101-Year-Old Artist Carmen Herrera Finally Gets Her Place in the Sun

Art Scene

101-Year-Old Artist Carmen Herrera Finally Gets Her Place in the Sun

Good things come to those who wait, and for geometric abstract artist Carmen Herrera, who has been working dutifully for more than seven decades, her moment has finally arrived.

At 101 years old, the  Cuban-born, New York-based artist has seen incredible success in recent years, culminating with two major 2016 exhibitions. In May, Lisson Gallery inaugurated their new Chelsea space with a sold-out show. On Sept. 16, Herrera’s retrospective, Lines of Sight opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Herrera’s paintings have even crossed over into fashion, namely in a Spring/Summer 2017 NYFW collection with Akris. The swiss label was inspired by Herrera’s intelligently simplified canvases. Herrera is also celebrated in the currently streaming Netflix documentary, The 100 Years Show.

The reason for Herrera’s decades-long critical neglect can be attributed to many factors – being female, a foreigner, and creatively ahead of her time. Yet she soldiered on, undeterred and reveled in her anonymity. Peers such as Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith, who as American males faced no barriers, overshadowed and superseded Herrera, but were in some way inspired by her work.
Carmen Herrera Blanco Verde

Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, two panels: 68 1/8 × 60 1/2 in. (173 × 153.7 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art. Purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 2014.63. © Carmen Herrera; courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Carmen Herrera 04_green_and_orange_1958_herrera

Carmen Herrera, Green and Orange, 1958. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72 in. (152.4 x 182.9 cm). Collection of Paul and Trudy Cejas © Carmen Herrera

 Herrera has relished working in obscurity, as it has allowed her total freedom, and time to refine and  perfect her artistry. Born in Havana in 1915 to an affluent family, Herrera gravitated to art and studied architecture at the University of Havana. Her architectural studies laid the foundation for the precision and geometric elements that have formed her signature style.

In 1939, Herrera married Jesse Lowenthal, a German-Jewish English professor from the Bronx, and abandoned her degree to relocate to New York. She continued her education at the Art Students League of New York from 1943-1947. In the late 1940s, as Abstract Expressionism became all the rage in New York, Herrera and her husband decamped to post-war Paris and settled there.

Carmen Herrera 16_iberic_1949_herrera

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949. Acrylic on canvas on board, diameter: 40 in. (101.6 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery © Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera Untitled

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1948. Acrylic on burlap, 48 x 38 in. (121.9 x 96.5 cm). Collection of Yolanda Santos © Carmen Herrera

It’s during this era of exploration while living in Paris that Lines of Sight began. The exhibit focuses on three decades of her life from 1948-1978, a relatively small chunk of her life considering she is more than 100 years old. Curated by Dana Miller (in her last curatorial project with the the museum),  Lines of Sight features roughly 50 works including acrylic on canvas, diptychs, triptychs, drawings and sculptures.
Carmen Herrera Wednesday 1978

Carmen Herrera, Wednesday, 1978. Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 42 in. (167.6 x 106.7 cm). Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, Germany © Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera Amarillo Dos 1971

Carmen Herrera, Amarillo “Dos”, 1971. Acrylic on wood, 40 x 70 x 3 1/4 in. (101.6 x 177.8 x 8.3 cm). Maria Graciela and Luis Alfonso Oberto Collection © Carmen Herrera

Upon entering the eighth floor gallery, viewers are instantly greeted by a row of Herrera’s show-stopping Days of the Week series, two-toned paintings from the mid to late ‘70s containing a bold and black geometric shape resembling a thunderbolt, which adds an explosive and frenzied energy to the works. In Shocking Pink, from 1949, and Untitled, from 1948, the vibrancy and passion Herrera felt in Paris during these early years comes alive. In rich, exuberant, almost textile-like patterns, one can see parallels to Sonia Delaunay and the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, the art genre and famed art exhibit Herrera showed and was associated with during her Paris period.

Carmen Herrera Irlanda

Carmen Herrera, Irlanda, 1965. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame, 34 3/4 x 34 7/8 in. (88.3 x 88.6 cm) Collection of Pérez Simón © Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera 15 Friday 1978

Carmen Herrera, Friday, 1978. Acrylic on canvas , 62 x 42 in. (157.5 x 106.7 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery © Carmen Herrera

In 1954, Herrera returned to New York and has remained in the same Union Square studio apartment ever since. Fellow artist and neighbor Tony Bechara proved fortuitous in her career in 2004, when he recommended her to Latin American art dealer Frederico Seve, who needed to fill a spot in a female geometric abstract group show. From that moment, Herrera was anointed as the art discovery of the 2000s, and has since continued reaping long overdue acclaim. Her canvases currently command between $30K to $40K, and are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, PAMM, Walker Art Center, MoMA, and the Smithsonian Hirshhorn. For a patient and persevering centenarian, Herrera finally got her place in the sun.
Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera, September 14, 2016, Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph © Matthew Carasella.

Lines of Sight will be on view through January 2, 2017 at the Whitney Museum.