Goddess of Painting Carmen Herrera: Interviews. Images. Texts

 

U.S. New York NY Culture

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Painter Carmen Herrera, at 101, Is Making Her Mark
New exhibition at the Whitney shows artist’s works from her earlier years as she refined her distinctive approach to geometric abstraction

 

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Carmen Herrera at her studio in May. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal
By Susan Delson
Sept. 11, 2016 6:48 p.m. ET
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When the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new building in 2015, a striking green-and-white abstraction by a little-known artist hung alongside works by renowned painters like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.

And it more than held its own.

But the new kid on the block wasn’t new—she had been making art for decades. And she certainly wasn’t a kid. At that point, Carmen Herrera was about to turn 100.
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How Ms. Herrera developed her incisive, razor-sharp style—the same style in which she paints today—is the focus of “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” opening Friday at the Whitney. The exhibition zeroes in on the pivotal decades of 1948 to 1978, when Ms. Herrera’s distinctive approach to geometric abstraction came into its own.

“Frankly, she didn’t bloom late, she was noticed late,” said Dana Miller, the exhibition’s curator and until recently director of collections at the Whitney. “She bloomed a long time ago.”
The Manhattan studio of Carmen Herrera. ENLARGE
The Manhattan studio of Carmen Herrera. Photo: Agaton Strom for The Wall Street Journal

The exhibition opens with works from Ms. Herrera’s Paris years, 1948 to 1953. They trace an evolution from lyrical, curving shapes and a lush palette to the visual punch of straight-edged forms painted in two colors only—as in a stunning black-and-white series, begun in 1952, that anticipated the minimalism of the 1960s.

In these and other works, Ms. Herrera also began painting the frames and edges of the canvases and using multiple panels to create the works—treating them as three-dimensional objects rather than two-dimensional surfaces.

Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg were doing similar things at the time, Ms. Miller pointed out. But while their innovations won art-world recognition, Ms. Herrera’s went largely unacknowledged—until recently.

The idea for the exhibition emerged from the museum’s 2014 acquisition of the Herrera that appeared in the inaugural show—a 1959 work from her “ Blanco y Verde” (Green and White) series (1959–1971).

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Carmen Herrera’s ‘Amarillo Dos,’ 1971. Photo: Carmen Herrera

Ms. Herrera considers “Blanco y Verde” her most important series, and “Lines of Sight” gathers an unprecedented nine of them—perhaps more, Ms. Miller said, than even Ms. Herrera has seen in one place.

Hanging in a gallery of their own, the works have a concentrated, almost electric energy. So do the seven paintings in the “Days of the Week” series (1975–78), which is positioned as the first thing visitors see stepping off the elevator.

With some 50 works, “Lines of Sight” asserts Ms. Herrera’s rightful spot in 20th-century art history. But Ms. Herrera herself is no museum piece. She works in her studio almost daily, and shows no signs of stopping.

She has deepened and refined the style she developed in those earlier years, and within its stringent parameters continues to create work of intense visual power.

‘I work, and I work, and I work.’
—Carmen Herrera

At age 101, she now grapples with the demands of her growing international recognition and the limitations of age, balanced against her own fierce absorption in her art.

An assistant does most of the physical labor, but by the time the canvas is prepped Ms. Herrera has already conceived the painting in full detail.

The process takes her from small pencil sketches to larger colored drawings and schematics indicating the dimensions of each area of the canvas. Specific colors are chosen from charts.

Ms. Herrera does much of her drawing at a counter at the front of her loft on East 19th Street in Manhattan, behind a bank of sunny, south-facing windows lined with orchid plants.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” she said in an interview. “I’m happy, and I do it. And then somebody rings the bell,” she added with a mock scowl. “All I want is to be left alone, like Greta Garbo. And you see what happened to her.”

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Carmen Herrera and husband, Jesse Loewenthal, in Paris in 1949. Photo: Carmen Herrera

Born in Havana, Ms. Herrera was educated in Cuba and Paris, moving to New York with her American husband, Jesse Loewenthal—a cosmopolitan, multilingual writer and teacher—in 1939.

In 1948, the couple moved to Paris. There, Ms. Herrera quickly fell in with an international community of artists—including members of the forward-thinking Salon des Réalités Nouvelles—who encouraged her in developing her mature style.

In early 1954, financial pressures sent the pair back to New York, where abstract expressionism dominated the art scene with its explosive mix of gesture, drama and testosterone. Ms. Herrera’s cool, cerebral distillations attracted little interest.

Still, she persisted.

Her fortunes changed around 2004, when she began exhibiting with New York dealer Federico Sève at his Latincollector gallery. She debuted as the last-minute substitute in a group show.
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That year, collector and philanthropist Ella Fontanals-Cisneros acquired Ms. Herrera’s work for her Miami-based Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation. Other influential collectors—most of them women—also acquired works around that time.

Ms. Herrera’s career got another boost in 2010, when the London-based Lisson Gallery began representing her internationally. This past spring, a show of her recent work inaugurated the gallery’s New York space—and sold out in a matter of weeks. According to Alex Logsdail, Lisson’s international director, several pieces are headed to major museums.

The auction market has started to catch up too. At last November’s Latin American sale at Phillips, Ms. Herrera’s 1965 canvas “Basque,” estimated at $120,000 to $180,000, fetched $437,000, including buyer’s premium.

“I never expected that,” Ms. Herrera said, before pausing to correct herself. “I did expect it,” she said firmly, speaking not only of the sale but her newfound recognition as a whole. “And here it is.”


rt & Design | Studio Visit
An Artist at 100, Thinking Big but Starting Small

By TED LOOSAPRIL 15, 2016
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Carmen Herrera, 100, in her home studio on East 19th Street in Manhattan. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The painter Carmen Herrera, who turns 101 in May, was sitting in her wheelchair on a gray day last month, waiting and watching, catlike.

She was quiet for the moment, but at any time she might toss off a teasing zinger toward an old friend who was present, or a directive to her assistant to make a minute calibration to one of her hard-edge abstract paintings.

Ms. Herrera, who has shoulder-length white hair and wire-rim glasses and was wearing a black cardigan sweater, held up a small, rectangular piece of painted vellum and compared it to the larger version of the same work, one done on paper, which was hanging on the wall of her large, floor-through home and studio on East 19th Street.

She grunted softly.

Silently assessing the diamond-shaped areas of red and blue on the canvas, Ms. Herrera was working, in her way — deciding how much red, how much blue, and where the line between them would be — though she was not applying paint just then.

Ms. Herrera still makes art every day; it sustains her. “I’ve painted all my life,” she said, nodding her head firmly to make the point. “It makes me feel good.” She sold her first piece 81 years ago.

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Ms. Herrera in 1965 with Jesse Loewenthal, her husband of 61 years, who died in 2000. Credit Jesse Loewenthal

Her sense of humor remains intact, and she has tart, firm opinions. “Don’t do it,” she said with a chuckle about being 100. “It’s horrible.”

In the last dozen years, Ms. Herrera has a thriving career that would make any artist jealous: a show opening May 3 at Lisson Gallery in New York, the debut for the American branch of the London dealer, and in the fall, a solo exhibition of early work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Lisson show features some dozen paintings, all made in the last couple of years, and all filled with her signature bold simplicity: sharply delineated blocks of color often energized by a strong diagonal line.
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Her age and lack of mobility — she no longer gets out of the house regularly and has live-in round-the-clock care — have forced a series of adjustments to her work habits.

Far from undermining her project, however, these concessions have served to highlight the conceptual nature of her work.

Dana Miller, the Whitney curator who organized the coming exhibition of Ms. Herrera’s, said that these quiet moments were clearly productive for the artist.
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Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“The more I delve into her work, the more I understand that it’s conceptual in nature,” Ms. Miller said. “She said to me, ‘I don’t have the heart to paint, I have the brain to paint.’”

As Ms. Herrera has become physically shakier, she has relied on a team of people to help her — but then again, Jeff Koons relies on others to make his pieces, too.

Robert Storr, the former Museum of Modern Art curator and Yale School of Art dean, who wrote a catalog essay for the Lisson show, compared her to late-stage Henri Matisse, who was famously photographed sitting in bed and making his “Cut-Outs” series with scissors and paper.

“He was using someone else to be his arms and legs, and she’s doing the same thing,” Mr. Storr said.

He added that her work is part of the Constructivist tradition and shows “how much can be done with really simple elements.”

Born in Cuba in 1915, Ms. Herrera lived for two long stints in Paris, where, in the 1940s, her art became fully formed. Ellsworth Kelly (who died last December), whom she knew, and whose works have some similarities to hers, was developing his art in Paris at the same time.
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Carmen Herrera’s “Night Forest” (2016), acrylic on canvas. Credit Carmen Herrera/Lisson Gallery

“I like his work, but I didn’t like him,” Ms. Herrera recalled. “He was kind of eeeehhhhh.” She screwed up her face.

Ms. Herrera settled permanently in New York in the 1950s, where she became friends with Barnett Newman, Leon Polk Smith and Wilfredo Lam. She has spent 49 years in her current apartment. Her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal, died in 2000.

She didn’t gain wide attention until she was in her 80s, but unlike the late-blooming painter known as Grandma Moses — Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860–1961), who took up the brush in her 70s — Ms. Herrera came to fame for a consistent style and sensibility she had been practicing for decades.

She speaks faintly now, often switching between Spanish and English. Often on hand to translate is her friend Tony Bechara, who helps her negotiate the outside world, from dentist appointments to dealer relations.

“I may end up as a footnote to history,” Mr. Bechara joked about his Zelig-like presence at her side. A painter himself, he met Ms. Herrera in 1972 when they were both featured in a group show — but he doesn’t assist with her art.

For that, Ms. Herrera has Manuel Belduma, who shops for supplies and does all the physical work she cannot. He was specifically hired for his lack of art-making knowledge, Mr. Bechara said, so that Ms. Herrera gets exactly what she wants on the canvas, with no art-school suggestions.
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“Red Wall’ (2015), acrylic on canvas. Credit Carmen Herrera/Lisson Gallery

“She has financial means that enables her to have staff,” the Whitney’s Ms. Miller said. “It enables her to continue to work, period.”

The early stages of her process have stayed remarkably the same over the years.

“When I wake up, all I am thinking about is breakfast,” Ms. Herrera said. “After breakfast, I know I have something waiting for me. And I get going.”

She pointed to a desk by a long block of windows fronting the street, where she starts around 9:30 every morning. “That’s where I think of the composition — if I’m lucky,” she said.

Stage 1 is her sketch, which Ms. Herrera does in pencil on graph paper by the window, flanked by her potted orchids.

For Stage 2, she transfers the idea to a small piece of vellum, and, using acrylic paint markers, does the sketch in color. Sometimes what follows is a larger version on paper, to see if the composition is working.

“We do it small, and then we do it bigger,” said Ms. Herrera, who studied architecture in Havana in the 1930s. “When it gets big, you might think of it in a different way.”

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Ms. Herrera in 2015, using tape that is instrumental in the creation of her paintings. Credit Jason Schmidt/Lisson Gallery

 

Once the painting process starts, Mr. Belduma places the canvases horizontally on an old architectural drafting table on wheels, so that Ms. Herrera can spin it around and get a closer look.

Ms. Herrera tells him exactly where to place blue tape — the nonstick kind found in most utility drawers — as well as a special green tape that prevents the paint from bleeding onto adjacent sections.

When it comes to rolling the paint, Ms. Herrera often does a first coat herself. Mr. Belduma does the later ones.

Then he hangs them on the wall, and Ms. Herrera considers them, sometimes for days.

It takes from one week to several weeks to make a painting, and Ms. Herrera will often scrap a piece and go back, literally, to the drawing board — though everyone who works for her knows not to actually trash the attempts she throws in the garbage.

Ms. Herrera enjoys a glass of wine at lunch and dinner — an inexpensive merlot is the current favorite — and she still reads The Times Literary Supplement every week.

“I’ve known a lot of older artists, and she has the least signs of old-age problems of any of them,” said Mr. Storr, who has observed her working on multiple occasions.

She recalled the deprivations of Paris during World War II in terms that could also apply to the limitations and liberations of creating art in one’s 11th decade.

When there were no canvases available, she simply switched to painting on burlap.

“When you don’t have much,” Ms. Herrera said, “anything will do.”
Correction: April 15, 2016
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the location of Carmen Herrera’s studio in Manhattan. It is on East 19th Street, not East 17th Street.

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INCONVERSATION

CARMEN HERRERA with Laila Pedro

In recent years, Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) has become as renowned for her elegant, geometric abstract paintings as for her unflagging productivity during the decades in which the works were overlooked. Born in Havana, Herrera moved to New York with her American husband. The two spent several years in Paris in the artistically charged years following the Second World War. It was in Paris that Herrera, absorbing and transforming the city’s febrile creative currents, arrived at the deceptively minimal, restrained, and chromatically evocative style that we have come to recognize, unmistakably, as hers. On September 16, her long overdue solo exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ahead of the opening, Laila Pedro visited Herrera at her home and studio in New York to celebrate and reflect upon her long and finally groundbreaking career.

Portrait of Carmen Herrera. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu.

Laila Pedro (Rail): Carmen, here we are in New York, in your beautiful home and studio, as you are about to open a solo show at the Whitney. It’s a huge moment.

Carmen Herrera: Yes!

Rail: I was just reading the catalogue proofs. Dana Miller, who organized the show, writes its lead essay, which explicitly positions this exhibition as a corrective to the fact that your work, as hardly bears repeating, was overlooked for so long. I was struck by the very intelligent decision to focus this exhibition on a critical period for you: the years from 1948 – 78. This is the time when you were in Paris and in New York. And it was in Paris that you distilled your style—the minimal, restrained compositions that we now instantly identify as yours.

Herrera: Paris in 1948 was essential for me. I love France. It’s a tragedy to see how it is changing now. It is not only the terrorist attacks, but simply that the way of living, as an artist, which was so formative for me, is no longer possible. When I was there, everyone was there. It was a delicious time. But, these things end.

Rail: When you were first in New York, you were still doing figurative work. It wasn’t until Paris that you really evolved the precise, geometric abstract constructions that characterize your mature style.

Herrera: Of course. It was about meeting new people and gaining a new set of influences and learning to filter and absorb those. Everything was marvelous; everything was possible.

Rail: And in Paris you met and showed with the Salon des réalités nouvelles, which was important for you as well.

Carmen Herrera, Equation, 1958. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame, 24 × 42 inches. Collection of Stanley Stairs and Leslie Powell. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Ikon Gallery.

Herrera: Every year everyone came to exhibit—well, not everyone; you had to be accepted! [Laughter.] We would come together, people from all around the world. I showed with them several times. Someone who was very important to me was Fredo [Sidès, director of the Salon des réalités nouvelles]. He always told me the truth, like when a painting was too crowded, or I was trying to do too much, and I was grateful. I just showed up at his house and knocked on the door. I wasn’t scared of any of them.

But it was another time, and another community. And it was so open that I was able to gain all this exposure. Before, I didn’t know anything about all these different kinds of people. Germans, Italians—I barely knew anything about Americans! So it was very good, and very important, to be exposed to that community.

Rail: That was a sense of community that you hadn’t been able to find in New York, but that you had experienced in Cuba, with women artists like Amelia Peláez (1896 – 1968) and Loló Soldevilla (1901 – 71).

Herrera: Yes. Amelia had won a scholarship to study in France, and she spent some time there, but Cuba drew her back. She was older than me, significantly, and I admired her tremendously. She was tiny and she swore like a sailor. I admired her as a painter, but more so in her personality. Her personality informed her work, of course, but she was tough, and that was what inspired me. Loló also traveled to France, so she was part of everyone who was there. Wifredo [Lam] helped her a lot.

Rail: Did Wifredo help or influence you? I know you were friends—and people would even try to get in touch with him through you—but there is some artistic influence in your early work, no? In your Tondos from this period, for example. It’s this kind of more Cubistic, organic abstraction.

Herrera: We got along very well. I had been to school in Paris, but when I went back as an adult artist, Wifredo had already been there, in those circles, for some time. I would help him to navigate socially, because he came from a very humble background; he was not very sophisticated. And he always thought he had something to teach me! But in France everyone fell in love with him. And everyone thought we must be related because we were both Cuban.

Rail: In Cuba, your family collected art; you come from a very cultured, progressive home. Did they collect works by Cuban painters?

Herrera: They collected European works, but many intellectuals did visit our home. Langston Hughes came to visit. It was a very intellectual environment. There wasn’t as much money as there was culture. And in Havana there was also the Lyceum, the women’s club. That did a tremendous amount of good because it exposed women to literature and art. It was magnificent. And I had wanted to go to the university and take architecture classes, but it was difficult, because of all the political unrest. I had a group of friends who gathered to study architecture together—and they did all become architects.

Rail: Then you met your husband, Jesse Loewenthal.

Herrera: Yes, and we came to New York. You think you’re steering your own life, and then, all of a sudden, things change. That was it! [Laughter.]

Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”, 1971. Acrylic on wood, 40 × 70 × 3 1/4 inches. Private collection. © Carmen Herrera.

Rail: Carmen, can we look at some of the works you’ve produced in this time? There are some I am very curious to ask you about.

Herrera: Yes, ask whatever you want. [Laughter.]

Rail: Let’s look at the Estructuras [structures], like Amarillo “Dos.” You’re very specific that they’re not paintings, they’re not sculptures—they’re structures. The use of depth and negative space to deploy shadow as a painterly device—almost a chromatic element—in what is otherwise a monochrome seems hugely important to me.

Herrera: I wanted to make these for a long time, and I think they are very important, but I couldn’t find the right person to help me with the fabrication. So there are many of them that are unrealized. I had a wonderful carpenter who helped me make them, but he passed away and I could never find anyone else who could do it properly. Recently, I’ve found a new assistant, who is finally able to fabricate and execute work the way I conceive it.

Rail: Are they free-standing?

Herrera: Some are. Some are hung on the wall, but they also protrude.

Rail: They’re obviously informed by your architectural mind.

Herrera: Of course. They’re minimal but you can walk around them. You can turn them around when you display them and change the display.

Rail: There’s the architectural aspect, which is part of a general concern with the materiality of your works. Sometimes, you’ve painted the frame as well.

Herrera: Painting the frame is my defense of the work, my way of protecting it.

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949. Acrylic on canvas on board, diameter: 40 inches. Collection of the artist. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Rail: Looking at your “diptych” works gives a sense of the intensity of expression and composition that you extract from very minimal elements. It’s not symmetrical: even where you’ve painted the edges, in some cases you’ve only painted one edge. Through radical reduction, you’ve made minimal optical components incredibly dimensioned and textured. It magnifies the relationships of scale.

Herrera: I didn’t always divide them in the middle. Sometimes the proportion is almost identical—but not quite.

Rail: This black-and-white work, Equation, from 1958, plays with some of the issues of scale, but also with orientation and dislocation.

Herrera: I think that is one of my first really serious works. One of my first serious, geometric works.

Rail: Now that you have a fabricator, a technical assistant that you trust, you are able to keep realizing your paintings. Can we talk about your daily process?

Herrera: Every day I make drawings in color, on paper, at my desk over there by the window. I make the drawings and then they are hung on the wall right over here. These are all the drawings I’ve been working on. I hang them and live with them for a while so I can see how I feel about them. I can see what needs to change, what needs to be taken out. This orange and black one, here—the small orange section at the bottom right needs to go. I’m absolutely sure. Do you see? It will be much more interesting if you remove that piece.

Rail: You are always reducing, Carmen.

Herrera: It seems obvious, now!

Rail: Like an architect, you make scaled preparatory drawings, with the dimensions indicated along each side of the work. Here you have them all marked; they look almost like blueprints. Do you always have a sense of the scale before you sit down to draw?

Herrera: Yes. When I’m working on the drawing, I always know roughly the size of final work I want it to become. I mark the proportions and then my assistant executes them. Behind you is one we just finished. He did all that blue there with a small roller, to get the very smooth surface, and the lines are marked off with tape.

Rail: You’ve left the bottom quadrants unpainted, so it is almost like in this section of the painting the bare, ivory cotton is working as its own color, its own pigment. The material is acting as a paint.

Herrera: Yes, everyone keeps telling me to leave that white there but I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure. I’ll leave it a bit longer and see what my brain tells me.


This conversation has been condensed and translated from Spanish by Laila Pedro. Carmen Herrera’s longtime friend, artist Tony Bechara, provided invaluable assistance and support.

Contributor

Laila Pedro LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.

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NYTIMES

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Art & Design
A Carmen Herrera Solo Exhibition at the Whitney

By RANDY KENNEDYSEPT. 7, 2016

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The painter Carmen Herrera, who turned 100 last year. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“Don’t do it,” the painter Carmen Herrera recently counseled an interviewer, about turning a century old, which she did last year. “It’s horrible.”
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Carmen Herrera’s “Wednesday” (1978). Credit Carmen Herrera, via Lisson Gallery

But Ms. Herrera, who was born in Cuba and labored for decades in Paris and New York before finally coming to the art world’s notice, has something this year to chase away thoughts of another birthday. On Friday, Sept. 16, the Whitney Museum of American Art opens “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” her first solo museum exhibition in New York in almost 20 years, focusing on work from 1948 to 1978, when she was finding her signature style: a hard-edged, radiantly colored, vertiginously geometric way of making very little do a lot. Dana Miller, the show’s curator, describes the effect as being less like paint on canvas than “like cuts in space,” an innovation Ms. Herrera shares with painters like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly (though they became famous for their versions 40 years before hers began to enter important public collections). (Through Jan. 2; 212-570-3600, whitney.org.)

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Art & Design
At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting

By DEBORAH SONTAG

DEC. 19, 2009

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Carmen Herrera in her Manhattan loft, surrounded by her art. She sold her first work in 2004. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Under a skylight in her tin-ceilinged loft near Union Square in Manhattan, the abstract painter Carmen Herrera, 94, nursed a flute of Champagne last week, sitting regally in the wheelchair she resents.

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”

Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retrospective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”

In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot. In an era when the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.

“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she said of painting. “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.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, called Ms. Herrera “a quiet warrior of her art.”

“To bloom into full glory at 94 — whatever Carmen Herrera’s slow rise might say about the difficulties of being a woman artist, an immigrant artist or an artist ahead of her time, it is clearly a story of personal strength,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.
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Carmen Herrera at work. She has painted for six decades, and since her first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued her. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A minimalist whose canvases are geometric distillations of form and color, Ms. Herrera has slowly come to the attention of a subset of art historians over the last decade. . Now she is increasingly considered an important figure by those who study her “remarkably monumental, iconic paintings,” said Edward J. Sullivan, a professor of art history at New York University.

“Those of us with a passion for either geometric art or Latin American Modernist painting now realize what a pivotal role” Ms. Herrera has played in “the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Painting in relative solitude since the late 1930s, with only the occasional exhibition, Ms. Herrera was sustained, she said, by the unflinching support of her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal. An English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Loewenthal was portrayed by the memoirist Frank McCourt, a colleague, as an old-world scholar in an “elegant, three-piece suit, the gold watch chain looping across his waistcoat front.”

Recognition for Ms. Herrera came a few years after her husband’s death, at 98, in 2000. “Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above,” Ms. Herrera said, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud.” She added: “I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”

In a series of interviews in her sparsely but artfully furnished apartment, Ms. Herrera always offered an afternoon cocktail — “Oh, don’t be abstemious!” — and an outpouring of stories about prerevolutionary Cuba, postwar Paris and the many artists she has known, from Wifredo Lam to Yves Klein to Barnett Newman.

“Ah, Wifredo,” she said, referring to Lam, the Cuban-born French painter. “All the girls were crazy about him. When we were in Havana, my phone would begin ringing: ‘Is Wifredo in town?’ I mean, come on, I wasn’t his social secretary.”

But Ms. Herrera is less expansive about her own art, discussing it with a minimalism redolent of the work. “Paintings speak for themselves,” she said. Geometry and color have been the head and the heart of her work, she added, describing a lifelong quest to pare down her paintings to their essence, like visual haiku.

Asked how she would describe to a student a painting like “Blanco y Verde” (1966) — a canvas of white interrupted by an inverted green triangle — she said, “I wouldn’t have a student.” To a sweet, inquiring child, then? “I’d give him some candy so he’d rot his teeth.”

When pressed about what looks to some like a sensual female shape in the painting, she said: “Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles.”

Born in 1915 in Havana, where her father was the founding editor of the daily newspaper El Mundo, and her mother a reporter, Ms. Herrera took art lessons as a child, attended finishing school in Paris and embarked on a Cuban university degree in architecture. In 1939, midway through her studies, she married Mr. Loewenthal and moved to New York. (They had no children.)
Photo
Ms. Herrera’s “Red Star” from 1949. Credit Collection of Estrellita Brodsky, First Sale

Although she studied at the Art Students League of New York, Ms. Herrera did not discover her artistic identity until she and her husband settled in Paris for a few years after World War II. There she joined a group of abstract artists, based at the influential Salon of New Realities, which exhibited her work along with that of Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and others.

“I was looking for a pictorial vocabulary and I found it there,” she said. “But when we moved back to New York, this type of art” — her less-is-more formalism — “was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn’t get a gallery.”

Ms. Herrera said that she also accepted, “as a handicap,” the barriers she faced as a Hispanic female artist. Beyond that, though, “her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.”

Over the decades, Ms. Herrera had a solo show here and there, including a couple at museums (the Alternative Museum in 1984, El Museo del Barrio in 1998). But she never sold anything, and never needed, or aggressively sought, the affirmation of the market. “It would have been nice, but maybe corrupting,” she said.

Mr. Bechara, who befriended her in the early 1970s and is now chairman of El Museo del Barrio, said that he regularly tried to push her into the public eye, even though she “found a kind of solace in being alone.”

One day in 2004, Mr. Bechara attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan, who was dealing with the withdrawal of an artist from a much-publicized show of female geometric painters. “Tony said to me: ‘Geometry and ladies? You need Carmen Herrera,’ ” Mr. Sève recounted. “And I said, ‘Who the hell is Carmen Herrera?’ ”

The next morning, Mr. Sève arrived at his gallery to find several paintings, just delivered, that he took to be the work of the well-known Brazilian artist Lygia Clark but were in fact by Ms. Herrera. Turning over the canvases, he saw that they predated by a decade paintings in a similar style by Ms. Clark. “Wow, wow, wow,” he recalled saying. “We got a pioneer here.”

Mr. Sève quickly called Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a collector who has an art foundation in Miami. She bought five of Ms. Herrera’s paintings. Estrellita Brodsky, another prominent collector, bought another five. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, also bought several, and with Mr. Bechara, donated one of Ms. Herrera’s black-and-white paintings to MoMA.

The recent exhibition in England, which is now heading to Germany, came about by happenstance after a curator stumbled across Ms. Herrera’s paintings on the Internet. Last week The Observer named that retrospective one of the year’s 10 best exhibitions, alongside a Picasso show and one devoted to the American Pop artist Ed Ruscha.

Ms. Herrera’s late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 — sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. “I have more money now than I ever had in my life,” she said.

Not that she is succumbing to a life of leisure. At a long table where she peers out over East 19th Street “like a French concierge,” Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she said.articlelarge popup popup-1

CARMEN HERRERA

LISSON GALLERY | MAY 3 – JUNE 11, 2016

To inaugurate its new Chelsea space, Lisson, one of London’s most significant and established galleries, presents works created over the past two years by the painter Carmen Herrera. Born in Cuba, Herrera has been a New York resident since 1954. She found her path into abstract painting upon discovering the artist group Salons des Réalités Nouvelles when she lived in Paris in the 1940s, and her earlier paintings tend to organic abstraction—curved shapes echoing natural forms. By the mid 1950s, the edges of these forms had sharpened and a radical simplicity—honed to this day, and a salient feature of this exhibition—had taken hold. This desire for “utter simplicity,” in Herrera’s own words, produces a lucid complexity even when, as is often the case, she uses only two colors and one shape.

Carmen Herrera, Alpes, 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 120 × 70 inches. © Carmen Herrera. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

A single painting on one wall, Alpes (2015) is the kind of work that stops you in your tracks: it is at one and the same time direct, open, and unpredictable. The composition is utterly compelling in its implications of a continuous space, which includes the white of the wall behind it, and in the contradiction of this, its two green triangles: one is seemingly incomplete, a half of the other—which is itself already complete. Herrera creates this effect with a sophisticated optical structure. She paints the sides of each painting the color of the shape that reaches that edge. Alpes comprises two panels; the vertical line of their meeting divides the complete isosceles triangle. The green and white triangles interchange visually as positive and negative inverting shapes. The white triangles, one complete at one scale while the white space to the right of the second green triangle implies a much larger one that is only partially seen, imaginatively continues across the wall itself. These differences are felt, rather than intellectually discerned. While they can be analyzed formally, their effect is more intense, musical and emotional. It could be described as spiritual: not only are we engaged physically, we are displaced from a state of certainty by such ambiguities, and—with pleasure, it has to be said—made to see something so apparently simple operate on another nuanced plane of visual experience. It is not so much a case of reduction as of distillation and refinement.

In Portal (Diptych) (2014) the black, central, symmetrical shape makes a mirror image across the two panels of the painting, in fact resembling a portal, or an Italian Renaissance portico. At 84 × 56 inches it is a size (like the majority of paintings here) that invites a physical relation with the viewer. What would have been a painting of sharp chromatic contrast and finely judged enigmatic symmetry instead becomes, through the use of the two panels, a play of doubling or reflection. The line created by the juncture of these panels is, in existing as a line, another contrasting element. As with the other works Herrera has painted the sides of the panels. This allows the paintings to be read as colored objects, an effect enhanced by the use of the abutted panels. The one sculpture present, Untitled Estructura (Blue) (1962/2015), is a logical extension of the optical into fully three-dimensional space.

Herrera’s achievement is clear. An artist who, subjected for decades to what might be called “benign neglect,” (as she put it: “I was happy to be ignored because I was interested in painting,”) continued working, despite being told by gallerist Rose Fried sometime in the 1950s, “You are a wonderful painter, but I will not give you a show, because you are a woman.” Thankfully, this absurd and stupid attitude towards women artists is a lot less in evidence these days (although of course—infuriatingly—not entirely purged). Herrera is making her best work now; this exhibition (along with further deserved acknowledgment upcoming in a survey exhibition at the Whitney this fall) offers the chance to fully appreciate its significance.

Contributor

David Rhodes

 

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