By ELISA TURNER • November 6, 2005
Her infatuation with squares and such came with a high price: silence. Today, at 93, Cuban-born abstract painter Carmen Herrera has a career that stretches back to late 1940s Paris, but today she's virtually unknown except to a rarefied group of art world cognoscenti that include the curatorial staff at El Museo del Barrio and New York Times critics.
For all the attention that Latin American artists have enjoyed in the past 15 years or so, with the flowering of Fridamania and significant shows like the watershed exhibit Latin American Artists of the 20th Century in 1993 at New York's Museum of Modern Art, mention Carmen Herrera's name to many reasonably well-informed folks and you'll be met with silence.
Herrera did not make it into the MOMA show. ''I went to New York and saw her work about 10 months ago and I couldn't understand why someone of this caliber wasn't better known,'' says Miami Art Central director Rina Carvajal, who curated what's billed as Herrera's first major retrospective, The Forms of Silence: Carmen Herrera Abstract Works, 1948-1987, now at MAC.
Since the late 1990s, Herrera has exhibited sporadically at a handful of galleries and venues in New York, Toronto, Paris and Havana. In 1998, her black-and-white paintings were favorably reviewed at New York's El Museo del Barrio.
The artist's vibrantly ordered abstract geometric paintings were also included in Outside Cuba, the 1987 exhibit that traveled to Miami after opening at the Jane Vorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, and in the 1988 Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists in the United States, 1920-1970 that opened at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
But since then, there's been almost a virtual silence, something Carvajal hopes will change with the MAC exhibit. The MAC director said, she has recently fielded inquiries about Herrera from London's Tate Gallery, England's prime showcase for contemporary art.
Carvajal, who joined MAC in July 2004 as its executive director and chief curator, sees this show as part of a larger effort. ''Our mission,'' she says of MAC, is to do international art from everywhere, but being in Miami it's also time to do Latin American artists that need acknowledgement.''
The second part of that mission dovetails with Carvajal's career, which includes positions as a curatorial fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and a three-year stint as adjunct curator for the 1998 Sao Paulo Bienal.
''I have fought a lot for Latin American artists [to be shown in] a much larger scope in international art,'' she says. For the catalog of the 1993 landmark MOMA show, she wrote an essay about Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón, considered an early 20th century advocate of the spare forms of Modernism. But even with that important 1993 exhibit, she says that "there were stereotypes still, even though you could see the richness of these artists. There was an expectation of what Latin American artists could paint. They had to be colorful, they had to be figurative.''
In an 11-minute documentary about Herrera's life and career that MAC prepared in the artist's downtown New York loft and neighborhood in August, a white-haired, arthritic, but gamely persistent and quietly eloquent Herrera talks about making art in the post-war years when stereotypical expectations about Latin American artists were especially dominant. The documentary begins as the artist, who has lived in New York since 1952, recalls being visited years ago by a prominent art dealer who gave the artist this blunt message: I can't represent you because you are a woman and you are Latin American.
This unnamed art dealer nevertheless admitted, Herrera recalls, "'You are a wonderful painter. You can paint circles around the artists I have in this gallery.' ''
Surprisingly enough, in the documentary Herrera does not come across as bitter. She actually says that she welcomed the years of ensuing silence, because she always wanted ''absolute silence, absolute quiet'' while painting, and her art does project a cool, meditative state that's far from the emotional, gestural blizzard of dripped paint in works by Jackson Pollock or in the Pop Art cleverness of Andy Warhol, two of the many mostly male artists who reaped noisy success in New York while she quietly painted away.
Her paintings at MAC invite comparisons to the geometrically shaped, boldly colored canvases of Ellsworth Kelly and to the high-contrast, vibrating style of Op Art. Her 1998 exhibit of the geometrical, optically charged black-and-white paintings, like Verticals and Untitled (both of 1952) at El Museo del Barrio was an education to many. Art historian Juan Martinez, who teaches at Florida International University, admits that he first learned of her work from that show back in 1998. In the closing reception for this exhibit on Nov. 13, he will discuss abstraction in Cuban art in the middle years of the 20th century. In researching his book Cuban Art and National Identity: The Vanguardia Painters, 1927-1950 (University Press of Florida, $45), he says he found no mention of Herrera among the many catalogs and gallery announcements he reviewed.
Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera was trained at the school of architecture at the University of Havana. The angular joints and open spaces of architecture are clearly a part of her vision of abstraction, which quietly contrasts a sense of space that moves forward with one that recedes, but she also cites the painter and pioneering Modernist Amelia Peláez as an important influence.
LIVED IN PARIS
From 1949 to 1952, she lived and worked in Paris -- curiously during the same period that Kelly was in Paris. Annually she showed in Paris in the Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles, considered the most important venue for reintroducing abstract art to an audience badly shaken by the horrors of World War II.
Paris was the busy place where, she says in the MAC documentary, ''I found my way in painting.'' There she encountered a book about luminous squares in the abstract painting of Josef Albers, the German-born artist who was one of the first of the influential Bauhaus artists to emigrate to the United States in the wake of the Nazis. After the squares of Paris and Albers, there was the silence of New York.
The show begins with Herrera's more crowded and hectic (at least by her standards) paintings of the late '40s and early '50s, presumably produced while she was in Paris. These are slightly off-balance compositions in mostly bright colors, in which elongated triangles spear circular forms that could be riffs on Peláez's signature bowls of fruit. The works often flirt with the appearance of symmetry but actually give asymmetry a dynamic and destabilizing charge.
Paintings produced during her New York years are cleaner, sharper, and more spare. Spare and geometric abstract art can quickly turn arid, if formal relationships of line, space, and color are not precisely modulated, and not every work here creates a lasting visual charge. Her paintings look deceptively simple and quick to digest, such as the 1974 Untitled, in which two slightly irregular rectangular shapes stand side by side, but you see that their position in space -- which one is moving forward and which one is receding -- is not at all clear. This ambiguity gives the painting its subtle strength, leaving simmering questions.
Herrera's paintings resist an easy summation. In her 1956 Untitled (Blue with White Stripe) a slightly-bent line charges horizontally just above the center of a blue field, slicing the painting halfway in an off-kilter fashion. Contemplate these quietly off-balance paintings at your own risk -- but whatever you do, contemplate them.