Carmen Herrera finally made her first sale at 89. And now, at 101, both Carmen and her native country, Cuba, seem to be getting the attention of the world. The Cuban artist’s work can be seen at the Tate in London, MoMA in New York, and she has an exhibition coming to the Whitney Whitney Museum of American Art starting in September.
Core to Carmen Herrera’s painting is a drive for formal simplicity and a striking sense of colour: “My quest”, she says, “is for the simplest of pictorial resolutions” (2012). A master of crisp lines and contrasting chromatic planes, Herrera creates symmetry, asymmetry and an infinite variety of movement, rhythm and spatial tension across the canvas with the most unobtrusive application of paint. As she moved towards pure, geometric abstraction in the post-war years in Paris, she exhibited alongside Theo van Doesburg, Max Bill and Piet Mondrian and a younger generation of Latin American artists, such as members of the Venezuelan Los Disidentes, Brazilian Concretists and the Argentinian Grupo Madi. Her work also chimed with painters from the US school such as Barnett Newman, Leon Polk Smith and Ellsworth Kelly. Reflecting on this period, she says, “I began a lifelong process of purification, a process of taking away what isn’t essential” (2005). While allied with Latin American non-representational concrete painting, Herrera’s body of work has established, quietly but steadily, a cross-cultural dialogue within the international history of modernist abstraction.
“It helps that they recognize you — that your work is not going to go to the garbage,” Herrera says.
That’s kind of a surprising statement considering that in the 1940s, Herrera was exhibiting her work next to Piet Mondrian, and was part of a community of artists in Paris exploring the boundaries of painting and sculpture. Other artists who found acceptance and a reputation in Europe also languished in the U.S., but Herrera, who is not much of a self promoter, had more working against her, says Alex Logsdail of the Lisson Gallery.
“I think it’s partly because she’s a woman,” he says. “I think that also in the ’60s and ’70s being a Cuban woman was particularly complicated. She very much sees herself as an American artist given that 75 years of her life has been spent outside of Cuba.”
Her discovery in 2004 was made possible when a friend, painter Tony Bechara, attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan, who had a much-publicized show of female geometric painters from which an artist had dropped out. When Sève saw Carmen’s paintings, he at first thought they were by Lygia Clark, but concluded that Herrera’s paintings preceded Clark’s by a decade.
Herrera rejects all the labels. Cuban? “I will never go back,” she says. Woman? “They hated the idea of a woman making it, but it happened!” Older? “I have waited a long time, but you’re here now,” she says.
Hererra kept working because she felt compelled to make art — and she’d rather people focus on that. “I’m just an artist, that’s all,” she says.
Carmen Herrera was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915. Her father was the founding editor of the newspaper El Mundo, where her mother was a reporter. She moved frequently between France and Cuba throughout the 1930s and 1940s; having started studying architecture at the Universidad de La Habana, Havana (1938–39), she trained at the Art Students League, New York (1942–43), before exhibiting five times at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1949–53).
She settled in New York in 1954, where she continues to live and work. Herrera’s paintings were the subject of a large-scale survey at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK in 2009; she has also had solo exhibitions at Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, (2010) and Museo del Barrio, New York (1998). She has been included in the group shows ‘Order, Chaos and the Space Between’ at the Phoenix Museum of Art, Arizona (2013) and ‘The Geometric Unconscious: A Century of Abstraction’, Sheldon Museum of Art, Nebraska (2012). She was awarded two fellowships from the Cintas Foundation, New York (1966–68) and a grant by the Creative Artists Public Service, New York (1977). Her work is in numerous public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Tate Collection, London; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Sources: LissenGallery.com, NPR