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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
Laila Pedro LAILA PEDRO is Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Rail.
Art & Design
A Carmen Herrera Solo Exhibition at the Whitney
By RANDY KENNEDYSEPT. 7, 2016
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.”
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.)
Art & Design
At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting
By DEBORAH SONTAG
DEC. 19, 2009
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.
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.)
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.
|ArtSeen||June 3rd, 2016|
by David Rhodes
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.
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.