Carmen Herrera, Painter and “Quiet Warrior” at Age 94


In a curious and heartwarming departure from an art world that promulgates under-33 group shows and an age limit on major honorariums, its newest Bright Thing isn’t young at all. Painter Carmen Herrera is 94, Cuban, and a woman, and didn’t make her first sale until 2004. Now she’s the subject of a glowing New York Times profile, collected by MoMA, the Hirshhorn, and the Tate Modern, and considered by some “the discovery of the decade.” Hear from the critics and see a roundup of her work after the jump.

Her oeuvre is similar in conception to the color field painting of Barnett Newman or the minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly with its eye on harmonious and discordant chromatic pairings, as well as space structured by symmetry and asymmetry. The straightforward geometry of Herrera’s work and her exacting palette predated some of the minimalism of the 1960s, so it’s especially fascinating to visit her oeuvre now, six decades after her quiet beginnings. According to Andrew Sullivan, a professor of art history at NYU, “Those of us with a passion for either geometric art or Latin American Modernist painting now realize what a pivotal role she played in the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas.”

Red with White Triangle (1961)

Herrera was born in Havana in 1915 and had moved around France and the US before settling with her husband in New York in 1954. She studied at times at the Art Students League in New York (other famous alumni include Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray, Donald Judd, and Cy Twombly) and participated in various salon groups in prerevolutionary Cuba and postwar Paris.

Amarillo (1971): “Two yellow polyhedrons pivot upon each other in a delicate balancing act against a screen of transparent Perspex, not so much a painting as color materializing in thin air.” [The Guardian UK]

Her paintings have been described as ascetic, controlled, constructivist, spare, their formal aspects rendered with an elegant simplicity. Guardian critic Laura Cumming outlines the effect of her 2009 exhibition at Ikon Gallery in England:

Yellow triangles rise, narrow as spires, and fall like beams of light against city darkness. Venetian red, white and black come together in planes, cones and discs, conflating hints of a tabletop with what I can only describe as conversational intimacy. The slenderest spearmint triangle recedes long and low into a white space that seems to overflow the canvas, spreading out into the walls around it.

One colour, a deep and peaceful blue, has taken on form to such an extent as to have become a solid, picture-shaped block, waist height and freestanding on the gallery floor. You would call it a sculpture were it not self-evidently still a painting. The top third stands ajar, as it were, opening up like a stable door, inviting you to enter the pure color of the painting.

Blanco y Verde (1966)

She sounds like a feisty one, too:

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, amounts 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. Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she said.

Verde y Negro (1995)

Tondo3Colors (1958)