Carmen Herrera was a testament in the flesh that the expression “it’s never too late” applies to all walks of life. The Cuban-American artist, who today figures in major museums worldwide thanks to her abstract geometric style, was not recognized until the age of 89 when she began selling her first paintings.
Last Saturday, February 12, Carmen Herrera said goodbye at 106 in New York.
Born in Havana at the turn of the 20th century, Carmen Herrera was a visual artist and abstract and minimalist painter.
The artist was the daughter of Antonio Herrera, a former captain in the Cuban army who had fought in the war for independence from Spain in 1895. Her mother, Carmela, was a pioneer journalist and respected writer and feminist.
As a young girl, Carmen received art classes from Professor Federico Edelmann y Pinto. At the age of 14, she attended the Marymount School in Paris and returned in 1938 to continue her studies in architecture at the University of Havana.
During the social upheaval caused by the Castro Revolution, Carmen Herrera abandoned her university studies, married English professor Jesse Loewenthal, and moved to New York.
Once in the United States, Herrera received a scholarship to study at the Art Students League of New York, where she learned from Jon Corbino. The artist also trained at the Brooklyn Museum but was unable to gain a space in the exhibition halls.
Moving to Paris with her husband in 1948, Herrera rubbed shoulders with artists such as Theo van Doesburg and intellectuals and philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
“That city was an amalgamation of the world’s artists in those days,” Herrera told Art News in an interview in 2016. “The spirit and challenge of the new and the daring was stimulating. I always appreciated and liked [Lygia] Pape and Lygia [Clark] and later [Hélio] Oiticica and others I cannot remember today. But we all had similar sources in the Suprematists and the Dutch.”
By then, the artist had already fallen in love with lines and abstractionism.
After years of financial obstacles and the art market’s inability to see the artist for the genius she was, Herrera and her husband returned to New York, where other male artists in the same style, such as Leon Polk Smith, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman were lauded.
“Her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Julián Zugazagoitia, then-director of El Museo del Barrio, told The New York Times in 2009. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.”
Although the Cuban artist spent a lifetime working and perfecting her art, recognition came late.
“I was liberated by being ignored,” she said. “I was free to do as I wished. Frankly, it never bothered me that much. It just was not my time, I guess.”
As Art News explained, her opportunity came in 2004, when Herrera was 89 years old and had shown some of her work at Frederico Sève’s Latin Collector Gallery on Hudson Street.
Good reviews led to the first sales of his paintings to private collectors, followed by institutional acquisitions by MoMA, Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, and London’s Tate Modern. In May 2016, she opened Lisson’s New York space with new works, and in September, she had a 30-year retrospective at the Whitney Museum.
Carmen Herrera’s work was far from intuitive. As The Guardian explained, her paintings were carefully planned using scale drawings on tracing paper, with measurements noted, then reproduced in acrylic on canvas. His later work became sharper and more angular. Curves were banished.
Herrera also made wooden sculptures on a human scale. As with the acrylic works, these tended to balance multiple parts, painted in a monochrome primary color, in simple geometric arrangements.
“While her position as a Latina woman may have ghettoized and slowed her early career in New York, Herrera’s plight came to represent the lost generations of many forgotten modernist practitioners, only some of whom have begun to receive their art historical dues,” according to the Lisson Gallery, which represented her for a decade.
Carmen Herrera’s husband passed away in 2000, and the artist lost the ability to walk during the last few years. She lived at home with full-time caregivers, and her love of the straight line stayed with her until February 12, 2022, when she passed away at the age of 106.