Carmen Herrera, a Cuban American artist whose trailblazing hard-edge abstractions received mainstream recognition in the later years of her life, died on Saturday in her New York City apartment at 106. The news was confirmed by Lisson Gallery, which has represented her for a decade.
“Carmen made works that are alive and in constant flux, even when she seemed to have reached an apotheosis or a summit, she kept looking over the edge,” Lisson Gallery CEO Alex Logsdail said in a statement. The gallery will stage a solo exhibition at its New York space in May, to mark what would have been her 107th birthday. That exhibition will be followed by a related solo show to inaugurate Lisson Gallery’s forthcoming Los Angeles space this fall.
Herrera is best known for her dazzling abstractions in which crisp whites and blacks, eye-popping greens and oranges, and electric blues and yellows butt against each other in such a way that can only be described as a creation of pure beauty. She created these works in various patterns: vertical stripes, alternating cubes, askew zigzags, and more. All were defined by their sharp edges. Her most recognizable innovations are often her most minimal ones: a sliver of green on a brilliant white, for example, feels intimate and raw in her hands. She first worked on canvas, then began creating shaped canvases in wood.
Herrera first began making these works in the 1950s, at the height of pure abstraction’s prowess during the postwar era, particularly in New York, where she was long based. That era was dominated by white male artists, like Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman, whose own abstractions share affinities with hers. Her work was long under-known during this period—and even for decades later. Still, Herrera persevered, continuing to make art well into her final years.
“The initial point of departure in my work is a process of organization that follows the dictates of reason,” she said in a 1985 interview. “The visual execution is contained within the latitude allowed by the order so established. It is a process that must choose, among innumerable possibilities, the one that balances reason and visual execution.”
Though the mainstream art world wouldn’t recognize her for several more years, Herrera had what would now be considered a mid-career survey (then called a retrospective) at the Alternative Museum, an artist-run space in New York in 1985. (She had only four one-person exhibitions between 1956 and 1985, and was included in only about a dozen of group exhibitions during that same period.) Her first institutional show came at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem in 1998. That exhibition, curated by Carolina Ponce de León and titled “The Black-and-White Paintings, 1951 – 1989,” came about through Tony Bechara, a close friend of Herrera’s and at the time the museum’s board president.
Discussing Herrera’s initial experimentations with hard-edge abstraction in a catalogue essay for the El Museo exhibition, Ponce de León wrote, “In these early works, Carmen Herrera brings the frontiers of line, form, and space into an ambiguous relation between negative and positive. … Her fundamental concern is to achieve a high degree of complexity through economy of resources. The precision of these paintings, the simplicity of their geometric structure, and the austere use of color prefigure not only the more simplified solutions of her subsequent work but also anticipate optical and Kinetic art and minimalist hard-edge painting which was in vogue in New York in the 1960s.”
It was again Bechara who was instrumental in bringing Herrera’s art to a wider audience, first in 2004 to Frederico Sève, who at the time owned the Latin Collector Gallery in Tribeca and was looking for artists to include in an exhibition. That exhibition led to sales of Herrera’s works to some of the world’s top art collectors, including Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Estrellita Brodsky, and Agnes Gund. The following year, Gund and Bechara together donated a 1952 black-and-white abstraction to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A 2009 exhibition of her work at the closely watched Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, eventually led to her representation with Lisson Gallery in London, which first showed her work in 2012. When Lisson opened in New York in 2016, it inaugurated the new gallery with a Herrera solo show.
That same year, the Whitney Museum in New York mounted the artist’s largest survey to date. That exhibition traveled to Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (K20) in Düsseldorf. In 2019, Herrera was commissioned by the New York–based Public Art Fund to create a new sculpture to be temporarily installed in City Hall Park, and she has since had surveys at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2020) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2021).
Numerous major museums—including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., Crystal Bridges in Arkansas, Tate in London—now own her work, and it is regularly displayed alongside that of her predecessors (like Piet Mondrian), her contemporaries (like Kelly), and artists who have since drawn inspiration from her.
Despite the fact that fame came late in life, Herrera never stopped producing work. For her, it was a quest “for the simplest of pictorial resolutions,” as she once said.
Carmen Herrera was born in Havana, Cuba, on May 31, 1915, to Xavier Herrera and Carmen Nieto. Her father, who was the founding editor of the Havana-based newspaper El Mundo, died in 1917 during a revolution, she has said. “He really espoused all the freethinking ways politically, morally, in every possible way,” she said in a 2005 oral history with UCLA’s Chicano Studies Resource Center. Her mother, too, had worked in newspaper and was an early role model for Herrera. “She was a pioneer of the feminist kind of thing, [who] kept working for many years. I grew up at various bad moments in Cuba. There were all kinds of revolutions, dictators, and bloody murders of my young friends.”
In the 1920s, she studied painting and drawing in Havana with J. F. Edelmann. Through Edelmann, who founded the Asociación de Pintores y Escultores de Cuba, she encountered modernist painter Amelia Peláez, who was almost 20 years her senior and who would become an important touchstone for Herrera as she was developing as an artist.
Having become fluent in French, Herrera went to Marymount College in Paris for her secondary schooling. While in Paris, she likely would have encountered the work of major artists working in the city at the time from Joaquín Torres García to Mondrian. She soon returned to Cuba and later studied with Isabel Chappotín Jiménez and María Teresa Gineréde de Villageliú. She spent a year studying architecture at the Universidad de La Habana beginning from 1938 to 1939.
Herrera first came to the United States in her early 20s, in 1939, shortly after marrying Jesse Loewenthal, an American who had visited Cuba. She took classes at the storied Art Students League in New York between 1942 and 1943, but “New York did not live up to her expectations of finding a provocative ambiance of modern art,” according to Ponce de León’s catalogue essay.
The couple then moved to Paris in 1948, where they stayed until 1954. It was in Paris that she was she found the environment necessary to create the art that had long been boiling beneath the surface. In the 2005 oral history, Herrera said, “I began painting. It was very difficult to find the vocabulary, and I struggled a long, long time. I finally hit it in Paris. But really, it took me years [to paint] without any direction.”
There she showed in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, organized by Fredo Sidès, each year from 1949 to 1952. In 1954, she and Loewenthal moved permanently to New York, where she was based until her death. Herrera continued to make her art and Lowenthal taught English at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan for 45 years until his death in 2000. Her experience in Paris left her committed to her individual aesthetic, and she seems to have disregarded the movements in the New York art world that she saw around her.
In her long life, Herrera was continually driven to create art, even when she couldn’t find the language to do so. After finding that visual language within herself, she worked without the recognition and support that she would find only later in life. That may be because it was a pursuit of beauty more than anything else that pushed her to create. As she once said, “I believe that I will always be in awe of the straight line, its beauty is what keeps me painting.”