Ana in Two Acts: A Review of Xochitl Gonzalez’s “Anita de Monte Laughs Last”

In January, 39 years after the untimely death of conceptual artist Ana Mendieta, her husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, died peacefully at the age of 88. In The New York Times, as in many publications across the art world, the headline of his obituary read simply, “Carl Andre, austerely minimalist sculptor, is dead.” Few other headlines mentioned his wife by name. Still, Mendieta’s suspicious death in 1985 — and the subsequent trial in which Andre stood accused of shoving her from the 34th-floor window of their Manhattan apartment — seems inextricable from whatever legacy he may have left with his art. And perhaps, had he not been Carl Andre, Austerely Minimalist Sculptor, it would have been.

But long before the real Carl Andre’s passing was announced, Xochitl Gonzalez was already reckoning with his legacy in fiction. Gonzalez’s latest novel, Anita de Monte Laughs Last, is loosely based on the story of Mendieta and Andre, reimagined as the fictional artists Anita de Monte and Jack Martin. Set in 1998, the novel follows Raquel Toro, a young Latina studying art history at Brown as she struggles to navigate the lily-white worlds of art and academia and eventually becomes obsessed with the long-buried story of Anita after years of studying only Jack. It also follows Anita and Jack themselves throughout the 80s as, from either side of death, they experience Anita’s murder, its aftermath, and everything that came before it. The liberties of fiction allow Gonzalez to take a more definitive approach to Anita’s death than what we see in real-life news coverage of Mendieta’s: here, her husband is unquestionably responsible. Of the aftermath, Gonzalez makes her judgment similarly plain: there is no celebrating the so-called “genius” of the fictional Jack Martin, nor the real Carl Andre, without intentionally forgetting that of his wife. With timing perhaps more perfect than she could have predicted, Gonzalez has crafted a fictional obituary for Andre that does what so many of his real-life tributes did not: forces its audience to reckon with who is allowed a legacy in the first place.

Sixteen years before the end of Carl Andre or the beginning of Anita de Monte Laughs Last, Saidiya Hartman grappled with how to retell intentionally forgotten histories in her formative essay, “Venus in Two Acts.” In it, Hartman recounted her own struggles to tell the histories of enslaved African women, ultimately proposing a new way to approach stories where archival gaps have been left: critical fabulation, an author’s method for inserting what “might have been or could have been.” “This double gesture,” she wrote, “can be described as straining against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration.” 

Though Hartman’s essay referred to scholarly work and not historical fiction, it would be difficult to read Anita de Monte without “Venus” at least coming to mind. It’s Hartman who tells us that in cases like hers, the archive is “a death sentence, a tomb… an asterisk in the grand narrative of history.” It’s Gonzalez who sees that her own subject has thus far been, in Hartman’s words, “an untimely story told by a failed witness.” Of course, there are other considerations; for one, the real Mendieta lived recently enough that her immediate relatives are still here to tell us about her history, a fact that has at times come into conflict with the narrative fiction that history inspires. (This complication even makes itself apparent in Anita de Monte, as the fictional artist’s family fights an uphill battle for the right to maintain her legacy.) It’s unquestionable that Andre’s legacy has been carefully sanitized and celebrated while his wife’s has been suppressed, but the question of whether the real Mendieta’s archive is truly empty in the first place is more debatable. And again, the fact that Anita de Monte is ultimately a work of fiction makes its ties to that archive similarly nebulous. Still, the reality of Andre’s trial and eventual acquittal means there are some things we’ll never know about Mendieta’s death, and what might have or could have been had it not occurred. Mendieta’s archive — at least the version of it that Gonzalez works from — is instead limited to the work she left behind. 

Save for Gonzalez’s dedication, Ana Mendieta is never mentioned by name in Anita de Monte, but her memory haunts the novel nonetheless. The fictional Anita and Jack are shaped by a death much like the one that defined the legacies of the real Mendieta and Andre, yes, but the narrative similarities between the two couples go far beyond that night. Like Andre, Jack Martin’s blue-collar background becomes the center of the mythos surrounding his minimalist work, even as the rest of the art world is more than willing to condemn “identity politics” when it comes to work from marginalized voices like Anita’s. Like Mendieta, Anita’s innovative, genre-bending style — one uniquely informed by her experiences as a Cuban woman — and her unapologetic passion for the work she creates are met with an audience that can’t or doesn’t want to understand her work, and as a result, sidelines her altogether. That generations of Latinas see themselves in her art even decades after her death is not enough to grant her the reverence Jack seems to garner just by presenting his pieces with confidence.

If the legacy of Ana Mendieta is not alive enough in the character of Anita, it’s most certainly present in Anita’s art. Pushing the bounds of fiction, Gonzalez’s intricate descriptions make Anita’s work unquestionably Mendieta’s, as Jack’s is unquestionably Andre’s. Gonzalez crafts the fictional Anita and Jack so precisely in part because she has incorporated into the story these living remnants of Mendieta, her art itself. During Anita’s lifetime, it’s developing earth-body work — Mendieta’s real-life signature style — that allows her to rediscover her identity outside of Jack’s shadow. Years after her death, it’s Anita’s land art — not unlike Mendieta’s Rupestrian Sculptures — that haunts Jack from the beyond. When the two protagonists finally merge, Anita’s spirit fighting not to be forgotten and Raquel desperately in search of art that she can see herself in, it’s a piece almost certainly representing Mendieta’s iconic Imágen de Yágul that solidifies their bond. 

Meanwhile, it’s Jack’s art — both minimalist and imposing, “material-centered,” empty, and unmistakably Andre’s — around which the art world rallies, even when, as with his “word sculptures” (reminiscent of Andre’s real-life early works), the artist himself wonders if his creations are not just bullshit. And, like Mendieta, it’s not just Anita the person who is devalued after her death — cast off as a Latin hothead who, in the words of one Jack Martin devotee, probably deserved what happened to her — but her art itself. When Jack begins a concerted effort to bury her legacy and finds the rest of the art world more than happy to cast it aside altogether, every act of forgetting becomes another murder. 

In direct conversation with both the real-life archive of Mendieta’s work and her own fictional representations of the two artists, Gonzalez pushes her readers to ask why it’s Anita’s work, so openly informed by her subjectivity and lived experience, that is cast aside, and not Jack’s, which — aside from the murderousness of it all — she posits may just be incredibly boring to look at. With her cultural commentary at its sharpest yet, this isn’t the only thread of discourse about which Gonzalez is ready to pose her readers with a challenge. She also urges us to reckon with the very fact of how we approach the impact, in real life and in fiction, of each artist’s legacy on the other. She tells us that Jack may have killed his wife, yes, but — if you insist on focusing on the art and not the artist — he also killed the work of a brilliant artist. Then, she asks the more pressing question: isn’t it enough that he killed his wife? 

Still, what makes Anita de Monte successful is that this reckoning with the archive is only part of the story. Parallel to Anita’s plot is Raquel’s as she navigates the (still lily-white) world of art history 13 years after Anita’s death. Like the titular Olga before her, Raquel feels similarly semi-autobiographical; where for the former, Gonzalez drew inspiration from her brief stint as a wedding planner to the uber-wealthy, Raquel undoubtedly pulls from Gonzalez’s time as a student at Brown in the late 90s. The character is also where Anita de Monte shines brightest. 

A probable surrogate for Gonzalez, yes, but equally so for anyone who has struggled to reconcile a marginalized identity with an institution bent on ignoring it, Raquel, before discovering Anita, seems almost doomed to become her. She struggles to find her footing in an art world where so few look like her and struggles even more to find stability with Nick, her wealthy, white, minimalist sculptor boyfriend who navigates that world with unearned ease. And, like Anita, she seems poised to learn the hard way that there is an entire social structure dedicated to protecting the so-called genius of gifted white men, and all too happy to ignore her own. If Olga succeeded because it allowed the complexities of its many characters to take center stage, Gonzalez has perfected her craft in Anita de Monte, where Raquel’s interiority is made just as compelling as the murder and cover-up happening outside of it. It’s Raquel’s plot, as she struggles to find community in the art world even while surrounded by family, friends, and other Latines at home, that allows Anita de Monte to stand on its own, not only a reckoning with history but a compulsively readable story about what happens when certain histories are hidden altogether.

It may be Raquel, and not the murder, that drives the plot of Anita de Monte, but hers is a story just as haunted by lost history as the murderous husband himself. Though we’re told by every narrator at some point that Anita’s legacy has been intentionally suppressed — to the extent that Raquel’s discovery of her art is a feat in and of itself — truthfully, Anita haunts the very structure of the novel. Raquel’s story, already so eerily parallel to Anita’s on its face, is also continually disrupted by interludes of narration from the artist, coming to the reader from the great beyond as the novel’s sole first-person perspective. Later, Raquel is even interrupted by flashbacks from Jack himself, trying as he might to believe his genius absolves his sins. These interludes are some of Gonzalez’s most arresting work to date, a direct, poetic confrontation of the point where history fails her real-life inspiration. 

That Jack’s perspective is included alongside those of Anita and Raquel does little to make him appear sympathetic, and even less to absolve his sins. Instead, these interludes are where Gonzalez makes Jack’s insidiousness all the more apparent. The novel is, ultimately, a reckoning with Andre’s legacy as much as Mendieta’s, and in the voice of Jack is the dark reality of historical forgetting. Through him, Gonzalez meets the story of two women struggling to carve themselves a corner of the artistic canon with a man all too willing to make use of his own expansive space in it to bury them. Meanwhile, in the voice of Anita, Gonzalez imagines those impossible-to-know parts of Mendieta: Anita at the moment of her death, as a spirit pushing against history as she watches the real-time burial of her legacy, as an invisible hand guiding the plot forward, and — perhaps most strikingly — as a young woman like Raquel, finding unlikely sources of hope in a world built to work against her, even as the reader knows the reality of her fate. 

Ultimately, if archival absence is present even in the fictional world of Anita de Monte, it’s because stories like Anita’s — and Mendieta’s — cannot be told without addressing it. Even Raquel, though Anita’s are the first works of art in which she can see herself reflected back, is discouraged by her adviser from bringing that art into her academic research. Instead, she’s told — as so many of us still are when we push to see ourselves in the archives — that the material simply doesn’t exist to support it. “Then I’ll make it,” proposes Raquel, and, with the novel itself, Gonzalez seems ready to answer her call. 

For all its mystical elements, the world of Anita de Monte is no fantasy. Unsurprisingly, Jack Martin is celebrated well into old age. That we discover the outcome of his trial through a conversation between Raquel and a wealthy art collector a decade later, without ever seeing it from his perspective, does not ruin any suspense; we’ve long since come to understand that justice for Anita would never be tangible. Instead, Jack lives on in relative comfort — that is, save for the phantom that haunts his every move, one that grows more powerful every time Anita’s art is remembered. Just as every act of forgetting is another murder, Gonzalez, imagining what might have been or could have been in the life of a once-forgotten artist, allows us to believe that maybe Anita is reborn with every act of remembering.

The New York Times did not run an obituary for the real Ana Mendieta until 2018, 33 years after her death. The real Carl Andre lived another four decades, enjoying continued reverence as a pioneer of minimalism. Whether he spent those decades haunted by Mendieta and the art she never got to create, we’ll never know. But in Anita de Monte Laughs Last, if only in fiction, she’s given a chance to outlive him.

Cover image via Macmillan Publishers