“I was looking for a pictorial vocabulary and I found it there,” Herrera has reflected of the time, between 1948 and 1953, that she and her husband spent in Paris. “But when we moved back to New York, this type of art was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn’t get a gallery.” More than sixty years later, amid a resurgence of interest in geometric abstraction from Latin America, Herrera is finally receiving her historical due (to be sure, she now has a gallery). Feted on the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday last May with an acclaimed documentary (The 100 Years Picture Show—starring Carmen Herrera, directed by Alison Klayman) and with a retrospective planned to open at the Whitney this fall, she has doubtless claimed her place within the history of postwar abstraction.
Belated though this recognition may be, Herrera has worked continuously since the 1940s, and the origins of her practice date to her early years in Havana and Paris. She studied sculpture at Havana’s Lyceum, the celebrated institutional haven of Cuba’s historical vanguardia, in the early 1930s and trained as an architect, at the University of Havana, in 1937. Her studies interrupted by political upheaval—and, no less, by her marriage in 1939 and subsequent departure for New York—she soon returned to painting, enrolling at the Art Students League. More decisive, however, was her encounter with the legacy of early twentieth-century Constructivism in Paris. Herrera exhibited at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, then a dominant presence, from 1949 to 1952 alongside an international slate of artists including her teacher Auguste Herbin, Gyula Kosice, Alejandro Otero, and Antoine Pevsner. “The exhibition was a response to the Nazi’s anti-modern stance, and here you had the many voices that the Third Reich tried to silence; it was powerful,” Herrera has recalled. “Everything that was in the exhibition was abstract, geometric, even pre-minimal. Albers’ paintings touched me. I was able to see more work by the Bauhaus. I felt that this was the kind of painting that I wanted to do. I had found my path as a painter.”
The present Untitled dates from this early moment of awakening in Paris when Herrera began to reduce the formal elements of her painting, exploring the structures and relations of color. Like Siete (1949), also painted in red, yellow, and black, Untitled combines right angles and curved lines; here, the underlying grid is slightly akilter, its geometry less measured than intuitively asymmetric. Made at a small scale and in oil, rather than acrylic paint, Untitled anticipates the further simplifications to come in its crisp edges and strong, graphic color. Critic R.V. Gindertael declared Herrera a “subtle colorist and one of the best” in the group exhibition Art cubaine contemporain, held in 1951 at the Musée National d’Art Moderne (Paris), recognizing her already among the most promising artists of her generation.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1 Carmen Herrera, quoted in Deborah Sontag, “At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting,” New York Times, December 19, 2009.
2 Herrera, quoted in Alejandro Anreus, “Carmen Herrera in the Context of Modern Painting in Cuba,” in Carmen Herrera: The Black and White Paintings, 1951-1989, ed. Carolina Ponce de León (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1998), 18.
3 R.V. Gindertael, “Artistes Cubains à Musée d’Art Moderne,” Arts (1951).