“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 in May 2015 with an acclaimed documentary—The 100 Years Picture Show—starring Carmen Herrera, directed by Alison Klayman—and a major retrospective that opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art last fall, she has doubtless asserted her place within the history of postwar abstraction. “There’s a saying that you wait for the bus and it will come,” Herrera observed two years ago, before exclaiming, “I waited almost a hundred years!”
Belated though her recognition may be, Herrera has worked continuously since the 1940s, and the origins of her practice date to her early career in Havana and Paris. “There were a lot of revolutions—and I mean bloody revolutions,” Herrera has remarked of her adolescence in Cuba. “The universities and high schools were closed, but I went to a place called the Lyceum, which was a kind of club that a couple of women had started.” The celebrated institutional haven of Cuba’s historical vanguardia, the Lyceum promoted culture and the arts, offering academic lectures and classes alongside social services and vocational training. Herrera studied sculpture there under María Teresa Ginerés in the early 1930s, following a yearlong stay in Paris and before beginning to train as an architect, at the University of Havana, in 1937. “There, an extraordinary world opened up to me that never closed,” she later noted of her exposure to architecture. “The world of straight lines, which has interested me until this very day.”
Her studies were interrupted by political upheaval and by her marriage, in 1939, to Jesse Loewenthal, an English teacher at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, and their subsequent departure for New York. Herrera made rounds at the city’s museums and galleries and soon returned to painting, enrolling at the Art Students League, where she studied painting under Jon Corbino. Although she lacked for exhibition opportunities and the receptive community that she had known in Havana, she made a few, lasting friendships among the downtown crowd. “We spoke about the nature of abstraction, its very essence,” Herrera recollects of her conversations with Barnett Newman, who became a close friend. “Barney felt strongly that abstraction needed a mythological or religious basis; I, on the other hand, wanted something clearer, less romantic and dark.” In Leon Polk Smith, a lifelong adherent of geometric abstraction, she recognized a kindred spirit: “We did similar work, and had embarked on a similar exploration regarding the structure and color of painting, and we always had a lot to talk about.”
More decisive, however, was her encounter with the legacy of early twentieth-century Constructivism in Paris. “It was a very happy time in my life,” she recounted. “I was young, I had a wonderful husband whom I loved and I was in Paris.” They took a studio in Montparnasse—in the same building, on rue Campagne-Première, as Yves Klein’s parents—and partook of the city’s theater, opera, and café culture. She participated in a number of group exhibitions, including Art cubain contemporain (Musée National d’Art Moderne, 1951), organized by the Cuban Concretist Loló Soldevilla, and the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, a bastion of postwar geometric abstraction founded in 1946. “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 Salon championed a diverse roster of abstract artists, and Herrera encountered both the legacy of the School of Paris—represented by her teacher and the Salon’s creative force, Auguste Herbin, as well as Jean Arp and Sonia Delaunay—and an international field that included Jesús Rafael Soto, Alejandro Otero, Victor Vasarely, and Ellsworth Kelly.
“You would go in and show your painting, and they’d either accept it or not,” Herrera explained. “One of the founders of the group [Fredo Sidès] said to me, ‘Madame, but you know you have so many things in that painting,’ and I felt very good about the compliment. But then I realized that he was trying to tell me that I was putting too much in the painting.” The early critique accelerated the minimalist direction of her work, which shed the romantic lyricism last seen in her Habana Series (1950-51), made during a trip to Cuba, in its embrace of pure abstraction. Following her return to Paris in early 1951, Herrera began to “forget about trimmings and go to the core of things,” and her process of “depuration” soon manifested in canvases organized in straight lines and two colors. The black and white Untitled (1952), a small oil painting, anticipated the breakthrough series of larger black and white paintings in acrylic from the same year, which marked the maturation of her practice and have long since remained a touchstone for her work.
“The initial point of departure in my work is a process of organization that follows the dictates of reason,” Herrera has explained. “The visual execution is contained within the latitude allowed by the order so established. It is a process that must choose, among innumerable possibilities, the one that balances reason and visual execution.” The black and white paintings of 1952 exemplify this creative method, marshaling the austere simplicity of color through architectonic structure and clean, optical rhythms. In Verticals, as in the related Untitled (1952) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the optical illusion travels across diagonal lines that converge across the top of the painting, where black and white meet; the planes of color suggestively push forward and back in a marvel of trompe-l’oeil design. “Color is the essence of my painting,” Herrera declared, emphasizing its structural and expressive significance on the occasion of an exhibition at El Museo del Barrio dedicated to the black and white paintings held in 1998. “What starts to happen to it as you reduce its numbers and come down to two colors, then there is a subtlety, an intensity in the way two colors relate to each other. Yet I am not interested in optical effects as these are simplistic to my mind. . . . For me, black and white are colors. I do not see them as anything but colors. These paintings are about rigor, about setting up a challenge for myself as a painter.”
Herrera’s star has remained ascendant in the nearly two decades since her black and white paintings appeared at El Museo, and she continues to work in the Gramercy loft where she has lived for more than sixty years. The resilience of her painting across decades of indifference is testament to its visual force and continuing contemporaneity, amid a renewal of critical attention to Minimalism and to the field of Latin American abstraction, seen in recent monographic exhibitions of the Brazilians Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, and Lygia Pape. Although she had little contact with the group Los Diez Pintores Concretos, which emerged in the late 1950s in Havana, she belongs to their generation as well; her transatlantic encounters with abstraction paralleled those of the concretos, among them Soldevilla and Sandú Darié. “I see my paintings at a crossroads, Herrera acknowledges. “They have much in common with geometry, with minimalism, yet they are neither. To me they are good paintings that do not fit into easy categories.” Now in the last stages of her career, she has remained steadfast in her commitment to her practice, which has seen new developments in drawing and sculpture. “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” Herrera has 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. . . . Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.”
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 Phoebe Hoban, “Works in Progress: One Hundred Years of Fortitude,” New York Times, May 15, 2015.
3 Herrera, quoted in Ann Landi, “Shaping Up,” ARTnews 109, no. 1 (January 2010): 66, 68.
4 Herrera, quoted in “El Color de la Palabra : 32 Artistas Cubanos; Entrevistas de Gustavo Valdés, Jr.,” Stet Magazine 1, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 21.
5 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.
6 Herrera, “Heavenly Paris,” Art in America (November 2015): 73.
7 Herrera, quoted in Anreus, “Carmen Herrera in the Context of Modern Painting in Cuba,” 18.
8 Herrera, “Heavenly Paris,” 73.
9 Herrera, quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” in Latin America, 29 September 2010, New York (New York: Phillips de Pury & Company, 2010), 36.
10 Herrera, quoted in Carmen Herrera: A Retrospective, 1951-1984 (New York: The Alternative Museum, 1984), 4.
11 Herrera, quoted in Alejandro Anreus, “Carmen Herrera in the Context of Modern Painting in Cuba,” 18, 20.
12 Ibid., 20.
13 Herrera, quoted in Sontag, “At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting.”