The first week of December, a mesmerizing body of artwork rarely seen and almost forgotten will go on display in Miami, at the public collection of Rosa de la Cruz, one of the country’s leading Contemporary art collectors. The pieces include images of the mud-smeared body of the artist; other works show her sweating blood from her pores. This dark imagery foretold her demise, some fans of the artist maintain.
On the 30-year anniversary of her death, a powerful cult is growing around photographer and filmmaker Ana Mendieta. Famous for some years mostly for the way she died, and forgotten for many more, her works are being rediscovered, exhibited around the U.S. and are climbing at auction. In the 1980s, if you could find a Mendieta, it was maybe $2,000, said Phillips auction house Worldwide Co-Head of Contemporary Art August Uribe. Now the median price for a Mendieta is $40,000 to $50,000, he said, and one hit a record of $200,000 at Phillips.
So, what’s fueling the rediscovery? In part, “I think that there is a renewed or new interest in the work of women artists [overall],” he said, and some of the new collectors of this work are women, he noted. It’s also because of the “globalization and internationalization” of the art world, he added. But with Mendieta specifically, it’s “the quality of the work,” Mr. Uribe said. “And her story.”
What is that story? In brief, the young and promising Cuban-American artist fell to her death in September 1985 from the 34th-floor window of her Greenwich Village apartment; her newlywed husband, legendary sculptor Carl Andre, was indicted, tried and eventually acquitted of her murder. His defense attorney argued, among other points, that Mendieta had committed “sub-intentional suicide.”
A sordid art world mystery at the time that polarized well-regarded art world principals on both sides, Ana Mendieta’s backstory is, finally, being overshadowed by her growing artistic legacy. It may have taken the art establishment years to find her work, but once it did, the response was what Mendieta seems to inspire, generally: devotion, even obsession.
Ms. de la Cruz estimates that, at 24 artworks, she is probably the largest single owner of Mendieta works outside the artist’s family. Ms. de la Cruz has created with her husband a personal museum, the Cruz Collection, and will show her Mendieta works at in an exhibit called “You’ve Got to Know the Rules to Break Them,” opening December 1 in Miami, in conjunction with the Art Basel Miami Beach fair. And that’s at least the third show to feature significant portions of Mendieta’s work in just the last two years.
This one will look at Mendieta as a symbol of American art—and its rule-breaking—during her peak. “When we found out about her work, she didn’t have an estate,” recalled Ms. de la Cruz, a fellow Cuban. “We were really wanting her work, because…it’s all about the healing nature of Mother Earth, the healing power of the female body.” But she not only liked Mendieta’s art and thought it was important, she was sure that interest in it would soon grow.
“I knew her work was going to be important historically,” Ms. de la Cruz said. “I think Mendieta has influenced a lot of artists,” the hugely influential collector noted, pointing to Tracey Emin and Rachel Harrison. Yet “very seldom do you see her work.”
Mendieta, an émigré from Cuba who had endured a difficult childhood—her father was reportedly jailed by Fidel Castro for treason—used her own body as a major component of her artwork. Her films and photos often used her sometimes naked form as subject and many had deep, earthy, bold colors and natural but stark shapes and elements. She used sticks and blood and dirt and plants—her work has the feeling of a pagan ritual. It is somehow both haunting and life-affirming. And it appears to resonate with more and more collectors, as hard to collect as it is. In many ways, the work was ahead of its time.
“There are very few women,” at a certain level in the art world, said Richard Move, a curator who made the 2009 film BloodWork: The Ana Mendieta Story. “There’s no [female] Damien Hirst. It’s even worse for ethnic women. And it hasn’t really changed at all.”
“My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant from plant to galaxy,” Mendieta wrote, according to the Feminist Art Archive at the University of Washington.
To many in the couple’s social circle, her death was not just a terrible mishap, but a symbol of the fate of so much feminist work and feminist women: marginalized and misplaced. “Mendieta became emblematic of the male-dominated art world,” Mr. Move told the Observer.
On September 9, in a tony gallery off Madison Avenue, the floor sculptures of Carl Andre were arranged around work of many of his legendary contemporaries, such as John Chamberlain, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman and Frank Stella for a posh opening showcasing his work alongside other legendary American artists.
Although he was out of the spotlight for a spell following his trial, Mr. Andre, who turned 80 earlier this fall, has held, even cemented, his space as one of the most important American sculptors ever in the intervening years. Known for his elegant geometric tile works and for pioneering the Minimalism movement in sculpture, his work is in the permanent collections many of the world’s major museums, sells for millions at auction, appears unfailingly in all major art history texts, and his face is well-known.