Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight

Page 1


Carmen Herrera

Dana Miller is Richard DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Serge Lemoine is an art historian and professor emeritus at the Paris IV–Sorbonne University, former director of the Musée de Grenoble, and former president of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Gerardo Mosquera is an independent curator, critic, art historian, and writer based in Havana and Madrid. Edward J. Sullivan is Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts and in the Department of Art History, New York University. Mónica Espinel is an independent curator and critic based in New York. Published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London 180 color and 15 black-and-white illustrations

Jacket design by McCall Associates

Lines of Sight

Jacket illustration: Amarillo “Dos”, 1971 (pl. 57); case illustration: detail of Untitled, 1966 (pl. 56)

Carmen Herrera Lines of Sight

Carmen Herrera Lines of Sight Dana Miller With contributions by Serge Lemoine, Gerardo Mosquera, and Edward J. Sullivan, and a chronology by Mónica Espinel Cuban-born artist Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) has painted for more than seven decades, though it is only in recent years that acclaim for her work has catapulted the artist to international prominence. This handsome volume offers the first sustained examination of her early career from 1948–78, which spans the art worlds of Havana, Paris, and New York. Essays consider the artist’s early studies in Cuba, her involvement with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in post-war Paris, and her groundbreaking New York output, as well as situate her work in the context of a broader Latin American avant-garde art. An essay by Dana Miller considers Herrera’s New York work of the 1950s through the 1970s, when Herrera was arriving at and perfecting her signature style of hard edge abstraction. Personal family photographs from Herrera’s archive enrich the narrative, and a chronology addressing the entirety of her life and career features additional documentary images. Over eighty works are illustrated as color plates, making this book the most extensive representation of Herrera’s work to date.

Carmen Herrera


Dana Miller

With contributions by Serge Lemoine Gerardo Mosquera Edward J. Sullivan and a chronology by Mรณnica Espinel

Herrera Lines of Sight

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London

Herrera painting in her apartment, 50 King Street, New York, late 1940s



F oreword Adam D. Weinberg

8 Acknowledgments 13

armen Herrera: Sometimes I Win C Dana Miller

43 Carmen Herrera: Cuba, Inside and Out Gerardo Mosquera 55

Paris est une fĂŞte Serge Lemoine


Carmen Herrera: South to North Edward J. Sullivan

83 Plates 195

Chronology MĂłnica Espinel

214 Exhibition History 217 Bibliography 224 Checklist of the Exhibition 226 Lenders to the Exhibition 228 Index

Carmen Herrera, 1977. Photograph by Kathleen King

Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win Dana Miller

A glancing, superficial evaluation of the career of Carmen Herrera might point to a recurring pattern: an artist in the wrong place at the wrong time. Herrera herself has even suggested as much.1 Yet the totality of her more than seventy years of creative output is a stunning body of work that places Herrera firmly in the pantheon of great postwar abstract painters alongside the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Stella. So surely she must have gotten something right. This volume accompanies the exhibition Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, which focuses on the years between 1948—when Herrera journeyed to Paris, where she made what she considers her first mature paintings—and 1978, the point by when she had fully established her vocabulary of forms and her signature style. Other essays in this book skillfully explore her early years before and during her Parisian sojourn, and while acknowledging the relevance of those periods, my text concentrates on the years 1954 to 1978, after Herrera returns from Europe.

Born in Havana on May 30, 1915, Herrera grew up in a home filled with art and literature, and as the youngest of seven children (five boys and two girls), she learned to speak up for herself at an early age. “Well, I guess I was born a feminist because I always thought I was superior to my brothers,” she said. “I mean they were stronger physically but I was stronger mentally.”2 When she was about eight years old, Herrera and her brother Addison were deemed talented enough by their mother to receive private art lessons from the esteemed professor Federico Edelmann y Pinto (1869–1931). For several years the children sketched classical sculpture or casts, and this early experience instilled in Herrera the fundamentals of academic drawing as well as a sense of discipline: “I do remember once my mother coming into my room and I was doing a painting and she said, ‘Da Vinci is using your hand to do that painting.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not true; I’ve been working all day on that damned thing.’”3 After attending local Montessori and Catholic schools in Havana, in 1929, at the age of fourteen, Herrera followed in her older sister’s footsteps and traveled to the Marymount School in Paris, a finishing school where she perfected her French, studied art history, visited nearby temples of culture in the company of a chaperone, and fell in love with the city. Herrera returned to Cuba




Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

in 1931, when the island was in the throes of political and economic upheaval. The Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro would have been the natural place for Herrera to pursue her artistic studies, but at the time students were boycotting it in protest of the government’s violent crackdowns on demonstrators. Herrera herself “loathed” the authoritarian regime of Gerardo Machado y Morales and, although she knew her artistic education might suffer, she chose not to break the strike.4 The political idealism of Herrera and her friends would dissipate, however, as a pattern of revolt followed by dictatorship ensued—with bloodshed accompanying each cycle. Herrera later acknowledged her naiveté: “It was all very romantic and very innocent and very young.” But the result she said, was “only suffering.”5 Herrera gravitated toward the highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan milieu centered around the Lyceum, a women’s club in Havana. There she studied painting with María Teresa Ginerés de Villageliú and explored drawing and sculpture (her preferred medium was wood carving) with Isabel Chappotín Jiménez (1880–1964). Her artistic contemporaries in Havana at the time included Cundo Bermúdez (1914–2008), Alfredo Lozano (1913–1997), and René Portocarrero (1912–1985), and although almost two decades older than Herrera, Amelia Peláez (1896–1968) who was also a family friend. As is illuminated elsewhere in this volume, most especially in Gerardo Mosquera’s essay, Peláez served as an example for Herrera of an intrepid female artist. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, many left-leaning artists and intellectuals sought refuge in Cuba. It was from these expatriates, many of whom lectured at the Lyceum, that Herrera learned about the systematic subjugation of the Jewish population by the Nazis, which prompted her to make what she called a “protest work”—a carved wooden sculpture of Christ’s tearful visage set upon a base colored with a swastika icon (fig. 1).6 The work was included in the Primera Exposición de Pintura y Escultura al Aire Libre (First Outdoor Exposition of Painting and Sculpture) in Havana’s Parque Albear in 1937, where organizers installed most of the works hanging from trees. Although Herrera would remain outspoken in succeeding decades, this is the first and last instance of an overt political message in her art, and she generally feels artists should refrain from making such statements in their work. With her education delayed by Cuba’s continued social unrest, Herrera enrolled at the Universidad de La Habana in 1938 to study architecture. She remained for only one academic

FIG. 1

Herrera’s sculpture Cristo (c. 1937), exhibited at the Primera Exposición de Pintura y Escultura al Aire Libre (First Outdoor Exposition of Painting and Sculpture), Parque Albear, Havana, 1937 FIG. 2

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black and White, 1930. Oil on canvas, 36 × 24 1/8 in. (91.4 × 61.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Mr. and Mrs. R. Crosby Kemper in honor of the Museum’s 50th Anniversary 81.9

year, but this introduction to architecture had a profound effect on Herrera: “There, an extraordinary world opened up to me that never closed: the world of straight lines, which has interested me until this very day.”7 Herrera has given several explanations for why she abandoned her studies. Beyond the persistent state of political turmoil, which resulted in frequent strikes and government closures of the schools in Havana, Herrera understood early on that the profession would require her to put a client’s wishes before her own—and she recognized this would be difficult for her.8 Herrera also has recalled that the field was extremely competitive, and women were at a disadvantage. Her budding romance with the American Jesse Loewenthal (1902–2000), whom she had met through a letter of introduction from her brother Addison in the summer of 1937 when Loewenthal traveled from New York to Cuba as a tourist, was a contributing factor as well. Their long-distance courtship, followed by their marriage in the summer of 1939 (after her first year at the university), was the final precipitating event that steered Herrera onto her course as an artist in New York rather than an architect in Havana. Herrera arrived in New York as a newlywed in 1939 and settled into Loewenthal’s apartment on East Nineteenth Street. She found deep personal fulfillment with her new husband, a polyglot with “Old World manners” who taught English at Stuyvesant, a prestigious public high school.9 But New York was an enormous letdown for Herrera creatively. “I felt very disappointed,” she said. “I felt that what I had left behind in Cuba was more genuine, more powerful. It made me realize the high degree of openness toward modern art that existed on the island.”10 Herrera visited all the New York museums, most frequently the Whitney Museum of American Art, then located on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village not far from the apartment Herrera and Loewenthal settled into in 1941.11 Herrera found the Ashcan School of artists, championed by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942) and exemplified by the gritty works of Robert Henri (1865–1929), too provincial. The only American artists at the Whitney she found worthy of her interest were Stuart Davis (1892–1964) and Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986, fig. 2), both of whom had been at the forefront of modernist abstraction in the United States. Like Peláez, O’Keeffe also provided a role model of a fearless female artist. “She was one of my gods,” Herrera noted.12 Herrera studied art at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), privately with the Austrian-born painter Samuel Brecher (1897–1982), and then in 1941 or early 1942 she




Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

received a scholarship to attend the Art Students League. In Cuba she had worked and studied primarily among women at the Lyceum and was disheartened to find the same situation at the league. She had hoped for a coeducational experience, believing it would expose her to a broader set of styles and interests, but by then World War II had broken out and most young men had been called into the armed forces. Herrera studied painting with Jon Corbino (1905–1964) at the league, largely abandoning her sculptural pursuits. Mahogany, her preferred wood for carving, had been inexpensive and readily available in Cuba but was quite the opposite in New York. On her visits to galleries and museums she gravitated toward paintings, and Loewenthal urged her to pursue the medium, telling her that she could look at paintings or she could paint, but that if she did both she would never paint well.13 As for her “first love,” Herrera recalled, “little by little I forgot about architecture.”14 Herrera was an ardent but unsatisfied student at the Art Students League; she was searching for a more modern and avant-garde painting style than Corbino taught. She stayed at the school until 1943, though, when she felt she had learned all she could from him (she had also heard that Corbino wondered why she took his classes for as long as she did). That same year, she also tried her hand at printmaking, taking classes at the Brooklyn Museum. Still, she could not seem to find an artistic community that offered the camaraderie and support she had known in Havana, and she had little opportunity to show her work publicly. After several years of studying art in New York, Herrera suffered the indignity of being excluded from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1944 exhibition Modern Cuban Painters. Her only role in it was serving as courier to a work by Fidelio Ponce de Léon (1895–1949) on her return from a personal trip to Cuba so that it might be included. The landmark show featured the work of many of her friends and others that she had exhibited alongside in Havana. Herrera had been at the center of artistic experimentation in her native city but five years later she found herself caught in a netherworld between Havana and New York, not fully integrated into either place. Herrera did cultivate important friendships during these early years in New York, including a close association with Barnett Newman and his wife, Annalee. Newman (1905–1970) and Loewenthal were classmates at the City College of New York, and the two couples socialized frequently. Herrera, who was insecure about her English, would listen while Newman held forth. “He was so brilliant,” she recalled. “He had such incredible insight into the artist. And that was the best university you can have. If you are lucky enough to meet an artist of that stature, when you’re forming yourself, there’s nothing like it.”15 According to Herrera, she showed Newman her paintings from this period, but she “was not completely abstract. I was finding my way when he saw the work . . . later, he was always very positive about what I was doing.”16 Although Newman’s writings in Tiger’s Eye and his shows at Betty Parsons Gallery proved influential, the most fundamental and lasting lesson that Herrera attributes to him was “how to think about a thing and then do it. I used to do a thing and then think.”17 In 1948, shortly after Newman painted the first of what would become his hallmark “zip” paintings (see fig. 3 for a slightly later example), Herrera and Loewenthal decamped to Paris. Herrera had been eager to return there since her days as a young student and Loewenthal, a Francophile himself, arranged for a sabbatical from his job. Loewenthal twice renewed his leave, allowing the pair to live abroad for almost five years and focus on their individual creative pursuits, Herrera her painting and Loewenthal his writing. Their Paris period was punctuated with trips to Cuba, England, Spain, and the French countryside, including several summers at an artist’s colony in Alba-la-Romaine in Ardèche. In Paris Herrera set up a studio in their apartment on the rue Campagne Première in the fourteenth arrondissement (see p. 57), and the couple socialized with


FIG. 3

Barnett Newman, The Promise, 1949. Oil on canvas, 51 1/2 × 68 1/8 in. (130.8 × 173 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Adriana and Robert Mnuchin 2000.338

the novelist Jean Genet (1910–1986), among other luminaries, and regularly attended the theater, opera, and jazz clubs.18 In those postwar years, Paris was filled with aspiring artists, including American veterans taking classes and absorbing centuries of European culture, all paid for by the GI Bill. Among those former servicemen who traveled through Europe between 1948 and 1954 (the years Herrera was abroad) were the artists Sam Francis (1923–1994), Ellsworth Kelly (1923– 2015), Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Larry Rivers (1923–2002), and Jack Youngerman (born 1926).19 Artists and aspiring artists from other countries also flooded into Paris, creating a vibrant creative stew. It was in this context, not long after her arrival, that Herrera stumbled upon one of the cahiers of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in a bookstall near the Seine. She was thunderstruck: “It was a huge revelation. I felt that what [was] gathered up [in] these pages was the type of art that my whole life I had wanted to make.”20 It was through the Réalités Nouvelles that Herrera was first exposed to the Bauhaus, Russian Suprematism, and the work of Max Bill (1908–1994), and Jesús Rafael Soto (1923–2005). Seeing these various strategies persuaded her to shed the academic painting tendencies she had acquired during her schooling in Havana and New York and move decisively toward abstraction. Among the artists she most admired in the Réalités Nouvelles were several Scandinavian artists, such as Olle Bærtling (1911–1981) and Axel Wilmar (1913–1989), as well as the French-Algerian artist Jean-Michel Atlan (1913–1960). (The import of the group, and the specific artists involved in its salons, is discussed at length in Serge Lemoine’s insightful essay in this volume, so this text will limit discussion of Herrera’s Paris period primarily to her own developments.)21 Frustrated that she was only just discovering established modes of abstraction such as Russian Suprematism, Herrera was inspired to explore new forms and worked prodigiously in Paris, in spite of the sometimes limited availability of materials in the postwar years. Many of Herrera’s early French paintings, including the ellipses of 1948–49 (pls. 1–3) were painted on thick burlap, which was originally produced for equestrian and agricultural use (specifically to protect animals from the friction of a yoke or saddle). Herrera initially set out to make oval paintings but did not


Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win


have the technical skill to make elliptical stretchers. She was able to procure several thin, circular boards, however, upon which she stretched canvas and made at least four tondo paintings (pls. 4–7) in 1948 and 1949 (two of which she reworked in New York in 1956). Their lyrical interwoven shapes and dynamic colors propose an organic mode of abstraction, and Herrera acknowledged a debt in these works to her close friend and fellow Cuban artist Wifredo Lam (1902–1982, see p. 44) a relationship discussed in greater depth in Edward J. Sullivan’s incisive essay in this catalogue.22 Like Lam, Herrera frequently employed an elongated triangular form within her patterned works of 1948–51, perhaps most dramatically in the “steeple” on the left side of A City (1948, pl. 3) or the pointed arrow running vertically at the center of Vision of St. Sebastian (1949/1956, pl. 7). She often positioned pairs of these tapering shapes so that two would just barely meet at their tips, as with the yellow wedges at the bottom of A City (p. 87 detail). These points of contact, or near contact, create moments of supreme tension in her works. Over the next year Herrera experimented with more regular and precise triangular forms, as in the detonating star in Untitled (1949, pl. 9), the purple-and-black triangular quadrants of the diamond in Shocking Pink (1949, pl. 8),23 or the bilateral symmetry of the black-and-yellow Way (1950, not illustrated). Perhaps the work that best foretells her future direction is Thrust (1950, fig. 4), with its white dart and stripes slashing diagonally through a ground of cobalt blue. As Herrera was developing her own visual language in Paris, she made at least one significant trip to Cuba in late 1950–early 1951.24 While there Herrera painted a series of highly gestural abstract paintings that she described as a visceral response to the unpleasantness of Havana. She recalled that after years of living in New York and Paris, she found the heat and the mosquitoes, as well as the overbearing presence of her mother, oppressive. These works, referred to in this catalogue with the descriptive title Habana Series, also reflect her awareness of contemporary developments in abstraction: the innovations of artists such as Sandu Darié (1908–1991)

FIG. 4

Thrust, 1950. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame, 39 × 32 in. (99.1 × 81.3 cm). Private collection FIG. 5

Untitled, 1952. Oil on canvas, 11 × 14 in. (27 × 35 cm). Private collection


and Pedro Álvarez López (born 1922) in Cuba; the advent of tachisme in Paris; works by artists such as Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923–2002); the works and writings of Michel Tapié (1909–1987); the abstract work promoted in publications such as Tiger’s Eye; as well as exhibitions in New York at that time, namely the landmark 1950 Betty Parsons Gallery show featuring the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). The sweeping, energetic contours and range of jewel-toned colors found in these canvases (pls. 16 and 17) rarely appear again in her work. And yet Herrera was confident enough to present some of them in a solo show she had in December 1950 in Havana at the Lyceum (then called the Lyceum y Lawn Tennis Club), though the artist recalled that the local audience was not yet prepared for this type of gestural abstraction and was unreceptive.25 Upon her return to Paris, Herrera experimented with various styles of abstraction. She made complex, interlocking overall compositions of two to four colors with suggestive titles like Field of Combat (1952, pl. 14) and Links in a Chain (1953, pl. 15) that continued some of the strains she had pursued previously with works like Untitled (1947–48, pl. 12) and Green Garden (1950, pl. 13). Soon, though, the irregular quality of these paintings, as well as the watery transparency found in works such as Éléments clairs (1951, pl. 18), which was included in the sixth Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1951, and Lignes guidees (1951, pl. 19) disappeared almost entirely from her work. The sand, plaster, thread, and other substances that had roughened her surfaces in works such Les Liens (1949, pl. 11)26 and Untitled (1950, pl. 10 and p. 95 detail) also were abandoned. Instead, the more geometric turn Herrera tested gingerly in 1949 with Untitled and Shocking Pink reached its full realization in a series of stunning black-and-white works in 1952. It is with these paintings that the straight lines and dichromatic palette that characterize Herrera’s later works would first come into sight. Herrera’s first use of preparatory drawings and tape as a masking tool, as well as the arrival into Paris of acrylic paint (with a lower viscosity than oil paint), enabled her to achieve her geometric compositions and hone the precision of her lines.27 A unified surface prevails. While indebted to the Neo-Plasticism of Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), a strong diagonal dynamism reigns in her paintings from 1952, as in Untitled (pl. 21). The prominent zigzag line that traverses this composition is not a delineated contour at all, however, but a trompe-l’oeil effect created by


Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win


the reversal of color bands—a method Herrera employed in several other works from the period, including a smaller Untitled (fig. 5) with stripes of varying width. Herrera emphasizes this diagonal in two other significant works of the same year: Black and White (pl. 20) and Diagonal (not illustrated), square canvases intended to be hung on point like Mondrian’s lozenge works.28 The binary patterns of the black-and-white paintings create an optical effect, although that was not Herrera’s primary objective.29 To her, they were the logical conclusion of a systematic effort to purge her works of all but the essentials—form and color: “I had to forget about trimmings and go to the core of things.”30 Herrera painted each of these canvases from edge to edge, and in most cases she painted around the edges to cover the sides of the canvas or the slat frames. In the larger Untitled, for example, she painted the frame in the alternating color of the corresponding band. By incorporating the frame into the composition and painting the front, outer, and even sometimes the inner face of the thin wooden structures, Herrera insisted on the “objectness” of the works: they depict nothing other than themselves and emphatically assert their status as objects hanging on a wall. In a similar vein, Herrera composed several of her black-and-white paintings by joining multiple panels. She embraced the edges of the canvas as another means of dividing the surface and structured the works so the panels attached exactly where the bands of color met. To acknowledge the importance of these two tactics to her work, as well as the significance of these developments in an art-historical context, we have made a concerted effort to include the instances of painted artist’s frames and the number of canvases used in the construction of the multipanel compositions in the caption and checklist information in this book. In foregrounding the materiality of her support and working with multipanel paintings, Herrera was breaking new ground at almost exactly the same time that Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College in North Carolina (fig. 6) and Ellsworth Kelly in Paris (fig. 7) were taking

FIG. 6

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting, 1951. Oil on canvas, four panels: 72 × 72 in. (182.9 × 192.9 cm) overall. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation FIG. 7

Ellsworth Kelly, Painting for a White Wall, 1952. Oil on canvas, five joined panels: 23 1/2 × 71 1/4 in. (59.7 × 181 cm) overall. Glenstone

up similar experiments. Herrera most likely did not know of Rauschenberg’s work, and according to both Kelly and Herrera herself, neither knew the other’s paintings when they lived in Paris.31 These innovations have helped lionize both Kelly and Rauschenberg, while Herrera—although exploring similar ideas to maximum effect—is only now beginning to be acknowledged for her daring works of this period. (Sullivan in this volume also clearly articulates the ways in which Herrera’s developments dovetail with those by artists in the Southern Hemisphere, though all of the authors acknowledge the limits of such geographical distinctions.) Herrera’s work and career parallel in many respects those of Kelly and, to a lesser extent, Youngerman. All three artists lived in France between 1948 and 1953, and Kelly and Herrera both participated in Réalités Nouvelles salons of 1950 and 1951, although Kelly kept himself somewhat at a remove from the group and resisted being absorbed into the community. While embracing abstraction, Kelly grounded most of his compositions in careful observation of his surroundings—shadows, windows, kilometer markers were all fair game. Herrera, in contrast, generated forms from her own imagination. Her compositions were calculated; she did not adopt the strategy Kelly sometimes employed, of using chance or accident to arrange his forms. Herrera and Kelly developed contemporaneously in France, however, and though they may not have exchanged ideas directly with one another, they were exposed to many of the same visual sources. Several of their explorations took similar directions: in addition to their use of panels as an alternate means of division, in 1950 they both incorporated thread onto, or in the case of Herrera, into their canvases.32

Herrera and Loewenthal had hoped to remain in Paris longer but financial concerns compelled them to return to New York in early 1954. After her cosmopolitan Parisian milieu, within which she was highly respected, returning to New York was a tremendous shock. No community of like-minded artists awaited her. Abstract Expressionism was the dominant mode of painting, making it difficult to find a gallery receptive to her geometric style. She was also a woman and a Cuban immigrant in a more chauvinistic and xenophobic climate than Paris: “A Latin woman, painting in the manner that I did, stood no chance.”33 She knew many of the Expressionist painters dominating the gallery scene in New York at the time, some through Loewenthal (Theodoros Stamos [1922–1997] had been Loewenthal’s student at Stuyvesant High School, and through Stamos they knew Mark Rothko [1903–1970] before departing for Paris), but according to Herrera, these artists “had no reaction” to her work in the postwar years. “I didn’t go for what they were doing. They didn’t want to know what I was doing,” she said. “A Cuban? A Woman? Feh.”34 Proud but reserved, Herrera found it difficult to promote her work, particularly in the face of such overt discrimination.35 After the sting of several rejections—including a particularly painful



Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win


episode in which the gallerist Rose Fried explicitly told Herrera that although she could paint circles around the men, Fried would not take her on because she was a woman—Herrera curtailed her pursuit of commercial outlets.36 Despite limited opportunities to show publicly in New York, Herrera continued to paint assiduously and during the latter half of the 1950s, she further honed her working process. Her more distilled paintings of 1949–52, despite never being shown in any of the Réalités Nouvelles salons, would provide a path forward. Preparatory drawing became an essential first step. She would begin with a stack of tracing paper and a ruler and then apply pen or pencil to paper: “There is nothing I love more than to make a straight line. How can I explain it? It’s the beginning of all structures, really.”37 For every painting, Herrera made dozens of drawings before settling on a composition and (until recently) regarded them merely as a means to an end and discarded them. The rigorous patterns, right angles, and concentric forms of her striped Paris paintings loosened somewhat, and a perceptible shift toward a more asymmetrical and intuitive arrangement of forms became evident. Once Herrera determined the distribution of forms, she selected the palette, endeavoring to find pairings in which each color could withstand the pressure of the other and neither the hues nor values clashed. She generally disregarded notions of color symbolism as espoused by giants such as Vassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935), preferring to work instinctively. After finalizing the color and compositional organization on paper, Herrera determined the scale of the canvas, working within the limitations of her small studio, modest finances, and the technical capabilities of Loewenthal, who made her stretchers and also helped mount the canvases.38 This was essentially a mathematical conversion, but often the drawings or canvases would have to be adjusted.39 Herrera generally worked on one painting at a time, and although they did not always fall into place easily or systematically, she relished the challenge: “I get very mad and sometimes I win and sometimes the picture wins.”40 Occasionally she experimented with the orientation of a finished work, hanging it vertically and horizontally before determining the ultimate solution. Works deemed unsatisfactory (and many did not meet

FIG. 8

Verso of Herrera’s Blanco y Verde (1959) revealing abandoned panels

her exacting standards) were painted over or the canvas was turned around and reused; abandoned efforts are visible on the back of several completed works (fig. 8). Herrera minimized brushstroke and surface variegation until there was little evidence of her hand. She ceased using the sand that she had added to some Paris paintings to texturize the surface. The interaction between forms of solid, unmodulated color (taken straight from the tube or can of paint) became the predominant subject of her work and remains so to this day. The forms are balanced but often dynamically or precariously: In the dichromatic, vibrant work Green and White (1956, pl. 23), Herrera placed four elongated triangles at each corner, orienting them centripetally with the tips of each triangle pointing inward to enclose a square at the center. In Blue with White Stripe (1956, pl. 22), each of the four blue panels has a congruent white triangle along one edge. Rather than placing the four triangles apart, each in its own corner as with the aforementioned work, Herrera here has arranged the panels so that the white triangles abut one another and form a shallow V-shape, the “stripe” of the title. Such modular recombining and rotating of triangular forms can be discerned in many of Herrera’s paintings and later drawings, and one has the sense that she is making geometric patterns the way a quilter might from tiles— sliding, turning, and flipping them to make stars, chevrons, pinwheels, and crosses. I am not suggesting that Herrera was influenced by quilting techniques but rather that her highly conceptual, almost mathematical, process of combining and rotating a key group of forms is not dissimilar to the geometric approach seen in certain styles of quilting. In fact, Herrera has recalled that she used small bits of linen like collages to help arrange her compositions.41 Herrera continued to paint the edges of her canvases as well. In some instances, she did this to prevent a frame not of her choosing from being added later; this could be the case for Blanco y Negro (1961, pl. 27), which has a painted white frame. In other works, such as Cobalto y Blanco (1960, pl. 29) and Quartet (1961, pl. 28), she employed the frame as a compositional element—a continuation of the practice she first utilized in 1952. Quartet, an array of black-andwhite stripes on both canvas and frame is, not surprisingly given its title, composed of four panels. Herrera’s finished paintings function as a totality: color, form, surface, and edge are all enlisted in service to the composition. At about the time the term “Hard-Edge abstraction” was coined by the critic Jules Langsner to describe the work of West Coast artists Karl Benjamin (1925–2012), Lorser Feitelson (1898–1978), Frederick Hammersley (1919–2009), and John McLaughlin (1898–1976), Herrera made the magisterial Green and Orange (1958, pl. 24). Stepped blocks of color create a unified, interlocking composition. The distinction between figure and ground collapses as does the distinction between color and form. Color had now become her form. As she enlarged her canvases, her palette clarified and brightened to include brilliant hues of orange, green, blue, and yellow. Equation (pl. 26), another milestone from 1958, remains one of Herrera’s favorites. Inscribed within a black rectangle is a white parallelogram that has been bifurcated diagonally. The resulting two triangles are off-kilter, as if they have shifted along their partition like tectonic plates along a fault line. From a distance, it almost appears that the division is created by two abutting canvas panels.42 The thin, black line bisecting the parallelogram is a rare instance after Herrera’s return from Paris in which she creates a subdivision with line. The “slippage” of the larger white triangles creates four smaller, more tapered black isosceles triangles in two sizes along the perimeter of the painting. This full set of six triangular forms in Equation would become the alphabet from which she composed many subsequent works, including, perhaps most evidently, Blanco y Negro of 1961. During the first two decades after her return from Paris, most of the exhibitions in which Herrera participated in the United States were devoted to Cuban art or organized by galleries with a Latin American focus.43 (She had a solo show at the Eglinton Gallery in Toronto in 1955,




Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

which may have been the one exception to this marginalization.)44 For Herrera, such narrow classification was devastating. She later said that she felt “terrible about it. I don’t want to be considered a Latin American painter or a woman painter or an old painter. I’m a painter.”45 Herrera—who had lived and worked in Havana, Paris, and New York—should have transcended geopolitical borders, and any national categorization placed upon her is, at minimum, specious and at worst reductive. In 1956 she had a solo exhibition at Galería Sudamericana, a New York gallery devoted to Latin American artists. It received a favorable mention in the New York Times from the critic Dore Ashton, who wrote that “Carmen Herrera is one of Cuba’s best nonobjective painters.”46 Of course, Herrera’s pleasure at receiving such praise was tempered by the geographic specificity of Ashton’s assessment. Her reference to “Señorita Herrera” (even if meant to signal respect) and the exoticizing implicit in descriptive phrases such as “the sharp light and native excitement of Cuba” further revealed Ashton’s cultural bias. Herrera was highly aware that as a Cuban artist, audiences and critics likely had specific expectations of her work: high-key color, figurative imagery, and ideally a tropical subject, all in keeping with a fiery Latin temperament. But Herrera had no interest in catering to these stereotypes. “I don’t have a heart to paint. I have a brain to paint,” she said. “I don’t paint babies or flowers or things like that. They don’t interest me.”47 When Herrera befriended the Cuban artist Waldo Díaz-Balart (born 1931) in New York, she felt she had found a rare, like-minded Cuban abstractionist. “We were mutually surprised at the fact that we were both painting this kind of painting, because among the Latinos, and even more so among the Cubans there was practically no one who did,” she recalled. “Waldo and I felt as if we were two circus freaks.”48 Herrera consistently has resisted identifying artistically with a particular place: “I don’t believe that the ‘Cuban painter’ exists, or the ‘French painter’ or the ‘American painter’. . . . I am not, in the sense of my work, at all nationalist,” she said. “The artist is universal and neither definitions nor status limit him. In reality my work doesn’t approach what the great Cuban masters—many of them, my friends—traditionally made.”49 When pressed, however, the artistic heritage she has professed the greatest affinity for is neither Latin American nor Caribbean but Japanese. She said, “I have always reacted in an incredible way to Japanese art . . . to the reduction of things.”50 For decades Herrera had in her home a reproduction of one of the famed 36 Views of Mt. Fuji by Japanese artist Hokusai (1760–1849). Even more tellingly, she often

FIG. 9

Ellsworth Kelly, South Ferry, 1956. Oil on canvas, two joined panels: 44 × 38 in. (111.8 × 96.5 cm) overall. Private collection FIG. 10

Ellsworth Kelly, Jersey, 1958. Oil on canvas, 60 × 72 1/2 in. (152.4 × 184.2 cm). Private collection


FIG. 11

Frank Stella, Die Fahne hoch!, 1959. Enamel on canvas, 121 5/8 × 72 13/16 in. (308.9 × 184.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene M. Schwartz and purchase with funds from the John I. H. Baur Purchase Fund, the Charles and Anita Blatt Fund, Peter M. Brant, B. H. Friedman, the Gilman Foundation Inc., Susan Morse Hilles, The Lauder Foundation, Frances and Sydney Lewis, the Albert A. List Fund, Philip Morris Incorporated, Sandra Payson, Mr. and Mrs. Albrecht Saalfield, Mrs. Percy Uris, Warner Communications Inc., and the National Endowment for the Arts 75.22

speaks of her simplified compositions as the visual equivalents of haiku, self-contained and distilled to their very essence.51 As context if not comparison, Ellsworth Kelly in the late 1950s was receiving critical and commercial attention for his recent work (figs. 9 and 10), had his first solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1956, and was included in the seminal 1959 Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) show Sixteen Americans. Herrera’s paintings easily could have been shown alongside the works by Kelly, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella (born 1936), and Youngerman that curator Dorothy Miller selected for the show.52 Indeed, Herrera’s black-and-white striped Paris paintings preceded the infamous debut of Stella’s black paintings (fig. 11) in that exhibition by seven years. In my view, her work also could have been inserted seamlessly into MoMA’s exhibition nearly a decade later The Art of the Real: USA 1948−1968, which featured Donald Judd (1928–1994), Kelly, Newman, Stella, and Tony Smith (1912–1980) and purported to capture new developments in abstraction with art that was “maximal in color and minimal in form.”53 The Minimalists might not have looked to Herrera as a precursor in the manner that Carl Andre (born 1935) and others looked toward Barnett Newman, but she did not consider them her peers or successors either. When asked about the Minimalists, Herrera declined to draw any correspondences: “I was too old for them; they were too young for me.”54 The safety and well-being of Herrera’s family became her top priority as the political and economic situation in Cuba deteriorated and, after several prolific years in New York, her artistic


Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win


FIG. 12

Leon Polk Smith, South West, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, diameter: 55 in. (140 cm). Butler Museum of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio FIG. 13

Ilya Bolotowsky, Black Red Diamond II, 1967. Acrylic on canvas, 73 1/2 × 73 1/2 in. (186.7 × 186.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Philip Morris Incorporated 68.26 FIG. 14

Brochure of Herrera’s 1965 solo exhibition at the Cisneros Gallery in New York, featuring the painting Beacon (c. 1965). Its whereabouts are unknown.

production tapered off in 1961. Near the end of 1960 her brother Antonio was imprisoned in Cuba; several months later she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times pleading for amnesty for Cuba’s political prisoners.55 With increasing difficulty, Herrera continued to travel to Cuba, including a 1963 trip to see her mother shortly before she died. Herrera knew that the journey to the island would be her last: “Look, I don’t cry easily, but I did cry before I left Cuba as if my heart was breaking, because I knew I would never return, and I never did.”56 Later that year Herrera visited Spain for several months in an ultimately successful attempt to secure Antonio’s release from prison through family connections in the Catholic Church there. Herrera would make only a handful of works in 1961, 1962, and 1964, and there are no known extant works from 1963. In 1965 Herrera returned in full force to painting, testing herself with a new series of circular works that she embraced for the challenge they presented: “That was making my life very interesting, my rapport with the physical part of painting.”57 The artist Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996), who lived near Herrera and Loewenthal on Nineteenth Street after their move back to that neighborhood in 1964, showed her where to buy the circular supports he used for his works (fig. 12), simplifying her process dramatically.58 Smith, who also practiced a form of Hard-Edge abstraction, became one of Herrera’s closest compatriots. Like Herrera, he looked to Mondrian as a point of departure, was widely read, and professed a disdain for “art speak.” In terms of his work, Smith’s vibrant, often dichromatic abstractions do not reside entirely upon the surface of the canvas but imply a sense of space and depth in a manner similar to many of Herrera’s paintings. In addition to Smith, her circle of artist friends also included Benjamin Benno (1901–1980) and Ilya Bolotowsky (1907–1981). Bolotowsky, like Herrera, worked in abstraction and sought to create rigorously ordered paintings (fig. 13), a desire he attributed in part to the traumas of his childhood during the Russian Revolution. As he explained, “After I went through a lot of violent historical upheavals in my early life, I came to prefer a search for an ideal harmony and order which is still a free order, not militaristic, not symmetrical, not goose-stepping, not academic, you see.”59 Although Herrera has never so explicitly connected her visual approach to her personal history, she has made statements that echo Bolotowsky’s, such as: “In this chaos that we live in, I like to put some order.”60 Two of Herrera’s most dynamic works from 1965 are Rondo and Horizontal (pls. 60, 61). The diamonds inscribed within each of the circles seem to vacillate between one dimension and the illusion of three, shifting constantly between planar forms and volumetric cubes like an optical illusion that seems to change between duck and rabbit or old woman and ingenue. The art historian Juan Carlos Ledezma referred to these fluid interpretations as “inversions between figure and ground” and noted that Herrera called them “alternatives.”61 The combination of blue and yellow in Rondo suggests a convergence of sunlight and water, a notion supported by Herrera’s comment that she is fascinated by the color pairing, which creates “a very special contrast for me. I don’t know if this is inspired by Cuba, by the sun and the sea. Perhaps it’s not that, perhaps I just like it.”62 Horizontal’s vibrant rays traversing the canvas recall the red wavelengths stretching across the black ground of the 1949 Untitled (pl. 9).63 The sense that beams of light are radiating outward is also apparent in a now lost work, Beacon (c. 1965, fig. 14), in which orange-red vectors spread from the center like signals flashing from a lighthouse.64 Herrera also made a series of diamond paintings, including Cerulean Blue (1965, pl. 62), Red and White (1966, pl. 63), and a pair of smaller works from 1965 titled East and West (neither illustrated), whose white rays emanating from a central point also suggest light fracturing along a horizon line and link them to Beacon and Horizontal. For all of Herrera’s experimentation with form and shape, the circular and diamond paintings are the sole instances before 2011 when her canvases diverged from the orthogonal.




Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

This seems somewhat surprising considering the contemporaneous nonrectilinear paintings of Kelly and Stella, Newman’s triangular works of the late 1960s, and the general prevalence of shaped canvases in New York by the 1960s. Nevertheless, she was clearly preoccupied with sculptural forms. In fact, the series Blanco y Verde, which includes some of the most important works of her career, is indebted to her fascination with three-dimensional structures. In 1959 Herrera made the first work in this extended series that spans twelve years and constitutes a sustained investigation that she herself regards as among her most significant bodies of work, if not the most significant.65 Each of the fifteen known extant paintings in Blanco y Verde is a stunning iteration of a set of basic principles: rectangular compositions in green and white with triangular wedge forms.66 Herrera described the color pairing as “like saying yes and no,” though careful study of several works reveals differences in the whites, all of which possess a warm tonality.67 The distinctive quality of each painting and full comprehension of her highly inventive, iterative effort is only possible when viewing multiple works from the series. It is for this reason more Blanco y Verde works appear in this volume than have ever been reproduced together before (pls. 34–47). In some cases the pictorial composition seems to reside entirely on the front surface of the canvas, as in Blanco y Verde (1959, pl. 35). The physical insistence of the green triangle is reinforced by the structural separation of the two canvas panels: the bottom edge of the triangle aligns with the division of the supports (p. 133 detail). The bottom panel of the painting is a monochromatic white rectangle. In other works of the series, the composition wraps around one or more of the four edges of the canvas. This is difficult to discern in most existing photography of Herrera’s work, which is usually shot from a frontal position, so we have included in this volume additional images taken from oblique angles. These particular Blanco y Verde paintings unfold in the same way sculpture does when circumnavigated; they only reveal themselves fully when viewed in person. In the case of Blanco y Verde from 1967 (pl. 44), the tip of the green triangle’s point just barely wraps around the narrow left edge of the canvas. The other three edges of the canvas are painted green (p. 146 detail), creating a frame of sorts around the painting without a physical apparatus, thereby eliminating the possibility that an actual frame might be added to the work in the future. The three green edges also endow the canvas with a green halo effect when it is hung against a white wall. Crucially, Herrera was considering the total environment of the work—not just the canvas but the impact of it on the wall where it would hang. The critic Hilton Kramer, in a review of a group show in 1968, opined that this particular work from the series was “quite the best picture she has yet exhibited.”68 Herrera has been characteristically cryptic about her intent for this series and her titles give little away. When asked about the sexual overtones some have perceived in her triangles, she responded, “Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things—dirty minds!—but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles.”69 Herrera recently allowed that the green triangles were like “cuts in the canvas,”70 however, a revealing comment reinforced by a careful study of Herrera’s few drawings from the mid-1960s (pls. 48–52, 54, 56, 64, and 65). These works on paper provide a key to the method by which Herrera created such powerfully distilled paintings. “When doing something in architecture, it’s lines on paper. When painting, it’s the same. Sit down. Get a pencil,” she has said.71 The basic tenets of drafting that she learned in her introductory architecture classes at the Universidad de La Habana, presumably including isometric and axonometric projections, were essential to the preparatory drawings, which reveal the three-dimensional derivations of her paintings. The green vectors in To: P.M. (1967, pl. 46) are read as the cleaved edges of an isometric cube, their shared corner jutting out toward the viewer (fig. 15). When

FIG. 15

Diagram of an isometric cube FIG. 16

Untitled, 1971. Graphite on paper, 16 × 23 1/2 in. (48.3 × 59.7 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery FIG. 17

Verso of Herrera’s Blanco y Verde (1962) revealing an abandoned effort

understood as a white cube, its titular nod to Piet Mondrian makes even greater sense.72 The drawing for another three-dimensional structure (fig. 16) relates to the shape found in several paintings, including Blanco y Verde (1960, pl. 36) and on the verso of at least one other (fig. 17). Herrera herself has acknowledged the link between her painting and architectural training: “I wouldn’t paint the way I do if I hadn’t gone to architecture school. That’s where I learned to think abstractly and to draw like an architect.”73 The importance of her early work with sculpture and her architectural training is most evident in a series of six drawings she made in 1966, which enabled her to imagine a three-dimensional form and translate it onto paper. In each one we see a solid rectangular form rendered in an isometric fashion from which wedge-shaped sections have been removed. The drawings detail multiple variations, and in each the slices are excised from a different location, always touching at least one edge. It is as if Herrera were turning a rectangular block over in her mind and carving it in various ways, like a jeweler cutting facets. Perhaps her early efforts in sculpting wood were a foundational basis upon which she was able to call. In untitled drawing “1” (fig. 18, pl. 51), Herrera creates an isometric rendering of a vertical rectangular form lacerated at the center, shown in perspective with its left edge exposed. The form almost exactly echoes the earlier Cobalto y Blanco painting, and if Herrera substituted green for the negative space and edges and white for the frontal plane, she would arrive at a composition very similar to Blanco y Verde (1962, pl. 37). The drawing labeled “2” (pl. 50) similarly relates to the 1959 Blanco y Verde (pl. 34), the red structure becomes white canvas and the voids and interior planes of the three-dimensional form collapse and flatten into two green vectors on the canvas. The third shape in the series (pl. 49), shown here in a colored collage version, correlates to the 1960 Blanco y Verde (pl. 36), including the line marking the division of two canvas panels. Drawing “4” (pl. 56) relates directly to Blanco y Verde (1966–67, pl. 43). In this painting, the green continues around the top and bottom edges of the canvas, mimicking the cuts at the top and bottom of the structure in the drawing. Drawing “5,” which she colored with green gouache (pl. 48), is the inverse of Blanco y Verde from 1971 (pl. 47), in which green triangles wrap around the left and right edges of the canvas. Despite the fact that most of her 1966 drawings were made after their associated paintings, the relationship between the work on paper and the canvas is so direct that, given what




Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

we know about Herrera’s process, similar drawings likely had existed for these paintings prior to their start. In fact, the paintings probably represented compositions with which she was pleased and they therefore remained viable candidates for three-dimensional structures. Indeed, the 1966 drawings were exactly that—studies for sculptures she intended to create with a grant awarded by the CINTAS Foundation that same year.74 One can only imagine what the hundreds of drawings Herrera made and discarded prior to 1966 might have disclosed about her paintings.

The “objectness” implied in Herrera’s earlier paintings becomes actualized with a series of three-dimensional works she named the Estructuras (Structures), begun in the late 1960s. After receiving the second of two awards from the CINTAS Foundation for the 1968–69 grant cycle, she used the funds to hire a carpenter.75 He helped her build sculptural works in medium-density fiberboard, Styrofoam and epoxy, and Styrofoam and acetate (none of which are known to be extant but are documented in archival photographs and slides76). One such slide (fig. 19) captures a blue, two-part sculpture related to drawing 1 and labeled in Herrera’s hand as made from Styrofoam and dating to 1969. In 1971 she completed several of these structures in wood, including Azul “Tres”, Untitled, Amarillo “Uno”, and Amarillo “Dos” (pls. 53, 58, 55, 57). According to Herrera, these Estructuras were based on paintings that were “really crying out to become sculpture.”77 As indicated by the 1966 drawings, she sliced into single-colored solids, leaving wedges of negative space. Amarillo “Dos” is the sculptural version of drawing 4 and relates closely to Blanco y Verde (1966–67). To make the relationship between this painting and Estructura abundantly clear, these two works were hung one over the other in her 1984 Alternative Museum show (fig. 22, although it appears the painting was hung upside down, perhaps purposefully so). To the best of my knowledge, the Estructuras are Herrera’s only monochromes, though it is probably more accurate to read these as dichromatic, since the white wall showing through the negative space acts as the second color. The two yellow wall structures are the closest Herrera got to the notion of irregularly shaped canvases during these decades (1948–78), but the two blue Estructuras approach traditional sculpture. With the top segments shifted off their axes, they demonstrate a rare break in Herrera’s insistent planarity and rectangular container. In the freestanding Untitled, it is as if

FIG. 18

Untitled, 1966. Acrylic and graphite on paper, 14 × 10 15/16 in. (35.5 × 27.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery FIG. 19

Herrera’s Wall Structure: Cobalt (1969, no longer extant). The work was documented in a slide found in the artist’s personal archive. Annotations indicate the work was made from acrylic on Styrofoam


FIG. 20

Untitled, 1966. Gouache on paper, 14 × 11 in. (35.6 × 27.9 cm). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2010, 2010.51 FIG. 21

This image (taken at a Rastovski Gallery show in the late 1980s) appears in a contact sheet in Herrera’s personal archive. It captures what appears to be a Blanco y Verde painting whose whereabouts are now unknown

FIG. 22

Scrapbook with a photograph of Herrera at the opening of her solo exhibition at the Alternative Museum, New York, 1984. Visible in the background is Blanco y Verde (1966–67) hung directly above Amarillo “Dos” (1971)



Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

Herrera has taken the top panel of a diptych painting and shifted it slightly; in what direction depends upon the angle from which you are viewing the work. As a result, a dark triangular wedge of shadow is cast beneath the top “panel” and this black form becomes part of the overall composition. These blue works bear a resemblance to a vertical Blanco y Verde that appears in documentary images from the time but whose whereabouts are currently not known (fig. 21). In the painting the illusion is of a two-panel work with the right edge of the top panel having been pulled forward. The exposed face between the two panels is rendered as a horizontal green triangle—it is the painterly equivalent of the blue gouache from 1966 (fig. 20, pl. 52). Unsurprisingly, Herrera was looking for ways to hone the precision of her shapes and edges to their ultimate conclusion. In a 1970 grant application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (she was declined), she proposed translating some of her paintings into Lucite wall structures: “It became clear to me that the linear elements in my work required a hard surface to integrate structurally the ‘hard edges.’”78 As with many of her Blanco y Verde paintings, Herrera envisioned these works in an environmental sense, using the surrounding walls as part of the composition. As she explained, “The hard edges of these ‘wall structures’ are formed by space.”79 In 1967 she made a drawing for her only known extant architectural proposal, an unrealized mausoleum in Cuba for her favorite brother, Mariano, who was ill with cancer (pl. 65). Mariano did not pass away until 1970, though, and Herrera has said she conceived of the structure as a meditative place to go and pray for his health.80 Herrera’s mausoleum design echoes the modular approach of Tony Smith’s sketches for cube-based sculptures and monuments (fig. 23), and even his now-iconic 1962 sculpture Die (fig. 24).81 After the completion of the wooden structures in 1971, the carpenter she had hired could no longer work with her and Herrera ran out of funding for additional assistance. She returned to painting. “It’s cheaper: canvas and paints, that’s it,” she said.82 She explored other color combinations, white and red in particular, using predominantly rectilinear shapes. Triangles rarely appear in her work with this color combination—almost as if Herrera has accorded each color combination its own set of permissible forms. Her red forms are more often than not square, and no known green-and-white tondos exist. Herrera has acknowledged that certain colors work better with certain shapes, though she follows no strict rules and her parameters have been

FIG. 23

Tony Smith, The Piazza III, 1964. Ink and crayon on paper, 8 1/2 × 11 in. (21.6 × 27.9 cm). Private collection FIG. 24

Tony Smith, Die, 1962. Steel, 72 3/8 × 72 3/8 × 723/8 in. (183.8 × 183.8 × 183.8 cm) overall. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Louis and Bessie Adler Foundation Inc., James Block, The Sondra and Charles Gilman, Jr. Foundation Inc., Penny and Mike Winton, and the Painting and Sculpture Committee 89.6 FIG. 25

Floor plan of El Escorial


entirely intuitive.83 In works such as The Way (1970, pl. 66), lines reemerge, and they seem to trace the edges of a sculptural form, perhaps not unlike the interior space pictured in the sketched mausoleum for her brother. The division of space produced by the bent lines also recalls the quadrants of a square at the center of her similarly titled 1950 work Way. In 1974 Herrera began a number of black-and-white works, both as a means of “depuration” (her word for “purification”) after working intensely with color for several years, and also as a lingering response to an invitation to participate in Purism in New York, 1951–1963: Black and White, an exhibition at Buecker and Harpsichords on West Broadway, a salon of sorts run by the artist and harpsichord maker Bobby Buecker.84 The margin for error is minimal when working with such a stark color pairing. As Herrera explained, “You cannot lie when you have a black-and-white painting.”85 The works have a clear architectural sensibility and three of the works she made that year, Almagro (pl. 73), Escorial, and Ávila were named for cities or buildings in Spain. Escorial (pl. 72) is inscribed on its verso “San Lorenzo del Escorial,” a reference to the Spanish royal monastery outside Madrid begun by architect Juan Bautista de Toledo (1515–1567) but redesigned and finished by his pupil Juan de Herrera (c. 1530–1597), an architect, astronomer, mathematician, and author of a key treatise on geometry, Discurso sobre la figura cúbica (Discussion of the Cubic Figure). El Escorial most exemplifies what is now known as the Herrerian style of architecture, characterized by geometric rigor, clean lines, and lack of ornamentation. Carmen Herrera has said of the building, “When you look at the Escorial—that is an incredible, beautiful piece of architecture. Most people say it’s so severe, but they like Versailles.”86 Although there is no known familial relation to the architect, she feels “very much at home” at El Escorial.87 She was also drawn to the varied history of the building: “It was a garbage dump and now it’s a royal palace. And even more fun, El Escorial was designed as a symbol of Saint Lawrence, who was barbecued . . . and this is a grill.”88 Indeed, the composition of the painting Escorial derives from the architectural organization



Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

of the Spanish building’s gridiron plan (see fig. 25). Another black-and-white work from the same year, Hellenic (not illustrated), also makes a direct reference to architectural styles with its post-and-lintel construction and even the more ambiguously titled Alternative in Black and White (1974, pl. 74) seems to correspond to structural forms. Ávila (pl. 71) also takes its name from a Spanish historical site. The town was home to Saint Teresa (1515–1582), and Herrera, who was reading her letters and writings at the time she initiated the painting, admired the saint’s fierce independence.89 Ávila is also indebted to the work of one of Herrera’s favorite Spanish artists, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664). Beautifully rendered, highly detailed folds and draperies are featured prominently in many of his paintings, and Herrera has alluded to being overwhelmed by them, but was even more intrigued by the architectural elements in his work, in particular the L-shaped table in the refectory in San Hugo en el Refectorio (Saint Hugh in the Refectory) (c. 1655, fig. 26).90 The angle of the table is echoed by the symmetry of Ávila—it is as if Herrera places herself in that refectory, looking at the crook of the table, with the table jutting out on either side. Herrera later acknowledged a link to Zurbarán in the illusionistic quality of her painting, the sense of space receding toward the center and the arms (of a table, or of a person) stretching out toward the viewer on either side: “Yes, I mean, Ávila could be a sculpture too, actually. But it also has the feeling of hands embracing, you see. I like the openness of the arms there.”91 Herrera’s comment can be read as an allusion to another Zurbarán work, La Virgen de las Cuevas (The Virgin of the Caves) (c. 1655), in which the Virgin Mary is depicted with outstretched arms (fig. 27); the work originally hung adjacent to Saint Hugh in the Monastery of Santa Maria de Las Cuevas in Seville.92 Herrera was drawn to Zubarán’s linear perspective and strong architectonic forms: “In an incredible way, he was a minimalist. That is true of many of the mystic painters.”93 Indeed, the linkage of Herrera to Zurbarán can be quite explicit; in Untitled (1975, fig. 28) the green form slicing through the black mimics the edge of the vault in Entierro de Santa Catalina (Entombment of Saint Catherine) (c. 1630–40, fig. 29). In these instances, we get rare glimpses of Herrera locating visual sources in the world around her, and allusions to three-dimensional architecture in her canvases become highly palpable. Herrera also gravitated to the Spanish painter because he worked almost exclusively for ecclesiastical patrons. His commitment to his art and faith resonated with her. “People keep saying, ‘How do you work all

FIG. 26

Francisco de Zurbarán, San Hugo en el Refectorio (Saint Hugh in the Refectory), c. 1655. Oil on canvas, 103 × 121 in. (262 × 307 cm). Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Spain CE0174P FIG. 27

Francisco de Zurbarán, La Virgen de las Cuevas (The Virgin of the Caves), c. 1655. Oil on canvas, 105 1/8 × 126 in. (267 × 320 cm). Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, Spain CE0173P FIG. 28

Untitled, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 25 × 50 in. (63.5 × 127 cm). Private collection FIG. 29

Studio of Francisco de Zurbarán, Entierro de Santa Catalina (Entombment of Saint Catherine), c. 1630–40. Oil on canvas, 78 1/2 × 53 7/8 in. (199.2 × 137 cm). Ortiz-Gurdian Collection. Although this work is attributed to his studio, there are other versions known to have been completed by Zurbarán

those years without any reward, no money, and few exhibitions?’ Because it was a vocation,” she said. “Why would anyone go to a hospital to take care of the lepers if they do not have the vocation of being nuns? It’s the same.”94 Herrera has said that she did not choose to become an artist, rather that she was chosen; she likened it to falling in love or being struck by lightning. And on more than one occasion she has even remarked, usually with a sly smile, that she herself should have been a nun.95 Perhaps the most discrete series of Herrera’s career is Days of the Week (pls. 75–81), seven paintings that evoke some sense of the distinctive character of each day.96 Conceptualizing the works as a series from the start, she began in 1975 with Blue Monday and Thursday, and they mark a decided return to vibrant color. Blue Monday, the only horizontal composition, may have been the first; its title speaks to the universal sentiment with which the start of the work week is generally regarded. The seven works possess a sculptural presence, with black serving as ballast to vibrant color (in some cases, such as Friday, Herrera has also added a spacer to the stretcher to increase depth). The shapes and mechanics of balance vary from composition to composition. Like many of Herrera’s best works, the Days of the Week paintings have simultaneous possible readings or “alternatives.” They slip between two and three dimensions, and that tension is the source of their tremendous power. Upon careful consideration, the black forms in works such as Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, appear as the corners of two rectangular forms that have slipped along their borders, and thus recall the crucial arrangement of forms she established in 1958 with Equation. Or perhaps it is the opposite: the green, orange, and red shapes are the structures that have in fact shifted apart. The thin yellow strip in Saturday, meanwhile, seems to insist upon the figures as black and the remaining ground as yellow, but it can also be read as a bolt of lightning against a black sky. Although each work is autonomous, when seen as a group, the syncopation between the canvases and the dynamism of the forms within become most apparent. Days of the Week marks the last self-contained, tightly focused series Herrera has made to date and presents an appropriate conclusion for an exhibition designed to explore the origins and development of Herrera’s signature style. Now dispersed in collections around the world, these seven works have not been shown together since the 1984 Alternative Museum exhibition.97 In his New York Times review of that show, the critic Michael Brenson described the series as “the most engaging” works in the exhibition.98



Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win


— In 2015 the New York Times again singled out Carmen Herrera for distinction in a group show. In his review of America Is Hard to See, the permanent-collection exhibition that inaugurated the Whitney’s new building downtown, art critic Holland Cotter called her one work on view “outstanding.”99 Her Blanco y Verde (1959), acquired by the Museum in 2014, hung in a room (fig. 30) facing Kelly’s 1956 diptych Atlantic and one of Stella’s 1959 black paintings, and alongside works by Jo Baer (born 1929), Agnes Martin (1912–2004), Jasper Johns (born 1930), McLaughlin, and Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967). Herrera’s painting more than held its own in the company of those by the great postwar abstractionists, and when standing in that gallery, one had the vaguest notion of how bracing it might have been to encounter the work in 1959, how it might have astonished viewers to the level that Stella and Kelly’s works did at that time. It is for this reason that, despite the strength of her recent work, the Whitney was resolute that the first Herrera it brought into the Museum’s collection should be an early painting. In order to fully capture the significance of her lifetime of effort, it was vital to show her startling innovations at the moment they first came into her line of sight, to demonstrate that Herrera was thinking about the “objectness” of her painting and using panel divisions and the edges of her canvases simultaneously with artists who have previously been heralded for such developments. Aside from astute Whitney regulars or those who carefully study the accession numbers on object labels, few visitors likely have realized that Blanco y Verde was purchased by the Museum fifty-seven years after Kelly’s Atlantic. That gap between the two acquisitions represents a regrettable period of broad institutional neglect, although the record is slowly being corrected, even if Herrera’s works are not yet fixtures in art-history textbooks. And when considering her story with a more sustained and longer view, one must conclude that rather than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Herrera was, in fact, in many instances in the right place at the right time. Had she not had the early art instruction and sophisticated milieu afforded her in Havana, she would

FIG. 30

Installation view of Blanco y Verde (1959) in America Is Hard to See, 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

not have been so powerfully struck by the avant-garde abstraction of the Réalités Nouvelles. Had she not traveled to Paris, she likely never would have found her stylistic foothold or settled upon her now-signature approach. Had acrylic paint not arrived at the exact moment she was refining her process, she would not have created works of such precision; and had she not acquired elementary architectural drafting skills, she would not have been able to render three-dimensional structures. If anything, Herrera’s career suffered because she was, at various points, in the right place but before her time. The Whitney and its sister institutions are now playing catch-up to her, acknowledging today what should have been obvious and valued half a century ago. And it is not without some irony that one can apprehend in some of the recent coverage of the artist a certain timeliness, as she is repeatedly placed within the context of thawing U.S.-Cuban relations and a growing American fascination with the island nation, or within the art world’s larger embrace of established female artists. Those perceived liabilities are now neutralized, if not reversed. To be clear, though, none of the recent developments in the reception of Herrera’s work would matter if the corpus itself were not so dazzling. It is much to her credit and our benefit that Herrera had the independence, courage, and resilience to persevere for all those decades despite the prejudices and inadequacies of the New York art world. But external validation was never her motivation for making art and she always knew that the life of an artist would require extraordinary discipline. When asked in 2013 how she felt about her growing recognition, Herrera recounted that many people had suggested that Loewenthal was orchestrating it all from his perch in heaven. The suggestion that her long-sought appreciation should be credited to Loewenthal rightfully galled Herrera, just as she had been taken aback all those years ago when her mother suggested she was channeling Da Vinci with her painting. “Yeah, right,” she said. “Jesse on a cloud. . . . I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”100 Indeed, maybe it was Herrera all along.



Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

1. Herrera has said, “Things happen in a funny way. I mean you have to be in the right place at the right time, which I always managed not to be.” Carmen Herrera, quoted in Hermione Hoby, “Carmen Herrera: ‘Every painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win,’” Observer (London), November 20, 2010, carmen-herrera-artist-interview. 2. Carmen Herrera, quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” in “Latin America: 29 September 2010, New York,” auction catalogue for Phillips, de Pury & Company, New York, p. 35. 3. Carmen Herrera, quoted in Helena de Bertodano, “Art’s Hot New Thing (Aged 95 ¾),” Sunday Telegraph (London), December 19, 2010. 4. Carmen Herrera, transcript of unpublished interview by Julia P. Herzberg, December 15, 2005, University of California, Los Angeles, Chicano Studies Research Center. I would like to thank Herzberg for generously sharing the transcripts of her two interviews with Herrera with me. 5. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 35.


6. Carmen Herrera, conversation with author, May 26, 2015. This is supported by a photograph of the work in Herrera’s personal archive that she inscribed on the verso, “Protest against Nazi oppression.” The portion of this work depicting Christ is in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. The whereabouts of the swastika base are unknown. 7. Carmen Herrera, quoted in “El Color de la Palabra : 32 Artistas Cubanos; Entrevistas de Gustavo Valdés Jr.,” Stet Magazine (New York) 1, no. 2 (winter 1992): p. 21. Translated for this essay by Julia Vazquez. 8. Hoby, “Carmen Herrera.” 9. This description comes from Frank McCourt, his colleague at Stuyvesant, who wrote about Loewenthal: “What he did with a sentence and a piece of chalk would stun you. Beautiful.” Frank McCourt, Teacher Man: A Memoir (New York: Scribner, 2005), p. 187. 10. Herrera, quoted in “El Color de la Palabra,” p. 21. 11. “They were quiet moments—looking at American art, then so new to me.” Carmen Herrera, letter to author, February 20, 2014, Object Files, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. 12. Carmen Herrera, quoted in David Batchelor, “The Whole Thing,” Frieze Magazine, no. 152 (January–February 2013), 13. Carmen Herrera, conversation with author, October 10, 2014. 14. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 32. 15. Carmen Herrera, transcript of unpublished interview by Julia P. Herzberg, University of California, Los Angeles, Chicano Studies Research Center, January 10, 2006. 16. Ibid. 17. Herrera, conversation with author, October 10, 2014. 18. Julie Baumgardner, “A Woman for the Ages,” Art and Auction 37, no. 10 (June 2014): p. 81. In 1948, after he and Herrera had been living in Paris for two months, Loewenthal wrote to their friends Barnett Newman and his wife, “For Christ’s sake, Barneylee, save your dough and come over.” Letter from Jesse Loewenthal to Barnett and Annalee Newman, September 3, 1948, Barnett Newman Foundation, New York, folder number 9/79. 19. Women artists also traveled from the United States to Europe, but as few were eligible for the benefits of the GI Bill or even knew of its benefits, it was a smaller number that traveled on rare fellowships or self-financed journeys. Among this group were Pat Adams, Jay DeFeo, and Joan Mitchell, as well as Herrera.

20. Herrera, quoted in “El Color de la Palabra,” p. 21. 21. Herrera exhibited in the Réalités Nouvelles salons from 1949 to 1953. In 1949, the accompanying catalogue lists her works as Polyforme, Détail, and Vue d’ensemble. In 1950’s salon, Herrera was left out of the catalogue but from correspondence in her personal archive and annotations on the back of photographs, Les Liens (1949) was almost certainly included in the salon. It is possible Formes Libres (1949) was also included that year. The 1951 salon included Conquête de l’air (1950), Éléments divers (1951), and Éléments clairs (1951). The 1952 salon featured six works by Herrera, all entitled Peinture. Éléments divers (possibly a repeat showing), Morceaux de plasir, and Composition Clair were included in the 1953 salon. 22. She has said of these paintings, “They are very much like Wifredo’s work.” Herrera, interview by Herzberg, January 10, 2006. 23. Shocking Pink is unusual in terms of its palette and Herrera has more recently stated that violet is the color she most detests (Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 37). The title and particular shade of pink likely were meant as an allusion to the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, for whom bright pink was a signature. Schiaparelli’s perfume Shocking, released in the late 1930s, came in a bright pink box and originated the term “shocking pink.” Herrera does not recall Schiaparelli as a specific reference for this work, though I contend that as she was living in Paris in 1949, Herrera must have been aware of the designer and her infamous collaborations with artists such as Salvador Dalí (Carmen Herrera, conversation with author, March 11, 2016). 24. We cannot be sure when exactly Herrera returned from this trip to Paris. Based on the stamps and visas in her Cuban passport from this time, we know that she left Cuba and entered New York on January 23, 1951, and that she reentered France on February 20, 1952. Conversations with the artist suggest she went to Cuba for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays the winters of 1950–51 and 1951–52. This is corroborated by a letter to Herrera from the artist Grace Renzi, who wrote from Cuba that Wifredo Lam had told her that Herrera intended to go from New York back to Paris in late February (Grace Renzi, letter to Carmen Herrera, February 27, 1952, Herrera personal archive). 25. Herrera recalled that most visitors to the Lyceum show walked in and then turned and walked out (Carmen Herrera, conversation with author and Tony Bechara, June 8, 2016). Tellingly, Herrera selected the following quote from Leonardo da Vinci to appear in Spanish at the top of the checklist that accompanied her first solo show at the Lyceum y Lawn Tennis Club, Havana (December 23, 1950–January 3, 1951): “When a blind person opens his eyes, if he is not an artist he will see trees, rivers, or mountains; but if he is an artist, he will see lines, shapes, and colors.” Gladys Lauderman, “Carmen Herrera. Pinturas,” exh. brochure. Lyceum, Havana, 1950. 26. In publications after 2004 this work has been referred to as Les Lieux or Les Lieux #29. But a photograph of this work in Herrera’s personal files is inscribed clearly on the back Les Liens and indicates that it was included in the Réalités Nouvelles salon of 1950. A work by the title Les Liens is also listed on the checklist for her 1950 Lyceum show as well as the 1955 show at Eglinton Gallery in Toronto. On this latter checklist the medium for this work is listed as “sand & oil.” No reference to a work with the title Les Lieux appears before 2004. I therefore surmise that the title Les Lieux was erroneously applied to Les Liens in publications between approximately 2004 and 2016. I also believe that prior publications have mistakenly added inventory numbers inscribed on the verso of several canvases to the titles of some of the paintings made in Paris and Havana. Several of these works appear on early checklists without numbers, including Shocking Pink, Magic Flight, and Egocentric Pink, so we have listed these titles without the numbers. Unless part of a distinct pairing or series, the titles of her early works do not appear with numbers when listed on checklists from the 1950s and 1960s.

27. Although acrylic paints were not readily available in the United States until the mid-1950s, Herrera has stated on numerous occasions that early acrylic paints imported from Germany became available while she was in Paris. In a 2005 interview with the art historian Estrellita Brodsky, Herrera said about acrylics: “Above all, for the type of painting that I do, it was a blessing from God.” Carmen Herrera, interview by Estrellita Brodsky, April 1, 2005, personal audio recording. Translated from Spanish for this essay by Julia Vazquez. I am most grateful to Brodsky for generously sharing this audio interview with me. 28. Herrera probably was well acquainted with Mondrian’s work before arriving in Paris. If she had not learned of his work in Havana, she would have likely been aware of his presence in New York, where she might have seen his works in the Gallatin Collection at the Gallery of Living Art before it closed in 1943 and the memorial exhibition of his work at MoMA in 1945. The brochure text authored by Gladys Lauderman which accompanied her 1950–51 solo show in Havana indicates that Herrera was particularly interested in the hypotheses of Kandinsky and Mondrian (Lauderman, “Carmen Herrera. Pinturas,” 1950). 29. Despite her disavowal of Op art, Herrera’s work would have been at home in MoMA’s 1965 Op art show The Responsive Eye. Most of the artists included in that exhibition hailed from the United States or Europe. Among them were Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, John McLaughlin, Ad Reinhardt, Bridget Riley, and Frank Stella. In spring of 2016 El Museo del Barrio organized The Illusive Eye, an exhibition reexamining the MoMA show. Artists from Latin America and the Caribbean who did not participate in the MoMA show were considered afresh in this context and Herrera’s painting Tondo: Black and White II (1959) was included.

38. After 1958 she routinely worked with canvases 60 inches or larger. Before 1958 her works rarely measured larger than 48 inches in either direction. Many of her largest works were multipanel works that she could work on one panel at a time such as the 48-×-96-inch Blanco y Verde (1960). 39. For example, in the tallest of the Blanco y Verde works (1962), the painting is 1 inch wider at the top than the bottom. I would speculate that this was not part of the initial concept of the work but that adjustments to the canvas had to be made to ensure that the green triangle at the top left corner was properly resolved. I am grateful to Ron Amstutz for noticing this during the photography of this painting and to Peter Soriano for sharing this observation with me. 40. Herrera, quoted in De Bertodano, “Art’s Hot New Thing (Aged 95 ¾).” 41. Herrera, conversation with author and Bechara, June 8, 2016. In fact some of Herrera’s compositions, or portions of the compositions, do have a passing resemblance to unadorned quilting patterns such as Ribbons, Cobweb, or Dutchman’s Puzzle. This is also not dissimilar from the geometric solid exercises that are part of the Montessori approach, which she may have been exposed to at the Montessori school she attended as a young child in Havana. 42. Given her use of panels in the black-and-white works from Paris to create the appearance of diagonal delineating lines, it seems reasonable to assume the same from Herrera here.

30. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 36.

43. These included Art of the Americas at Galería Sudamericana in 1954, Twelve Cubans in 1956 at Roland de Aenlle Gallery, Modern Cuban Painting at Galería Sudamerica in 1957, and New York Cuban Group in 1965 at Cisneros Gallery. See exhibition history for complete listings.

31. Herrera remarked that she and Loewenthal socialized with artists in Paris while Kelly socialized primarily with musicians (Carmen Herrera, conversation with author, February 18, 2014). Kelly, in conversation with the art historian Estrellita Brodsky, stated that he was not aware of Herrera in Paris, nor did he recall the presence of other artists hailing from Latin America (Estrellita Brodsky, e-mail to author, March 22, 2016). This would seem an interesting area for further investigation as both Herrera and Kelly participated in the Réalités Nouvelles salons of 1950 and 1951.

44. The checklist for that exhibition lists works we know to have been made or begun in Paris, such as Links in a Chain (1953, pl. 15) and Egocentric Pink (1948/57, not illustrated). But the whereabouts of others in the list are unknown. It’s possible that some of the extant untitled works known to have been made in Paris might be among those listed, having been separated from their titles at some point, although the media listed for these works often includes plaster and sand, which raises the possibility that many of the works on this checklist are lost.

32. It is not impossible that the string in Untitled (1950) was applied after Herrera saw Kelly’s works in the fifth Réalités Nouvelles salon, where Kelly showed several of his wooden reliefs with string. This is the only extant Herrera work with string that I am aware of and may have been an experiment she chose not to repeat. Herrera did not at this point stray from canvas to wooden reliefs as Kelly did, nor did she make monochromatic work.

45. Herrera, quoted in Batchelor, “The Whole Thing.”

33. Herrera, quoted in “El Color de la Palabra,” p. 21. The discrimination Herrera suffered was compounded further in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power. During the Cold War, being Cuban-born made one suspect in the United States, regardless of political persuasion. 34. Herrera, quoted in Baumgardner, “A Woman for the Ages,” p. 81. 35. “I am very shy. I would die before I would do that.” Herrera, quoted in De Bertodano, “Art’s Hot New Thing (Aged 95 ¾).” 36. Herrera has related this story several times in interviews. One instance is as follows: “She said, you know, Carmen, you can paint circles around the men artists that I have but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman. I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face.” Herrera, quoted in Hoby, “Carmen Herrera.” 37. Herrera, quoted in De Bertodano, “Art’s Hot New Thing (Aged 95 ¾).”

46. Dore Ashton, “About Art and Artists: Carmen Cicero, Newark Painter, Gives First One-Man Show at Peridot,” New York Times, January 31, 1956. 47. Herrera, quoted in De Bertodano, “Art’s Hot New Thing (Aged 95 ¾).” The artist has made similar statements in several conversations with the author. 48. Carmen Herrera, quoted in Osbel Suárez, “Carmen Herrera in Conversation with/en conversación con Osbel Suárez,” Arte al Día International, no. 146 (July–September 2014): p. 32. 49. Carmen Herrera, quoted in Gustavo Valdés Jr., “Carmen Herrera habla con Gustavo Valdés Jr.,” Linden Lane Magazine 28, nos. 1–4 (2009): p. 4. Translated for this essay by Julia Vasquez. 50. Herrera, transcript of unpublished interview by Herzberg, January 10, 2006. In 1962 Herrera was included in a show at Toronto’s Jerrold Morris Gallery titled Geometric Painting: Classic and Romantic alongside two Japanese artists (Tadaaki Kuwayama and Rakuko Naito) and an American artist of Japanese-Hawaiian heritage (George Terasaki). 51. Herrera, conversation with author and Bechara, June 8, 2016. Bechara was immensely helpful in clarifying numerous questions for this essay and is an essential resource for any scholar researching Herrera. 52. Herrera did not become a U.S. citizen until 1971. This may have prevented her from being considered for this exhibition, though it seems more likely that Herrera was simply not on Dorothy Miller’s radar.



Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win

53. “The Art of the Real: USA 1948–68,” MoMA Press Release Archives, Museum of Modern Art, New York, https://www.moma. org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/4068/releases/ MOMA_1968_July-December_0001_62.pdf?2010. 54. Herrera, quoted in Batchelor, “The Whole Thing.” I have refrained in this essay from positioning Herrera as a precursor to Minimalism as to do so seems to limit her more than seven decades of contributions and characterize them as merely anticipatory of something more meaningful. 55. The letter was written March 5 under the name “Carmen Herrera de Loewenthal”: “As a Cuban, I want to bring to the attention of the New York Times and the public opinion of this country the fate of the political prisoners, men and women civilians who were condemned to long prison terms, not by civil, but by military tribunals. . . . If an amnesty were granted to those prisoners and full political freedom restored in view of future elections, even now a healing of the profound wounds that my unhappy country has suffered could take place.” Carmen Herrera de Loewenthal, “Cuba’s Political Prisoners,” New York Times, March 9, 1961. 56. Herrera, quoted in Suárez, “Carmen Herrera,” p. 29. 57. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 36.


58. “It was very difficult to find a carpenter who could make a circle for you, and Leon went to a store and now I can have them made by a carpenter. The circles came from Germany, and they were meant for—you know stores when they have the windows with a lot of different things—so they use a lot of the circles.” Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 35. 59. Ilya Bolotowsky, quoted in Louise Averill Svenson with Mimi Poser, “Interview with Ilya Bolotowsky,” in Ilya Bolotowsky (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1974), p. 32. 60. Carmen Herrera, in “Carmen Herrera: Artist in Exile, Part 2,” YouTube video, 9:49, episode two of four from Ray Blanco, Artist in Exile: Carmen Herrera, broadcast by PBS, 1994, posted by Frederico Sève Gallery, December 10, 2009, com/watch?v=iQNWpKS9xM0. 61. Juan Carlos Ledezma, “The Forms of Silence: Carmen Herrera Abstract Works, 1948–1987,” exh. brochure, Miami Art Central, 2005. 62. Herrera, quoted in Suárez, “Carmen Herrera,” p. 32. 63. An analysis of her early exhibition records and checklists indicates that Herrera rarely left her early works untitled. For example, a checklist of her solo exhibition in 1956 at Galería Sudamerica lists thirty-two works, all with titles. Only some of these match the titles of works we know of today and many of the works from 1948 to 1956 are now referred to as untitled. I contend that most of her early works had titles but that over the decades many have become divorced from them. Perhaps future research will link some of these currently unnamed works to the titles in the un-illustrated checklist for this 1956 show as well as others from the 1950s and 1960s. 64. This work was also featured on the cover of the invitation to her 1965 Cisneros Gallery exhibition and, through a process of elimination, Beacon seems the most likely of the listed titles attributable to this painting. The checklist did not include dates for the works though many were made in the year or two prior. For this reason we are giving the work a c. 1965 date. Herrera confirmed that this work, believed to have been composed of a black ground and red rays, was indeed titled Beacon (Carmen Herrera, conversation with author, March 11, 2016). The same day the author visited the artist in her studio, a new work inspired by resurrected images of Beacon was drying in her studio. Herrera subsequently titled that 2016 navy-and-orange work Beacon II. Happily, that painting was just purchased by a private collector for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 65. “That series I love very much, the green and white, I did many of those.” Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 36.

66. To the best of our knowledge, Herrera made at least seventeen works in this series, fourteen illustrated in the plate section here, another from 1966 in the collection of the CINTAS Foundation in Miami (not illustrated) and two others that appear to be captured in documentary photographs but whose whereabouts are currently unknown. Of the latter two, one is a vertically oriented painting which was included in one of her solo shows at the Rastovski Gallery (fig. 21). The composition appears related to the blue Estructuras. The other is a horizontal with a single green triangle. This mystery work is known to us from a single black-and-white photograph in Herrera’s possession inscribed “Blanco y Verde, 1968” and the somewhat improbable dimensions “10' × 4'” (see p. 205). Herrera has confirmed that the 1956 Green and White is not part of the Blanco y Verde series but the 1965 Irlanda is, as is the primarily green painting Blanco y Verde (1966). Irlanda was named in honor of her dear friend Margaret O’Haggerty, who was of Irish descent (Carmen Herrera, conversation with author, March 11, 2016). 67. Herrera, conversation with author, February 18, 2014. 68. Hilton Kramer, “Art: Beckmann in Black and White,” New York Times, January 6, 1968. The other four artists in the show were Fernando Maza, Rodolfo Mishaan, Ricardo Yrarrázaval, and Julio Alpuy. During a visit to the Cisneros Foundation in May 2015, the author noted that this New York Times review had been cut out and taped to the stretcher bar of this painting, presumably by the artist sometime around 1968. 69. Carmen Herrera, quoted in Deborah Sontag, “At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting,” New York Times, December 19, 2009, html?pagewanted=all&_r=1. 70. Herrera, conversation with author, October 10, 2014. 71. Ibid. 72. Herrera has confirmed that “P.M.” stood for Piet Mondrian (Herrera, conversation with author, March 11, 2016). Herrera also dedicated a 1990 painting with a black-and-red palette to Mondrian. Although Mondrian is often cited as one of Herrera’s primary influences, this series initially seems antithetical to Mondrian, both in its use of the diagonal form, and the color green, which he is said to have detested. 73. Herrera, conversation with author, October 10, 2014. The architectonic seems to be more explicitly referenced in Herrera’s recent work, such as Red Wall (2015), the diagonal thrust of which can be interpreted as a wall receding into the distance at the right of the canvas. 74. The CINTAS Foundation, founded in 1963, is a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting the creative pursuits of those of Cuban lineage residing outside Cuba. 75. Herrera received her first CINTAS grant in 1966 and a second in 1968. Each grant was in the amount of three thousand dollars. 76. These earlier structures are known from several sources, including a black-and-white photo in Herrera’s personal archives of a structure related to the Walker’s 1971 sculpture. The photograph is inscribed “Construcción Azul (styrofoam y epoxy).” She also listed its dimensions as 40 × 30 inches and dated the work 1969–70. Tony Bechara’s personal archives contain a slide sheet with one image labeled in Herrera’s hand “‘Wall Structure Cobalt, Styrofoam, 1969.” This two-part vertical work is similar to one fabricated in orange in 2007. Herrera’s Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship grant application of 1970 also mentions these works (Carmen Herrera, application for fellowship, 1970, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York). My thanks to André Bernard and Amy Skinner for tracking down Herrera’s two fellowship applications and graciously fielding my persistent inquiries. In addition, Ethan Alyea, then president of the CINTAS Foundation, indicated that he had seen some of these structures previously in her studio and that the CINTAS Foundation would welcome a gift of one of them (Ethan Alyea, letter to Carmen Herrera, November 13, 1970, Herrera personal archive).

77. Carmen Herrera, in “Carmen Herrera: Artist in Exile, Part 3,” YouTube video, 9:22, episode three of four from Ray Blanco, Artist in Exile: Carmen Herrera, broadcast by PBS, 1994, posted by Frederico Sève Gallery, December 10, 2009, com/watch?v=yzQvAAPrsxw. 78. Herrera, application for Guggenheim fellowship, 1970. Interestingly, among Herrera’s references for the application was Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times. 79. Herrera, application for fellowship, 1970. 80. Herrera, conversation with author and Bechara, June 8, 2016. 81. In her radical simplicity and romance with architectonic forms, Herrera’s work has several key affinities with that of Tony Smith, who worked as an architect early in his career. 82. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 36. 83. Herrera, conversation with author and Bechara, June 8, 2016. 84. Herrera, in “Artist in Exile part 3.” Bobby Buecker was a painter in the 1950s who exhibited alongside Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith and showed with Richard Feigen. In the 1970s his Soho loft at 465 West Broadway doubled as both his harpsichord factory and a gallery for artists and performance space for musicians, the latter participating in what he called the Soho Baroque Opera Co. Ilya Bolotowsky showed there as did Ray Johnson, and on occasion in group shows so did Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and Robert Mapplethorpe. The loft/gallery/ harpsichord factory became something of a salon for Herrera and her community of like-minded artists in the 1970s. 85. Herrera, in “Artist in Exile part 3.” 86. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 37. 87. Carmen Herrera, in “Carmen Herrera Life and Work (Chapter 1),” YouTube video, 6:02, from Konstantia Kontaxis, Carmen Herrera: Five Degrees of Freedom, 2005, posted by Frederico Sève Gallery, September 16, 2009, com/watch?v=0RMna9YNYFA. 88. Herrera, quoted in Baumgardner, “A Woman for the Ages,” p. 79. (Escorial means “trash” in Spanish.) 89. “That’s a painting I cherish, Ávila. Have you ever been to Ávila? It’s in Spain. Oh, it’s incredible. That is where Santa Teresa of Ávila came from. At that particular time I was reading her letters. She was a very politically aware lady.” Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 35. Ávila was apparently the site of the first monastery established by Saint Teresa, begun in the year 1562. Herrera’s nod to Spain in her titling began earlier with works such as Iberia (1948) and Basque (1965). 90. Of Zurbarán, Herrera has said: “He’s something else. He wasn’t a monk, but he may as well have been one. He painted for all the convents and so on. And I saw his work in Spain, in the proper place, where he had painted for this convent. And it was so beautiful, the whites and the whole table, it was absolutely wonderful.” Herrera, quoted in Batchelor, “The Whole Thing.” Originally painted for the sacristy of the Carthusian monastery Santa Maria de las Cuevas in Seville, the painting depicts the miracle in which meat from Saint Hugh turned to ash just at the moment the monks awakened after a sleep of forty-five days. The parable is meant to illustrate how the monks recommited themselves to a life of austerity. Herrera likely would have seen the work in the Museo della Belles Artes in Seville, which she visited on more than one occasion prior to 1974. 91. Herrera, quoted in Obrist, “Carmen Herrera: The Quiet Revolutionary,” p. 35. 92. Herrera, in “Carmen Herrera Life and Work (chapter 1).” 93. Ibid.

94. Herrera, quoted in De Bertodano, “Art’s Hot New Thing (Aged 95 ¾).” 95. During conversations with the author between 2014 and 2016 the artist made numerous comments to this effect. In a November 2012 interview with the art historian Estrellita Brodsky, Herrera said: “I am an admirer of Teresa de Ávila and of Zubarán. I have always gained inspiration from their vision and from the clarity of their purpose.” Carmen Herrera, quoted in Estrellita B. Brodsky, “Ascetic Equation,” in Carmen Herrera: Works on Paper / Opere su Carta, 2010–2012, ed. Dorothy Feaver (London: Lisson Gallery, 2013), p. 8. 96. Herrera also made a work entitled Mardi Soir in 1973 but she does not consider it part of the Days of the Week series which it precedes by two years. It is titled in reference to the celebration of Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. 97. In that exhibition all seven paintings appeared but not in the order of the days of the week. The artist has clarified that the works do not need to be installed in any particular order when shown together as a group (Herrera, interview with author and Bechara, June 8, 2016). 98. Michael Brenson, “Art: Sigmar Polke, A Master of Elusion,” New York Times, January 11, 1985. 99. Holland Cotter, “Review: New Whitney Museum’s First Show, ‘America Is Hard to See,’” New York Times, April 23, 2015. 100. Herrera, quoted in Batchelor, “The Whole Thing.”


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