Canvas work

Famous Cuban-American geometric artist Carmen Herrera dies at 106

Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera, famous for her striking geometric compositions that structure and define space, died this Saturday, February 12 at the age of 106 in her New York apartment. His death has been confirmed by the Lisson Gallery, which has represented the artist since 2010.

Much has been made of Herrera’s late rise to the art world: she had her first major museum inquiry at the age of 83, at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem in 1998, and never sold his first painting only six years later. In 2016, when the Whitney Museum of American Art held a solo exhibition of his work, Lines of sightshe was already a hundred years old.

Carmen Herrera in her Paris studio, around 1948-53.

Galleries and museums may have been slow to discover it, but Herrera’s brilliance was evident much earlier. Born in 1915 in Havana, where her artistic education began, she would spend the next four decades between Cuba, France and the United States, taking advantage of the proliferation of abstraction in the 20th century, from Bauhaus to Color Field painting. , while developing a style of its own. . After graduating from Marymount College in Paris, Herrera spent a year studying architecture at the University of La Habana, but quit in 1939 when military dictator Fulgencio Batista came to power on the island. She then married the American professor Jesse Loewenthal and moved to Manhattan, where she obtained a scholarship to the Art Students League. Between 1948 and 1954, the couple moved to Paris.

It was in those years, when he was living on the left bank of post-war Montparnasse and exhibiting with Josef Albers at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, that Herrera’s work shed all traces of figuration in favor of pure abstraction. His early explorations of geometry, line and form precipitated an idiosyncratic visual language of vibrantly hued, barely touching forms, often in just two colors and deeply sensual in their simplicity.

Herrera photographed by Jason Schmidt in his studio in 2015.

Upon his return to New York in 1954 and in the years that followed, his paintings became increasingly sharp, crisp and intense, sometimes occupying multiple panels or shaped canvases. “I had to forget about the toppings and get to the heart of things,” she said in a 2010 interview.

The use of masking the tape gave her the clean, crisp lines she was looking for. Among his most famous works is the White and Green series (“White and green”)made between 1959 and 1971. In these compositions, triangular emerald shapes are sparsely arranged on a creamy titanium white ground, or vice versa, evoking oddly elegant pinwheels.

From the 1960s, inspired by his brief but impactful architectural training, Herrera also produced sketches for a group of large sculptures. But most of these striking, monochromatic pieces, known as Structureshave only been made in the last two decades, when institutions like the Public Art Fund have taken up their making.

Herrera visiting Monumental Structuresan exhibition organized by the Public Art Fund at City Hall Park in New York, on September 25, 2019.

Herrera’s gender and ethnicity have certainly been obstacles to wider recognition, and for most of her career she has brushed with stardom but remained in paradoxical limbo. For example, she was welcomed into the circle of abstract expressionists, became friends with the painter Barnett Newman, and yet a New York avant-garde dealer refused to offer her an exhibition because she was a woman. And although Herrera was included in some exhibitions of Latin American art, she didn’t fit neatly into that category either: when the Museum of Modern Art held its 1944 Modern Cuban painters exhibition, featuring works by many of Herrera’s friends and colleagues on the island, she was excluded.

“I don’t want to be a Latin American painter or a woman painter,” she once protested. “I am a painter.”

However, once dealers and curators finally took notice, his rise to stardom was meteoric. Herrera’s Whitney Inquiry traveled to Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (K20) in Dusseldorthe and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. His works have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, among others. Additionally, she has been honored by the Royal Academy in London and the National Academy of Design in New York. Herrera also left an imprint beyond those rarefied spheres: In 2020, for example, middle and high school students in East Harlem painted a 17-by-54-foot mural based on his 1987 canvas “Diagonal.”

Although bound to a wheelchair and hampered by worsening arthritis in the last years of her life, Herrera continued to create art every day, bringing in a studio assistant who posed diligently. strips of masking tape on the canvas. Why? She had a simple answer: “It makes me feel good.”