a daughter of Oshun, who loves yellow and accepts all manner of squashes on her altar.

Ana is unexpectedly pleased by Donald’s studios. She has waited for decades to haunt them, worried it might seem a bit obvious, though Donald’s connection to her husband was not a direct one. Mostly, she thought she’d be bored. But she loves the way there’s nothing for the light to trip over and catch on as it falls across the studio’s cement floors, over the empty walls, to finally reach Donald’s boxes, with their perfect lines and glossy surfaces. She sleeps inside a reflective red Plexiglass square, about the size of a large doghouse. Each night she thinks she won’t return, but each morning, after she swims in the pool, she curls herself into the red square’s unforgiving corners, jackknifing her curves to fit the angles. One afternoon, she wakes up laughing, and since her laugh can no longer choke her, there is only pleasure. In death, she loves minimalism, her opposite camp in life. Donald’s side seems such a clean one: his art like the blueprints for life, without the mess of bodies. As a ghost, she longs for this muted peace, though she can’t understand what the living want with it.

In each of Donald’s studio/galleries is a bed with tucked-in white sheets and no headboard. He would nap in the afternoon, after looking at the sculptures and making sketches for new ones. No equipment, no materials, no mess. He paid people to make the sculptures far off-site. After Ana finally tires of the red rectangle, she tries out each bed. The frames are a light, unvarnished wood— ur-Ikea, each bed pointed east. None of them are empty. Some of the ghostly occupants Ana seduces, and some she is seduced by. Some she pushes into a corner, and they must watch while she undresses and musses the carefully pressed covers. One ghost dives under the bed as soon as Ana touches the mattress and won’t come back up. The sheets smell bitter; the pobrecita has probably been there for decades. Leave that bed alone.

It would be easy to do the haunting expected of her. But she paints no archetypal female silhouettes in menstrual red, doesn’t fill the cavernous yard with the sound of a woman falling, a woman screaming for help, a woman hitting the ground. Doesn’t carve her name across Donald’s prized boxes, sets fire to nothing. That’s why she’s here at The Block to begin with and not haunting Frank Stella’s gallery (he posted her husband’s $250,000 bail), or chasing her husband himself around his Berlin lofts. Sure, Donald and Frank were buddies, and Donald stood by her husband through the trial, but half the art world did too—split right down the middle and still fighting. A pleasant thought.

The longer it takes for her identity to be revealed, the better. As soon as anyone knows who the ghost is, she can be written off. Man-hating from beyond the grave. Bra Burning Blah Blah Blah. Any named ghost’s continued residence is no longer a haunting but a corporation—all too corporeal. Patience is required of Ana. But she has about the same amount as when she was twenty- nine, trying to break into the New York art world, screaming that no one was looking, that nothing was moving fast enough.

In between tours, folded inside the red square or under the white covers, Ana wonders what kind of artist she would have become if she’d left her husband sooner or kept away from that open window. She was only just beginning, and if she is ever afraid, it is because she fears those who love her work love only the idea of it, love what it could have become: the unmade paintings, the unformed sculptures. The women who mourn her paint themselves red and pour fake blood on the steps of the galleries that show her husband’s work. They ask in huge hand-painted signs whenever a retrospective of his art goes up, WHERE IS ANA MENDIETA? WHERE IS SHE? She fears these women love only the possibility of her. Love her death more than her life. But it isn’t so terrible, really, if those who love her art baptize themselves in her, sculpt and mold her work until it is more theirs than hers. Not so much to be afraid of. Her husband’s nightmares are worse.

After a few forays into ghostly rearrangement, Ana decides to focus on Donald’s fans. They constitute the majority of each tour group, and they look so much alike. White men with carefully groomed beards, American heritage khakis, olive green T-shirts or fitted linen button- ups. No patterns, no bright colors. They all carry the same small notebooks, Japanese-made and logo-free, with black covers and neat grids on the pages. Some days Simon pretends he’s not a Judd scholar, just to see how long it takes one of the fans to start lecturing. While one orates, the others caress the harsh angles of Donald’s heavy wooden patio sets even more lovingly, as if they could make up for the fact that this supposed guide, someone who does not truly understand Donald’s work, gets to spend so much time around it.

Ana laughs at these men, but she likes them too, especially en masse. They look like warehouse inventory, carefully stacked, ready for use. She transposes the veiny forearms of one onto another with a black beard down to his chest. Chops off his man-bun, preferring something more clean-cut, if you’re gonna have all that beard. Then, or perhaps concurrently with imagining what positions the reconstructed fans might take over or under her, she enters each of them and sets off a little cause and effect in their circuitry. Beneath the hot Texas sun, the men stop genuflecting to the furniture. They turn to each other and whisper their deepest fear and dearest wish. They begin undressing each other, slowly, taking time to admire both their fine linen shirts and the curls of hair sprouting around nipple and navel. Naked, they kneel and roll in the gravel. They realize their knees have turned to lips, their fingers and heels too. Their skin colored in dust and spit, a myriad of baroque patterns. Ana doesn’t want to turn away, but she does. She’s wasted enough time on men who thought they were gods.

It is then, after her first series of possessions (too successful to repeat) that Ana finally spots Caridad Mendoza. Hidden behind one of the juniper bushes, watching the naked men roll around in the dirt, Caridad is doubled over in laughter.

 

3.

On Saturdays, Paula, Caridad’s aunt, cleans The Block—not the sculptures, you practically need special degrees to do that, but the floors, the shelves, the bathrooms. At first Ana’s presence causes her to retreat, draw in on herself and tighten her sweatshirt hood, as if against a sudden November wind. But Ana quickly makes it clear that she is not haunting Paula, and Paula relaxes. Even so, on the afternoons her Caridad comes to help, Paula steers her teenage niece away from the rooms she thinks Ana might be in, shooing her from building to building, using Caridad’s admitted lack of skills as an excuse to move her along. Paula doesn’t get paid by the hour but in a lump sum, and her duties at The Block cut into her Saturday night bingo game.

While dusting the library one week, Caridad pulls a book from the shelf. She instantly feels, instead of the huge hand of an anonymous boss swooping down, a presence (Ana’s) buzzing warmly beside her. She pulls another book and the buzzing is fiercer, like her girlfriends are surrounding her, clapping and whooping, but she’s alone and there’s no sound. More books, their covers heavy, their pages glossy with expensive color images. Caridad rushes through cleaning the bathroom, drags a space heater inside, rolls her jean jacket into a cushion for the hard toilet seat, and reads all afternoon.

Paula knows what Caridad is up to, but Caridad is the one everyone in the family is working for, the one they’ve chosen to be The One who’ll get out. Caridad’s mom was supposed to be that one, until, well, Caridad, and Paula’s decided it’s up to her to make sure that this time the choice sticks. Caridad glides through her days—as much as a brown girl in a still-segregated Texas town can glide. No one complains about her reading at the dinner table or going to Drama Club and Yearbook Club or founding her school’s LGBTQIA Alliance when other daughters her age are taking care of their siblings. No one collects her library fines (another aunt is a volunteer librarian) or busts her for smoking, despite the Mendozas’ propensity for lung cancer. Caridad’s aware of the pressure on her, but she thinks she’s got everyone fooled with the bathroom reading and clove cigarettes. That’s the worst she’ll get her hands on until she gets her ass to college, and God help her if she fucks up then. Then she’s on her own.

Paula explains all this to Ana. While she’s cleaning, Paula often calls her cousin in Houston to catch up on family gossip, speaking quietly into the headset Caridad gave her. When Paula speaks to Ana, it looks the same as if she were talking on the phone—a woman moving slowly through an open room, carrying on a conversation with no one you can see.

Paula doesn’t know Ana’s history, but she can sense a brokenness in her, one that wants to keep splintering. She doesn’t know about Ana’s fall, but she can smell too much wine and air moving over a body the way it does when that’s the last thing a body feels before a hard and ending ground. She’s never been to New York but can smell the city’s morgue.

Paula speaks to Ana in part to keep Ana on her toes and in part because Caridad’s future is weighing on her and in part because she likes Ana, though she can’t understand why she doesn’t haunt somewhere comfier and surrounded by her own people. Paula likes Ana for the same reasons she can’t trust her. Nothing more dangerous than a lone Cuban, Paula says. You people need your people even more than we do.

While Caridad is reading about Late Abstract Expressionism and Land Art, Ana and Paula discuss the works around them. Paula likes the narrow blue plastic rectangles stacked on the wall, like a ladder without supports. She likes that they tell a story, and Ana says they don’t have to, and Paula says, Well, I don’t have to clean very well; those fools wouldn’t notice. Paula says, I like to think about climbing that blue ladder and why I would be climbing and where I’d go. She likes how she feels she’s outside in the studios even though she’s inside. That’s cheating, though. Grabbing so much space for yourself, and why not just be outside? Paula agrees with Ana that it’s the peace of death at The Block, but white people’s death: no parties, no relatives, no offerings. Space enough for a giant, but it doesn’t make me feel small. Just angry.

Can Caridad see Ana? She knows something is there. A palindromic gaze? At first Caridad felt watched and she hid in the bathroom, worried someone—the tour guide Simon, his boss, a tourist—was following her. But the feeling shifted when she pulled that book from the shelf. Someone was by her side, not a really famous someone like Guadalupe or Fatima, someone smaller, La Juquilita maybe. Someone who had enough of an opening in their schedule to keep the dirt Caridad just swept from getting caught in a passing draft, someone tapping on her shoulder right before Simon rounded the corner and caught her drawing hearts with her finger-smudge on one of Donald’s shiny rectangles. Caridad leans back, catches her reflection on the metal instead.

Caridad does not ask Ana how she died; she would never be so rude. But she too can see falling all around Ana, the crash into cement, into ground that is not earth. She can feel—just before Ana leaves a room—fingers gripping a windowsill, a body suspended, about to unravel. Ana exits the gallery, floats up, floats out, but Caridad has enough. She knows that though Ana took photos of the impressions her body made in snow, sand, mud, grass, took photos of her impact on this earth for years, when the police arrived and found her body, they took none. The police believed her husband’s account of suicide brought on by a fiery temper and uncontrollable jealousy. Though the photos would probably have been important in the trial, a part of Ana is glad that the final images of her are not something she had no control over, glad that the last photos of her body were ones she herself staged.

Caridad asks Ana about her art and life instead. Ana and her sister left Cuba alone as kids. For years, they floated between foster homes and orphanages. In college in Iowa, Ana started her Silueta series, pressing her body into the surfaces around her, reaching for the ground she’d lost, documenting that reach. She folded herself into riverbanks, bought flowers and covered her body into a living grave, later etched female figures in sand and painted them with red dye or filled them with gunpowder and set them on fire. Meaning in making, not remaining. The brief outline of her body, the dirt forgetting her. Caridad asks, What did it feel like to stretch yourself into the snow, to lie naked in a field over a skeleton? Were you thinking about how best to capture the performance, the angles to shoot from, or did you disappear, for a moment, into the earth?

Caridad and Ana discuss their plans for the Block. Caridad doesn’t place the books she reads back on the shelves but sticks them inside the rectangle where Ana spends most of her nights. The sculpture plays with reflections—you can never see yourself, just whatever’s occurring on the other side. Caridad reaches her hand into the warm, red glow, and the books disappear. She places her Marfa Public Library card on top of a pile: the library is minuscule, underfunded, shelves gaping empty. Caridad trusts Ana will know what to do.

 

4.

It takes the tour guide Simon years to confirm that the figure who pushed through him as he closed the gates, and who left, months later, wrapped like a stole around two Dutch tourists, was Ana. He stumbles on her work much later, when he’s almost forgotten what Caridad looked like reading in the bathroom, but not his shame about what he did after that. When he eventually sees one of Ana’s self-portraits on a poorly lit museum wall, he recognizes her immediately, even though she’s sporting sideburns and a pasted-on handlebar mustache that she trimmed off a friend’s beard. Looking at her photos—documents of performances, assumed identities—Simon thinks that the impression Ana leaves of her body on mud, on glass, on his tongue still all these years later, is difficult to name. Form yet formless. The photos document the attempt to capture the fragile and fading, turning every muddy riverbank into a place to rest, sink, curse. He sees Ana’s photos and he can finally name the hunger he felt staring at Donald’s perfect boxes day after day. He had longed for something that could slip away and still be remembered. Something that left just a taste of itself.

Simon notices the changes. At first, he does nothing. He suspects Caridad is behind it, but he’s been reading Marx and he doesn’t want to be a bourgeois sellout and there’s that other, embarrassing reason. When the books go missing, he ignores that too, thinking of Caridad’s laugh when the Donald wannabes rolled in the dirt. But when almost half the library is gone, he knows that he has to do something, or else he’ll be fired and cast into the utter darkness of a grad student without reliable references or postdoc prospects.

He corners Caridad. He doesn’t mean to, but still he does.

At first he talks about continental philosophy, and then he talks about his job and his parents and how there isn’t anything green in Marfa, not like where he’s from, the Pacific Northwest, and how he’s on her side, but maybe she’s just gone a little too far, and that he really needs this job because he needs where this job will lead, the job after this job, that’s what he needs, and then he talks about Caridad herself, what he thinks about her, what he’s decided about her, which is more accurately what he feels about her but he doesn’t say that, surely, doesn’t go that far, doesn’t make that much of a fool, and Caridad kind of nods slowly and steps around him, because she’s got other things to do, and he shouts after her and she just shrugs and waves. His boss is in Berlin at a conference and hasn’t been answering emails. The books keep disappearing, and what if it’s not just the books, what if something else disappears next, something big, something priceless, and it’s Simon, Simon who will be blamed? He shouts again after Caridad, but she’s already across the courtyard. She’s not listening; she’s probably laughing. Not knowing what else to do and having been taught his whole life to do it, Simon calls the cops. He regrets it immediately, but still he does.

 

 

5.

When Caridad tells the story of The Block and Ana to her first-year roommates and then later in other forms (visual, written), she keeps her role to a minimum. She describes Ana not as she experienced her—a devilish saint by her side—but as she found her in her art, first in tiny pictures on her phone and then in her university library. (It made Donald’s seem so small.) Ana with her black hair parted down the middle and tied in a ponytail at the base of her neck. Dark, unplucked eyebrows, and clothes that seemed at first upsettingly nondescript. Jeans and crew-neck T-shirts. No Frida skirts or bangles, no embroidered blouses or flowers in her hair. Cubans don’t have all that, Paula said—that’s one of the reasons they’re so angry. The boring clothes bothered Caridad, until she started thinking about other things. The quality of fixative necessary to congeal gravel. Easily producible and portable abrasives for metal, plastic, glass. A substance that could burn without spreading. How to enter museums and galleries without being noticed.

When she tells the story in her dorm room, she tells how Paula was fired (since Caridad herself wasn’t on the payroll) even though the books reappeared while they were being questioned and faster than any person could have carried them in. She describes Simon’s emails, how many times he apologized (seventeen), how many times she answered (zero). The news of the disappearing and reappearing books made the local paper, and though Paula was rehired, the town’s rival Judd museum saw the article and made a better offer. The one and only instance Paula could point to of white people’s infighting benefiting anyone else.

What Caridad doesn’t talk about, not for years, are those final moments at The Block. She left Simon to his shouting and went back to cleaning the bathroom. Swept the floors, wiped down the sink, finished by polishing the mirror, not with an old T-shirt sprayed with vinegar as Paula instructed, but with her own breath. Through the open window, she heard tires on the gravel road outside The Block and police radios clicking, counted the seconds to their arrival. Caridad thought of the final haunt then, in her last moments at The Block, the haunt that hadn’t happened yet, the haunt no one would forget. She felt that buzzing grow, swelling in the tiny room, heat fogging the mirror. The fog cleared, and she locked eyes with the sole figure who emerged from the glass.

 

6.

Paula is ready to help with the final haunt. Ana has flown by then, but Paula and Caridad feel the protective umbrella of double jeopardy. Who will suspect them now that they have been proven incapable of whatever occurred? And no one wants to think too hard about what did occur, about just how it could have been possible.

Their work is slow. It starts at the end of spring and takes the rest of the summer. In the days before Caridad leaves, Paula, Caridad, and Paula’s bingo team circle the town at night, digging into the sand with thin, pointed shovels, not too deep, no pattern that could be noticed standing nearby. On Caridad’s final night in Marfa, Paula sets the path they’ve made aglow, and the whole town is wrapped in the warm, red light. There’s no danger of it spreading; Caridad’s seen to that. The light feels—depending on who you are, whether you want to leave or stay, whether you build walls to protect your creations or let people walk through them—like a welcome embrace or an all-consuming fire.

The next morning, as many of Caridad’s family who can fit, pack into Paula’s car to make the drive to Austin. The car is full, but it’s early, the sun just coming up over the mountains, and everyone is silent. Caridad looks back one last time, and it is as she and Paula planned. From the top of the hill, you can see the scorched silhouette of a woman, huge, and circling the whole town, visible in whole only when leaving. Caridad will speak of this moment years later. Her first work, though she will never call it hers alone.

 

[Purchase Issue 18 here.]

Author’s note: This is a work of fiction. The staff at The Block in Marfa are informative and helpful. It’s a fabulous museum.

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes is the author of the novel The Sleeping World. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Hedgebrook, the Millay Colony, and the Blue Mountain Center. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Slice, PANK, and elsewhere. She grew up in a Cuban-Irish-American family in Wisconsin and is now an assistant professor at the University of Maryland.

Ana Mendieta Haunts the Block

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