There are many object lessons to take from Carmen Herrera’s first retrospective at a major museum, the Whitney, at the tender age of 101, but one in particular stands out: persistence is its own reward. To be clear, for all the artists out there who, toiling away in hidden pockets of the art world, are hoping to get recognition late in life the way Carmen Herrera did: don’t count on it. However, the artists who persist in believing in their vision in the teeth of studied indifference will find an excellent model in the clarity of her intention, and, in her unwavering focus, much to sustain their own practice. For the rest of us, we can take heart that the disadvantages of birth, in Herrera’s case the wrong sex at the wrong time in a small country, are not necessarily destiny. Artists and civilians both can take pleasure in the spare, luminous abstractions made from 1948 to 1978, during which time Herrera hit on her signature distillations of shape, color and line.
Every important artist worthy of that distinction has a “big bang” moment, when the particular expression of his or her chosen discipline connects with something much bigger—entering the conversation, so to speak, of history. Herrera managed that rare feat with her painting Blanco y Verde, 1959. Before dissecting it, however, it is important to understand whence she came, in order to grasp the full impact of that accomplishment. Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera studied art and architecture at the Universidad de La Habana. Her ability to instill in the viewer’s imagination a complex spatial configuration with just a handful of pictorial elements clearly comes from a working knowledge of architectural drafting. In addition to her formal acumen, as early as 1948, during her stay in Paris, Herrera understood the painting as an object in real space. Indeed, her entire career has hinged on her radical understanding of painting’s paradoxical nature as both image and physical entity—an insight that she arrived at as early as, or even before, Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly.
As with Kelly, Herrera spent the postwar years in Paris. From 1948 to 1953, she lived in Paris with her American husband Jesse Loewenthal, exhibiting regularly with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, an international artists’ group dedicated to the exposition of geometric abstraction. Through associating with this group and the kind of art it championed, Herrera claimed she “found her way” as an artist. A piece from that period, Untitled, (1948), a tondo in red, white and black, already reveals a number of tendencies that Herrera would whet to a cutting edge within the decade. In this work, she has already reduced her palette to just three colors, and divided them into hard-edged geometric shapes intersecting in a quasi all-over pattern. She painted the sides of the canvas black, which gives a slight halation of grey to the wall around its periphery, and emphasizes its circular shape to accentuate the lateral tension in her composition—a Chinese puzzle box in which every element is locked tightly into place.
Having absorbed the lessons of Suprematism, Neoplasticism, and other schools of pre-war geometric abstraction while furthering her own career through exhibits in Paris, she returned to New York in 1954 a mature artist, and with her husband Jesse, a school teacher at Stuyvesant, made that her permanent home. She might have been better off if she had stayed in Paris, with its more accepting international character. The New York City art world at that time was dominated by Abstract Expressionism, a culture marked by alcoholic excess and testosterone-driven painterly heroics in equal measure. That drama was far from her own inclinations. In a documentary Herrera put it this way: “I like straight lines, I like angles, I like order… because in this chaos that we live in I like to put some order… That’s why I am a geometric painter.” Given her painting style, her work received a cool reception from gallery owners and critics. Her gender didn’t help; one dealer even told her she would never get a show because she was a woman. However, her talent and hard work earned her the encouragement of her peers. Barnett Newman, whose own work shares affinities with Herrera’s, was a friend and neighbor who urged the artist to not give up.
So, she continued to make excellent work in spite of her outsider status. Equation (1958) shows her ramping up her drive toward greater simplicity. The composition, reminiscent of Robert Mangold’s tightly packed geometry, consists of two white triangles, not quite isosceles, not quite right-angled, wedged into a black rectangle, with the very narrowest black line separating the two. Four black triangles frame the two triangles in a way that emphasizes the tension between them, as if they were ready to slide apart along the axis of the black line separating them. As with the afore-mentioned Untitled, Herrera emphasizes the object quality of the support itself. Yet here she has made the relationship between the canvas and the wall even more ambiguous, and therefore more complex, by adding a painted white frame, taking the experience of Equation from a flat plane to a polyhedron when viewed from the side. Viewed head-on, the painted frame reads as a white rectangular contour that hems in the black
triangles, adding yet another layer of intensity.
Herrera has said that painting in black and white gives her respite from color, whose pleasures and problems fascinate and frustrate her. If that’s the case, then clearly she was ready to get back to color’s perils and promise with Blanco y Verde, (1959). Blanco y Verde is a masterpiece. As with most masterpieces other than the obvious tour de force, it is very hard to explain why Blanco y Verde is a masterpiece except for the bland assertion that every part of it works together seamlessly. Nevertheless, the title itself is as good a place to start as any. The very fact that Herrera gave it a title in Spanish suggests a captured memory of her time growing up in Havana. Perhaps events in her homeland had pushed her painting in that direction, as in 1959 Fidel Castro took control of Cuba, turning the country into a very different place from her childhood. Perhaps not. The fact remains that Blanco y Verde, for all its simplicity, packs a powerful affect. It is formed from two vertically stacked panels. The lower one is completely white, while the upper is largely white except along its bottom edge, where floats an improbably flattened green isosceles triangle whose base limns the upper edge of the lower panel. The play on whether the separation between the two panels is actual or pictorial accounts for much of the understated power of the piece. The intrusion of the green triangle, shaped more like a negative space than any kind of form in its own right, against the stark white of the two panels, throws yet another aspect of uncertainty into the process of attempting to read Blanco y Verde as a unit.
Knowing she had hit gold, Herrera returned to the green and white color combination over the years, developing Blanco y Verde into a series that lasted until 1971. Evidently the series Blanco y Verde acted as a kind of pilot light for her creative energy, something she could fire up whenever she needed a new push to innovation. Amarillo “Dos” (1971) shows Herrera working in the gap between sculpture and painting as she plays the conventions of the two media against each other. Two flat pieces of cut wood painted
yellow fit together in such a way that their combined outlines form a fractured rectangle. In the gaps between the two pieces, the white of the wall becomes the signature shards of color in Herrera’s earlier compositions.
As noted elsewhere, the only downside to this retrospective is that the Whitney did not devote more floor space to the rest of her work, from 1978 onward, which clearly leaves quite a void. (A show of her recent work, inaugurating Lisson Gallery’s New York exhibition space in Chelsea this past spring, partially filled that gap.) After all, Herrera is still making her art, proving that doing what you love will keep you strong, assuming you have the tenacity to keep at it when few others care. Providentially for her and us, Herrera had that kind of grit, and persisted until the art world finally took notice.