Carmen Herrera (b. May 30, 1915) is an American minimalist and abstract artist whose works have brought her international recognition late in life. Born in Cuba, Herrera grew up among the intellectual elite of Havana. Her father was the editor of Cuba’s first post-independence newspaper, El Mundo, while her mother was a journalist and author, a philanthropist and feminist.
Herrera began taking private art lessons when she was just eight years old, continuing her training at the Herrera began taking private art lessons when she was just eight years old, continuing her training at the Marymount School in Paris. In 1938, Herrera went to the Universidad de la Habana to study architecture, where she stayed for only one academic year. “There were always revolutions going on and fighting in the street. The university was closed most of the time, so it affected my studies.” The year had a strong impact on Herrera, “…an extraordinary world opened up to me that never closed: the world of straight lines, which has interested me until this very day,” she said in her conversations with Dana Miller, the author of two catalogs of Herrera’s works.
In 1939, Herrera married English teacher Jesse Loewenthal (1902–2000), whom she had met in 1937 when he was visiting Cuba. She moved to New York with him and they lived in his apartment on East 19th Street. From 1943 to 1947, sIn 1939, Herrera married English teacher Jesse Loewenthal (1902–2000), whom she had met in 1937 when he was visiting Cuba. She moved to New York and they lived on East 19th Street. From 1943 to 1947, she studied at New York’s Art Student League and began taking printmaking classes at the Brooklyn Museum but left after a year. In New York, Herrera struggled with being included in museum exhibitions, and felt that Havana would have provided her with more opportunities.
In 1948, Herrera and Loewenthal moved to Paris. At the time, the city was a meeting place for various artistic styles and movements, including influences from the Bauhaus and Russian Suprematism. Herrera encountered various international artists such as Theo van Doesburg at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. She also become associated with intellectuals and artists Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian.
Financial difficulties forced the couple to move back to New York in 1953. At this time she began to experiment with “the physical structure of the painting…paintings becoming an object.” She also grew close to other postwar abstractionists, including Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelly.
Herrera continued to face rejection from the art world during her time in New York, largely due to her gender. She herself commented that “the fact that you were a woman was against you.” Despite living in America for much of her life, writings about her recent rediscovery have often labeled her as a Cuban-American artist. It is important to note that Herrera has consciously avoided any politicization of her work.
Carmen Ramos, a curator of Latin Art at the Carmen Ramos, a curator of Latin Art at the Smithsonian, noted that “Unlike many European émigré artists to the U.S., Herrera, who has lived in the United States since her early twenties, has rarely been identified as an American artist. Her recent success appears predicated on her Latin American status and ultimately obscures her visibility as a U.S.-based artist.”
Herrera was not broadly recognized or appreciated for decades, selling her first piece of artwork at 89 years of age. Prior to her recent shows at the Lisson Gallery and Whitney Museum, she had only one major show in 1984 at the now defunct Alternative Museum in New York.
Why were women drawn to abstraction? Partial conjectures would be that this was a new technique that was being explored in the 20th century and you could follow this art in New York without leaving the country. This genre also provided the freedom that women generally lacked in realism. Women abstractionists explored the concept of negative space—which was a novel idea in the US at the time; they built an artistic community rather than work as individuals; and most importantly, they relished this experimental approach to art that gave them space that was gender-blind. Sue Fuller, Barbara Olmsted, Alice Trumbull Mason, and Lee Krasner all were part of the movement. Without the type of market support accorded to star artists such as Jackson Pollock, women abstract expressionists did not arrive at the same level of recognition. Herrera was outside the periphery of this group of artists and did not enjoy any of the privileges of this community.
The key to understanding Carmen Herrera’s style is remembering that, before she left Cuba, she was trained as an architect. Her impulse is to combine formal, restrained almost architectural forms with striking colors. Herrera creates symmetry, asymmetry and an infinite variety of movement, rhythm and spatial tension across the canvas with the application of paint. She says, “I began a lifelong process of purification, a process of taking away what isn’t essential” (2005). For Herrera, “everything starts with the line.” Dana Miller notes that “… many of her lines are actually formed by color. She’s not drawing a line and filling it in. She’s using blocks of color to create lines and thinking about how to turn paintings into objects.” She eventually reduced her palette dramatically, limiting her works to two colors and assigning specific colors to specific shapes because of how the form and color interacted with light. Herrera stresses that color “is a most intuitive thing,” having learned of color from time spent in New York and Paris museums and exploring artists from Giotto and Zurbaran to Malevich and Mondrian.
Herrera also began working with acrylic paint before artists in New York had access to it. The quick-drying material lies flat on surfaces, enabling her to capture straight lines on burlap, sometimes even exposing the burlap. She clarified and simplified color and form as she went along, sticking to what was essential and what she really wanted to communicate. In the 2010’s she painted on thick pieces of wood or aluminum, making her work objects rather than paintings.
In summary, Herrera seeks to create orderly art in a chaotic world. She thinks about “the line, the paper, In summary, Herrera seeks to create orderly art in a chaotic world. She thinks about “the line, the paper, about a lot of tiny things that get bigger and bigger… and then a picture comes up.” She believes that “less is more” and paints with her brain rather than her heart. This drives her to consider not only whether she likes a color, but also what it does to the other colors involved and whether she can simplify an aspect of her work to improve it.
Herrera is not only significant for her contributions to geometric abstraction; many of her works are also complex representations of the natural world. For example, her seminal twelve-year series Blanco y Verde (1959) is a response to traditional landscape painting.
Another notable facet of Carmen Herrera’s early development was her experimentation with canvas shape. Sara Rich, a Penn State professor specializing in the connection between American Abstraction and the visual culture of the Cold War, explains that “Herrera’s earliest works focused primarily on orienting the canvas appropriately to reflect its shape.”
Due to her inability to walk at age 106, Herrera now lives at home full-time with caretakers who tend to her. She receives artistic input and critique from her close friend and neighbor, Tony Bechara. Manuel Belduma, her assistant, continues to aid her in her work and her life.
Alison Klayman, director of the acclaimed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, created a documentary about Herrera titled The 100 Years Show. The 2016 documentary “profiles Carmen Herrera as she enjoys artistic success and fame that literally took a lifetime to happen.”
Not many people outside her circle knew about Herrera 20 years ago, including the curators of the world’s largest museums. Now she’s revered as a ground breaker of contemporary art. Still working at 106, Herrera mNot many people outside her circle knew about Herrera 20 years ago, including the curators of the world’s largest museums. Now she’s revered as a ground breaker of contemporary art. Still working at 106, Herrera may be the ultimate survivor as curators rethink 20th-century art history through broader lenses. Being ignored is a form of freedom,” Herrera writes. “I truly used that all my life. I felt liberated from having to constantly please anyone.”
When success finally came, it gave Herrera “a lift and a major surprise”. With paintings selling for seven-figure sums, she was at last able to “afford to do my sculpture!” Explaining that her paintings had been “begging to become sculptures” since the 1960s, she enthuses over the “beautifully metallic surfaces” she can now create
Herrera said in 2010, at the age of ninety-five, that “every painting is a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win.”’ Each of her paintings is the product of an intense, even obsessive process of trial and error. “There is nothing I love more than to make a straight line,” she said. “How can I explain it. lt’s the beginning of all structures, really.”
Anu Mitra is Professor in the Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Studies program at Union Institute & University and facilitator of the Design Thinking and Museum Studies Certificate Programs.