Although Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera, who died at the age of 106, spent 70 years refining her style of painting into a stark but alluring form of geometric abstraction, her pioneering work remained largely unrecognized by the public. art world until the early 1990s. From then on, however, it enjoyed popular reception, with myriad museum exhibitions devoted to the artist’s paintings and occasional forays into sculpture. Her work, she said in 2005, has been “a lifelong process of purification, a process of eliminating what is not essential”.
The artist was an early adopter of an aesthetic that has an affinity with American field painting, op art, and Latin American neo-concretism. A typical Herrera painting merely balances two contrasting color planes on a large canvas. Each work in the Blanco y Verde series (1959-71), for example, is painted uniformly white in acrylics, except for the imposition of one or more green triangles, each with slight variations in sharpness, which stretch the width or length of the composition. .
The artist rejected painting as an intuitive practice. His paintings were carefully planned using scale drawings on tracing paper, supplemented by annotated measurements, which were then reproduced in acrylic on canvas. His later work became sharper, more angular. Curves have been banned. “I’ve never come across a straight that I didn’t like,” she noted in 2010.
Herrera also made wooden sculptures on a human scale. Echoing acrylic works stylistically, these tended to balance multiple parts, painted in a flat monochrome primary color, into simple geometric arrangements. Untitled (1971), now in the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, consists of a rectangular block of wood more than a meter high and wide but barely eight centimeters deep, above which is balanced a smaller rectangle of block wood, similar in depth, and also painted royal blue. Later, she turned to public works, which she titled Estructuras Monumentales, her abstract compositions rendered in monochrome painted aluminum.
Despite a lifetime of dedicated practice, Herrera was 89 when his big break came. In 2004, a fellow artist, Tony Bechara, met the New York merchant Frederico Sève during a dinner. Sève mentioned that one of the exhibitors pulled out of what was supposed to be a three-woman exhibit he was curating on Latin American geometric abstraction. Bechara recommended Herrera as a replacement.
Sève sold several of Herrera’s works at the back of the exhibit, with prominent New York collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund buying several and donating one to the Museum of Modern Art. This work, a large hypnotic painting in black and white stripes from 1952, was exhibited in the 2007 investigative exhibition New Perspectives in Latin American Art.
In 2009 Herrera had a solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, attracting the interest of gallerist Nicholas Logsdail. His gallery, Lisson, presented Herrera’s work for the first time in London in 2012, and inaugurated a New York space with an exhibition of the artist in 2016, the same year that the Whitney Museum organized a retrospective.
Born in Havana, Herrera was the second child of Carmela Nieto y Font and Antonio Herrera y López de la Torre. Her father was the founding editor of El Mundo, a progressive newspaper, her mother a journalist. Herrera was raised alongside her mother’s five children from a previous marriage. Antonio and Carmela were outspoken in their politics, Herrera’s mother instilling a feminist attitude in her and her two stepsisters from an early age.
As Cuban General Gerardo Machado, elected president in 1925, grew increasingly despotic during his second term, Herrera’s parents largely escaped persecution. However, many of his family members, including two of his half-brothers, were harassed and imprisoned.
In 1929, at the age of 14, Herrera left Cuba to complete his studies in Paris, the first of several trips in his life to the French capital. Returning to Havana in 1931, she took a sculpture course at the Lyceum, a women’s college, building on the private tutelage she had received at the age of eight from the painter Federico Edelmann y Pinto.
These early exercises in sketching classical sculpture served him well. The first work she exhibited, Cristo, in 1937, was a weeping Christ carved from mahogany on a mount bearing a swastika. It was part of a group exhibition in a public park – the art hung from trees; Herrera was the “mind” behind the show according to one reviewer.
That same year, she met Jesse Loewenthal, an English teacher who had come from the United States, and their courtship continued after Loewenthal returned home.
In 1938, she enrolled in an architecture course at the University of La Habana. “Modern architecture interested me. I loved the spaces, shapes and lines,” she said in an interview with Artnet in 2016. However, she was forced to drop out of school after a year due to the unstable political situation. “There were always revolutions going on and fighting in the streets. The university was closed most of the time, so it affected my studies,” she said in a 2016 interview with the Guardian.
Fulgencio Batista first came to power in 1940 (after serving four years democratically, he would return in 1952 to establish a US-backed dictatorship), establishing some semblance of stability, but by then Herrera had left Havana to find Loewenthal in New York. They married in 1939.
In the United States, Herrera completed an apprenticeship with the Austrian-born painter Samuel Brecher. Despite his teacher’s adherence to realism, Herrera took timid steps towards abstraction. Two early surviving portraits, one of a male figure, the other of a female, use blocks of color delineating parts of the body and background.
From 1943 to 1947, she studied at the Art Students League in New York, but was increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional approach of her teachers. She later noted that her friendship with abstract artist Barnett Newman and his wife, Annalee, proved the greatest education. “He had an incredible vision for the artist,” she said. “And it was the best college you could have.”
In 1948 Herrera and Loewenthal moved to Paris. Living on the Left Bank in Montparnasse, she established contacts with Sonia Delaunay, Jean Arp and other personalities from the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. It was under their influence that Herrera dropped the lingering vestiges of figuration. “It was a struggle,” she noted in a 2010 interview with the Guardian of this development in her art. “An interesting fight.
In 1950 she had her first solo exhibition, back at the Lyceum in Havana, where she showed a series of large angry gesture paintings, works she described as a reaction against her hometown. The artist noted that the reception from local audiences was largely negative.
Green Garden (1950), produced in Paris, is the last work by Herrera to have a subject other than the formal devices of geometry and color. Framed against a brown background, curved organic shapes in a variety of green tones. The canvas was stretched around a circular frame, the first of many irregularly shaped paintings.
The Iberian, painted a year later, took on a similar form, but this time, except for the unity in the autumnal interlocking forms, burnished red, orange and black, there was not the slightest hint in the figure.
The couple returned to New York in 1954. Herrera then remained in the United States, despite the little attention given to his work. Two years later, she had a solo exhibition and work included in two group exhibitions, both of which focused on Cuban art, which irritated her. “I don’t believe the ‘Cuban painter’ exists,” she later said. “The artist is universal.”
Between 1958 and 1962 she did not exhibit at all, and she and her husband struggled financially. Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and the rents on a family estate in Havana went unpaid. Herrera has made efforts to bring some of her family’s most prized possessions to New York and put them up for sale. A year later, his brother Antonio was sentenced to 22 years in prison for “anti-revolutionary activity”.
Over the next four decades, she fell into a cycle of occasional small solo exhibitions and slightly more frequent participation in group exhibitions. In the late 1960s she received two grants from the Cintas Foundation and in 1977 a Creative Artists Public Service grant, but Herrera and Loewenthal looked for a cheap neighborhood so they could live off her teaching salary alone.
From 1988 to 2005 she had only one solo exhibition, at El Museo del Barrio, New York, an exhibition of her black and white paintings from the 1950s. She unequivocally blamed her lack of success on sexism . She remembers being told explicitly that although she was a great painter, a gallery owner could not give her an exhibition because of her gender. “Everything was controlled by men,” she noted. “Not just art.”
Today, Herrera’s work is housed in the collections of the Smithsonian and Hirshhorn museums in Washington; the Perez Museum of Art, Miami; Tate Modern in London; and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana; as well as the MoMa, the Whitney and the Walker. In 2019, his public sculpture was exhibited in City Hall Park in New York, before moving to Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston in 2020 to coincide with a retrospective at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. In 2019, she was made an Honorary Royal Academician, with the French government awarding her the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres the following year.
“I was left alone to refine and distill my craft for decades,” she said of her late career. “I have no regrets.”
Loewenthal died in 2000.