Carmen Herrera faced various adversities because she was an immigrant, because she lived at a time of great political upheaval in Cuba and because she was a woman. But beyond these difficulties, she developed ground-breaking developments in her artistic career as an early champion of geometric abstraction and a pioneer of Latin American Modernism.
Herrera, born in 1915 in Havana, recently turned 103. This makes her possibly the ‘oldest contemporary artist working today.’ But most striking is the fact that she worked in “obscurity” for seven decades before reaching her “commercial success” upon selling her first painting in 2004. In an interview with the New York Times she commented on her work:
“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure. I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”
Even though Herrera’s oeuvre is known for her minimalist and abstract paintings, her artistic formation was shaped by the three-dimensional world.
She studied to be an architect and made sculptures in Havana before quitting that path and moving to New York to marry her fiancé Jesse Leowenthal. This abrupt change would be pivotal in Herrera’s career. Upon their arrival in New York in 1939, she met Barnet Newman and Mark Rothko who would later inform her approach towards art. Pursuing her MFA at the Art Student League and following recent modernist trends, her efforts shifted from sculpture to painting. But her career did not fully blossom until after 1948.
Witnessing a New York deeply affected by war, Jesse and Herrera moved to Paris. Arriving as a French speaker and connoisseur, she was for the first time fully immersed in a foreign culture and acquired her first art studio. After being introduced to such movements as Russian Suprematism and the German Bauhaus, her work became deeply influenced by various forms of abstraction.
In 1949 she became a member of the Salon des Realites Nouvelles where she had numerous encounters within the most fashionable artistic and literary circles of the post-war era. She also travelled to Spain where she became familiar with the old master painter Francisco de Zurbaran, whom she thought was already a minimalist in the 1600s.
During this period she began her “distillation process”; reducing her rather expressionistic pallet to three colours and eventually two, using colour as form, and eliminating contour lines. These innovative geometric abstractions were accredited to celebrated artists Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly, actually working contemporaneously to Herrera.
As seen in her major series “Blanco y Verde” (figure I) and later in her “Estructuras” (figure II) she experimented with the limits of paintings, creating radically geometrical structures based on preliminary drawings confronted with architectural abstractions. This important relationship between the 2D and the 3D object became the focus of her work; paintings became an object on the wall rather than a window onto the world.
Today Herrera gets up every morning to draw. She has an assistant who helps her execute her ideas. The reputable Lisson Gallery represents her and the Whitney Museum held her solo exhibition last year in New York, where she lives and works.
Although she speaks little of her work she confidently asserts, ‘being ignored (for nearly 70 years), to me, was a form of liberation.’
Ed Tang, “One to Watch: Carmen Herrera”, Christie’s, December 10, 2014. https://www.christies.com/features/OneToWatch_Herrera-5398-1.aspx.
Deborah Sontag, “At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting”, New York Times, December 19, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/arts/design/20herrera.html?_r=0&mtrref=www.dazeddigital.com
Andrew Ruseth,“‘Don’t Be Intimidated About Anything’: Carmen Herrera at 100”, ART News, June 5, 2015. http://www.artnews.com/2015/06/05/dont-be-intimidated-about-anything-carmen-herrera-at-100/
Dana Miller and Tony Bechara, “In Conversation Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight”, Wexner Centre for the Arts, 23 March 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SREX8EHUIE
“Carmen Herrera”, Kunstsammlung Museum, 1 December 2017. http://www.kunstsammlung.de/en/discover/exhibitions/carmen-herrera.html