Carmen Herrera • Five Decades of Painting • Art in Review

By GRACE GLUECK • July 15, 2005

Using only two and sometimes three hues at a time (they might be black and white), in strictly geometric juxtapositions, the abstractionist Carmen Herrera produces minimal but eloquent paintings whose strength comes from their intense fusions of color and ascetic form. She may run a blocky diagonal zag of brilliant yellow down a dense black surface, like ''Saturday'' (1978). Or, as she does in ''Green and Orange'' (1958), set up a dazzling figure-ground relationship between balanced triangles, one bright orange, one bright green, each with extended trapezoidal blades that slice into the other's field. 

Born in Cuba in 1915, but living in New York since 1939, with time out in the 50's for a sojourn in Paris, Ms. Herrera belongs to the second generation of Cuban artists with roots in Modernism, and the first to hatch and hold onto a pure abstract style. Color is the essence of her work, but not at the expense of a rigorous geometric order. In canvases cued by the Suprematism of Malevich and Lissitzky, Ms. Herrera plays up the austerity of a shape or a field with shock tones, like the bright orange trapezoid that hugs the left side of ''Red and White'' (1978), inflecting a negative ground of white space. Or the two bright orange triangles of ''Sunday'' (1978) that kiss as they meet in the composition's center, separating two black triangles, one above, one below their joining. 

Every so often in her career, Ms. Herrera has turned to black and white, the subject of her 1998 show at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. In her hands these paintings are as vibrant as those in color. The deceptively simple ''Yesterday'' (1987), a jaunty white zigzag across a field of black that reads like a joining of two incomplete triangles, is a case in point. More in the Op-Art style of eye foolery is ''Black and White'' (1952), a diamond composed of four triangles joined at their tops -- two striped in white on black, two in black on white -- that appears as both a flat and a three-dimensional figure. 

Over a long career Ms. Herrera has accomplished a rare feat: she has managed to imbue her ascetic, normally impersonal mode of art with emotion and spirit.