Retrospective

‘Being an Artist in the ’40s Was Like Suicide’: On the Long Career of Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera, Green and Orange, 1958, acrylic on canvas. ©CARMEN HERRERA/COLLECTION OF PAUL AND TRUDY CEJAS

Carmen Herrera, Green and Orange, 1958, acrylic on canvas.

©CARMEN HERRERA/COLLECTION OF PAUL AND TRUDY CEJAS

For the majority of her career, Carmen Herrera’s name wasn’t well known. Looking back at the ARTnews archives, only one of her shows was reviewed, in 1965, and then there was no mention of her again for 55 years. Yet Herrera wasn’t one to give up. She kept making abstract paintings—simple in their aesthetics, cerebral in their sensibilities—and lo and behold, the spotlight is now shining on her. Today, the Whitney Museum unveils its long-awaited Herrera survey, the artist’s first-ever museum solo show. Below, excerpts from the ARTnews archives about Herrera, and her comeback. —Alex Greenberger

“Reviews and Previews”
December 1965

Carmen Herrera [Cisneros; to Dec. 11], who worked with Herbin in Paris in the early 1950s, shows this influence in Hard-Edge canvases employing colors in pairs—black and orange or red and white. One color acts as the field; bisecting this is the second color, in thin sharp triangles.

Carmen Herrera, Friday, 1978, acrylic on canvas. ©CARMEN HERRERA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LISSON GALLERY

Carmen Herrera, Friday, 1978, acrylic on canvas.

©CARMEN HERRERA/COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LISSON GALLERY

“Shaping Up”
By Ann Landi
January 2010

“Being an artist in the ’40s was like suicide,” Carmen Herrera says, without rancor. “Nobody paid any attention to women. The men always found a place, but the women had to fight, and they did fight—very, very hard.” In her modestly furnished Chelsea loft, serenely planted in front of bookshelves crammed with volumes by writers ranging from Balzac to E. E. Cummings, the Cuban-born artist, now 95, speaks in a slightly accented, matter-of-fact voice about the path she has traveled. The world has been slow to take note of her pared-down, highly cerebral paintings, but she talks mostly about how difficult it was to get attention as a woman in the male-dominated New York gallery scene of the ’40s and ’50s. She remembers one dealer in particular, Rose Fried, who came to her studio and praised her work as “wonderful, marvelous,” but told her point-blank, “Carmen, I want you to know that you can paint circles around the artists I have, but I’m not giving you a show, because you are a woman. The men have families to support.”

“ ‘Don’t Be Intimidated About Anything’: Carmen Herrera at 100”
By Andrew Russeth
June 5, 2015

At 100, Herrera has become someone whom newspapers regularly declare, as Proust sardonically put it, one of “the last representatives of a world to which no witness any longer exists.” Of course, it is actually true, and the art world is finally paying its proper respects. The Whitney is at work on a retrospective for next year, Lisson Gallery, which represents her, is planning a show for later this year, and Alison Klayman, who directed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is making a documentary about her life.

Meanwhile, though, Herrera is continuing to work. She still draws when she feels well enough, sitting by her front window, sketching out ideas for new paintings, which she then has transferred to grid paper and has her assistant execute. An unfinished new painting was sitting in her studio, a green triangle filling half of it. She was thinking about what to do with it next.

I asked her where her ideas for her forms come from. “I have to have it in my head,” she said. “I do a drawing, and then I figure it out.”

“Once you think about it,” she said, with a bit of bravado, “it’s very easy.”

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