Mothers of Invention: Carmen Herrera

Lines of Sight atr the Whitney Museum, New York City, September 16, 2016-January 9, 2017

Originally published December 27, 2016

Before there was Ellsworth Kelly, there was Carmen Herrera, born 1915, who developed a particularly powerful form of reductive abstraction before any of the painters we may think of as pioneers in the genre.

A panorama of the eighth-floor Whitney galleries whereLine of Sight is installed.

At far left: Days-of-the-week paintings, mostly 1978, acrylic on canvas; center: Green and Orange; right: Blue Monday, 1958, and Saturday, 1978, both acrylic on canvas. We're going to begun our tour in the galleries in the far distance

All photos Joanne Mattera except where noted

Green and Orange, 1958, acrylic on canvas, which hits you like a bolt when you step off the elevator.

Long overdue doesn't begin to describe this show. 

Havana-born Carmen Herrera is 101 years old [update: She turned 106 on May 30, 2021. Though she has been painting for eight decades and has been included in numerous group shows, her first museum retrospective, Lines of Sight, is at the Whitney Museum of American Art now. "I waited a long time," says Herrera, who still works most days in her New York City studio.  [Update: She turned 106 on May 30, 2021.]

“She continued to paint circles around the men, even when she was painting squares,” wrote Karen Rosenberg in her review of Hererra's show in the New YorkTimes in September. Though identified as a Latin American artist, Herrera has lived most of her life in New York City, with time spent in Paris in the late Forties and early Fifties among other international painters. 

In the early work, shown here, we get a sense of the artist feeling her way within geometric abstraction, as her contemporaries Leon Polk Smith, Barnett Newman, and Frank Stella did. Two paintings on the left wall are shown full view below

 Iberic, 1949, acrylic on canvas on board, 40 inches diameter

Image from the internet

Untitled, 1948, acrylic on burlap

Detail below

We're still in the same large gallery but on the other side of the wall that bisects the space. At left, the three tondos shown in closer view below. On the far wall is a painting you see as you scroll down

Three tondos from 1958-1965 

Shocking Pink, 1949, acrylic on canvas

Herrera likely made this work in Paris, as the date would have placed her there. A Parisian contemporary, whether they knew each other or not, was the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose signature color was shocking pink. I wonder if there was a connection, as the color seems so far out of Herrera's regular working palette

As we move to the right around the gallery, we see two black and white works

Untitled, 1952, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

Black and White, 1952, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

Below: Herrera with the painting, likely around the time she painted it

Image from the internet

 As she painted, Herrera distilled her expression, culminating in Blanco y Verde (White and Green), a 14-year series begun in 1959. Knife-sharp slivers pierce the field of each work to create such exquisite tension that they seem to bend the paintings out of rectilinearity

Green and White, 1956, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

Irlanda, 1965, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

Note the idiosyncratic frame, below

I love this panorama of the Blanco y Verde gallery because it is bracketed by the earlier work, left, and the newer red, yellow and blue paintings and sculpture that came later

Sight line like the ones above and below make me want to kiss the curator, who shows us how Herrera made the leap from flat painting, to painting as object, to sculpture itself

Blanco y Verde, 1966-67, acrylic on canvas, left, leads us to more sculptural incarnations, estructuras, of the same visual thinking. My favorite is Amarillo "Dos," 1971, acrylic on wood—that's the yellow estructura you see in this group of photos

Panorama of the estructuras. The wall text for this grouping of works carried this quote from Herrera: "I wouldn't paint the way I do if I hadn't gone to architecture school. That's where I learned to think abstractly and to draw like an architect."

 Above and below: Niche of works on paper in relation to the works inspired by them

This wall, with Blue Monday and Saturday, is on the other side of the niche where the sketches are. We have thus made a complete tour of the exhibition.

Carmen Herrera

Photo: Phaidon via the internet

More on Carmen Herrera:

. She sold first painting in 2004 at the age of 89

. Herrera had solo gallery exhibitions in the Sixties in New York City at Cisneros Gallery and Trabia Gallery, and in the Eighties at the Rastovski Gallery

. In 1998 she showed a series of black and white paintings from the Fifties at El Museo del Barrio. This was her first museum solo
. More info here in  Art News from May 29, 2020

. The Whitney Museum website includes a short video
. David Carrier's review on artcritical
. Eileen Kinsella's review on Artnet
. Karen Michel's NPR interview on the occasional of Herrera's solo show at the Lisson Gallery in Chelsea this past summer

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