Carmen Herrera at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, until 2 January 2017.

September 2016
Virginia Woolf used to say that art has no gender. There is no such thing as female art. This is very clear in the new Whitney Museum exhibition of 101 year-old Cuban hard-edge painter and sculptor Carmen Herrera, a pioneer geometric abstract artist who has been painting for over 70 years, prefiguring the development of minimalism by almost a decade, but completely ignored by the art world until recent years. The advantages of being a woman artist as the Guerrilla Girls would say: “knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80”. Herrera’s hard-edged canvases emerged at the same time Ellsworth Kelly began producing his own abstractions and around the same time Frank Stella began producing his famous black paintings, yet she didn’t get the recognition. She sold her first painting in 2004 and it is only over the past decade or so that acclaim for her work has catapulted the artist to international prominence.
This very important exhibition organised by Dana Miller and with a major support from the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation (Herrera was very close friends with Barnett Newman) presents the first in-depth examination of the early career of Herrera, which spanned the cities of Havana, Paris and New York from 1948 to 1978. Herrera who studied art, art history and architecture in la Habana says: “I wouldn’t paint the way I do if I hadn’t gone to architecture school”. But it’s not until arriving in Paris in 1948, after 6 years in New York, that the artist began to explore different approaches to abstraction, and starts doing what she regards as her first mature work. Color, form, frame and edge all contribute to a sense of totality in Herrera’s paintings from this time forward. She sees painting as an object. Upon her return to New York in 1954, in the middle of the Abstract Expressionism apotheosis, her austere geometrical abstractions were tepidly received. Being a woman and an immigrant from Cuba during the Cold War didn’t help her much, failing to jump in the departing minimalist wagon. The few shows where she participated were devoted specifically to Latin American artists, categorisations (like female art) that sadly just maintain the status quo. Good art is universal and genderless.
The anonymity and lack of recognition never stopped her, and quoting again the Guerilla Girls, she’s been able to work “without the pressure of success”. At the end of the day, an artist is an artist. The lack of recognition didn’t stop Van Gogh or Modigliani either. But unlike them, who didn’t live until 100 years old, it’s so wonderful that Carmen Herrera can get her place in history and is able to see it.
Lines of Sight runs from September 16th to January 2nd 2017.
all images by Cristina Guadalupe Galván