Meet the Painter Who Masterminded the New Ana Mendieta Limited Series

Suzy Spence conceived and is consulting on the project starring America Ferrera.

Photographs by Ana Mendieta are shown at the Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Moderna in Rome, Italy. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

The life of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta is headed to the screen. Currently in development at Amazon MGM Studios is a limited series set to explore Mendieta’s short yet remarkable career and the tragic circumstances of her death. Actor America Ferrera, Oscar-nominated for her supporting role in Barbie, will play Mendieta.  

The project is based on Robert Katz’s book, Naked by the Window, published in 1990. It traces Mendieta’s rise in the New York art scene, and details how her life was cut short when she fell out of the window of her husband Carl Andre’s 34th-floor apartment in 1985. Andre was put on trial for second-degree murder, then acquitted—a verdict that remains controversial today. 

The series was conceived by painter Suzy Spence, who will also consult on the production. Originally from Maine, Spence moved to New York in 1988, where, she recalled to me over email, “Ana’s story was everywhere,” spurred by a period of “activism and institutional critique.” During a part-time stint at the New Museum in 1992, she remembered a protest of Andre’s show at the downtown Guggenheim, led by WAC (Women’s Action Coalition) and the Guerilla Girls. 

“I had my own painting studio around the corner, on Lafayette Street,” she added, “so it was all literally in my path.” 

Suzy Spence. Photo: Erin Little.

In 2018, Spence attended the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985,” with a bunch of friends, including Ferrera. Mendieta’s work in the group show, which included the 1975 film Corazón de roca con sangre (Rock Heart with Blood), stood out to her as “eternally modern,” she said.

“I realized on this visit to the Brooklyn Museum that Ana was not really known outside the art world,” Spence said. “I thought to myself, ‘I wish I could do something to bring due attention to this artist,’ because even in the art world, Ana Mendieta is still in the shadow of her male counterparts.” 

Born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, Mendieta was exiled to the United States as a child, coming of age in Iowa. Her move to New York City post-grad school saw the maturing of her practice. In visceral performances, sculptures, and photographs, Mendieta unpacked such motifs as identity, violence, and nature, using her body as medium and material. Her famed earth-body works, begun in 1972, saw her melding her form with various landscapes, “reasserting my ties with the earth,” the artist said, through “the reactivation of primeval beliefs.” 

“Mendieta’s work is very intellectual, but also extremely direct and arresting performance work. It grabs you no matter your knowledge of art—you can’t look away from Ana or her work,” Spence said. “Once you see it, you can never forget.” 

Once the idea for a series based on Mendieta was sown, Spence began gathering research for the script, picking up Katz’s book and delving into the artist’s oeuvre. It was work that called upon Spence’s experience in curation as much as her engagement with art and cultural history.  

But what took courage, Spence admitted, was sharing her idea with Ferrara. She wasn’t well-acquainted with the actor at that time, but saw connections between her and Mendieta. “They’re both incredible individuals,” she explained. “It’s that shared force of nature, an independent spirit, and a fearless political consciousness.”

America Ferrara at D23 2022. Photo: Corey Nickols/Getty Images for IMDb.

Spence foresees her consulting role on the series, which is now in early development, as serving as “interpreter” between the worlds of film and art. Her knowledge of the downtown New York art scene will be brought to bear, right down to her understanding of its specificities and nuances. For example, she said, “What did a checklist in a commercial gallery in Soho circa 1983 look like? How did women artists speak to each other in unguarded moments?” 

The point, she stressed, is to create “a historically accurate portrait of Ana Mendieta and her community.” That means capturing an artist whose unflinching work remains as acute today and a woman whose sudden death (also explored in the 2022 podcast series by curator Helen Molesworth, The Death of an Artist) surfaces issues from domestic violence to institutional silence.  

“With this series, [Medieta’s story] will find a platform that can address issues we are struggling with societally right now,” said Spence. “I feel that more than ever, her story deeply matters.” 

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