Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera • Latin American Modernism, the Sequel • The New York Times

“New Perspectives in Latin American Art • 1930-2006: Selections from a Decade of Acquisitions” - MoMA, New York


New York has been invigorated by a one-two punch of Latin American Modernism this season. The first blow was “The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art From the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection,” at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. That show’s main drawback is that it will return home to Mrs. Cisneros in two weeks. Now the Museum of Modern Art is weighing in with a similarly long-titled exhibition whose 250-plus pieces are here to stay: “New Perspectives in Latin American Art, 1930-2006: Selections From a Decade of Acquisitions.” 

While the Grey Gallery show stops around 1970, this one takes the many-splendored history of Latin American modernism right up to the present, to exhilarating and enlightening effect. It has been organized and sensitively installed by Luis Pérez-Oramas, who joined the Modern in 2003 and last year became its curator of Latin American art, the first curatorial position there to be designated by geography instead of art medium.

While the Modern has been remiss in displaying the Latin American works in its collection, it is hardly a late arrival to the field. It focused primarily on Mexican art during the 1930s, but by 1941 it was systematically collecting art from across the region and was the first museum in the world to do so. (Even Latin American museums tended to collect only national artists.) By 1943 MoMA was able to muster an exhibition (organized by Lincoln Kirstein) of around 270 Latin American works from its collection. Today this collection is probably the largest and most comprehensive of its kind. 

Acquisitions in this area dropped off in the 1970s and ’80s, even as broadly international exhibitions like the 1971 “Information” had a strong Latin American representation. Still, MoMA’s Latin American holdings now number more than 3,500. The current exhibition has been selected from some 530 pieces added since 1996. 
Until the late 1950s the museum’s acquisitions tended to favor figuration, whether Social Realist, Surrealist or Magic Realist. The recent acquisitions — mostly purchases — reflect a process of both catch-up and course correction. As in the Grey Gallery show, the latest additions emphasize abstract artists whose primary points of departure were Russian Constructivism and the more idealistic geometry of Mondrian. The show begins with the work of Joaquín Torres-García, a colleague of Mondrian in Paris in the late 1920s whose return to Uruguay in 1934 helped spread the gospel of abstraction in Latin America. 

The styles that emerged there after World War II ran both parallel to and in opposition to developments in the United States, especially the scale of Abstract Expressionism and the material opulence of Minimalism. But it intersected fruitfully with contemporary European developments like Group Zero and Arte Povera, played an essential role in Op Art and helped spawn a version of Conceptual Art that valued the collaborative, the implicitly political and the ephemeral. This in turn set the stage for artists who have emerged since the mid-1980s, among them Ana Mendieta, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Vik Muniz and Fernando Bryce. 

The selection here covers quite a bit of this ground, with large clusters of works by several artists and lots of inter-generational back and forth, both intended and unconscious. More than a dozen historic works from the late ’40s, the ’50s and the early ’60s, about half of which are gifts from Mrs. Cisneros, lay out various concerns of Latin American art. 
Foremost is a conception of abstraction as unusually body oriented and actively engaged with either the optics of perception or the possibility of function. These ideas crop up early in a beguiling gamelike sculpture from 1945 by Alejandro Xul Solar; it deconstructs the compartments of Torres-García’s canvases into a series of painted blocks that look eminently touchable. 

A more austere hanging sculpture by Gyula Kosice made of hinged strips of brass (1948) may be the world’s earliest example of Arte Povera; its casualness echoes in adjustable sculptures by Lygia Clark and later on Mira Schendel, whose woven rice-paper piece from the mid-1960s is one of the exhibition’s highlights. The idea of adjustability continues with Hélio Oiticica’s brightly colored box (which gains immeasurably from a higher pedestal than in previous appearances) and Cildo Meireles’s folding-rule sculptures from the early ’70s. 
Some works imaginatively cross-fertilize aesthetic approaches. Black-and-white paintings and works on paper by Carmen Herrera, Willys de Castro and Hércules Barsotti split the difference between Op Art and more traditional geometric abstraction, which means they are dazzling without being dizzying. Jesús Rafael Soto achieved a similar fusion of Op Art and assemblage, making brilliant use of things like driftwood and tangles of old wire in two works here. 

A related sensibility is at play in a sculpture from 1962 by Sérgio Camargo in which a chunk of driftwood is partly encrusted, as if by a crystal formation, with masses of small wood dowels painted white. The use of found material reaches opposing apotheoses in Ernesto Neto’s modest drawings (two use saffron) and Mr. Muniz’s large color photograph “Narcissus, After Caravaggio” (2005), which is the result of skillfully marshaling a pile of junk into an old-master image. And the emphasis on black and white abstraction is picked up, unexpectedly, in three small ink drawings by Gabriel Orozco. 

This show repeatedly reminds us that art can be made out of almost nothing, and that strong color is a viable substitute for large size. The point is made early on in a group of 10 resolutely abstract collages from 1950 by Alejandro Otero of Venezuela that simultaneously pursue the implications of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and of Matisse’s cut-outs, and in the small, bright free-standing forms in gouache on cardboard of Lygia Pape’s marvelous “Book of Creation” from 1959-60. Ms. Pape’s faith in color obviously echoes in Oiticica’s work but also in Santiago Cucullu’s new prints, in which bright abstract swirls are punctuated by dark, sinister images redolent of the clandestine events that riddle so much of Latin America’s recent history. Also relevant are Rivane Neuenschwander’s colored-over newspaper comic strips. These in turn echo Álvaro Barrios’s earlier use of newspapers; in the mid-1970s he persuaded a Colombian daily to publish his pastels and collage images regularly. 

An obsession with fine lines, either organized or running free, is evident in drawings, prints and paintings on paper from the early ’60s by Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) and by León Ferrari. It can be followed through the show in Waltercio Caldas’s tiny printed-word drawings from the 1970s, a single extraordinary ink and pencil drawing by Eduardo Stupía from 1985 and, more recently, the drawings of the collective Assume Vivid Astro Focus (on acetate) and José Damasceno. 

Plenty of other conversations and cross-references contribute to the richness of this exhibition, as do largely excellent selections, including, on the recent end, works by Los Carpinteros, Eugenio Dittborn, Abelardo Morell, Alfredo Jaar and Arturo Herrera. The implicit message throughout is that the house that classic Modernism built has always been more inclusive than previously thought, and is getting bigger all the time. 

“New Perspectives in Latin American Art, 1930-2006: Selections From a Decade of Acquisitions” continues through Feb. 25 at the Museum of Modern Art, (212) 708-9400.

Composition with pink • 1948

Composition with pink • 1948

Long Night's Journey Into Day • New York Press

Last year, the Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Museum both acquired Cuban-born painter Carmen Herrera’s work. Since then, collectors have been swarming all over her geometric abstractions, although the 93-year-old painter has toiled for decades in near obscurity. Currently the Latin Collector Gallery is presenting Estructuras, a survey of her work from the 1970s to the present, which is an incredible opportunity to view the artist’s distinct visual vocabulary. 

Flatly painted in vivid two-color combinations, Herrera uses graphic tension to harness the power of color and geometry in her spare, elegant compositions and wooden sculptures, or “structures” as she calls them. 
Many artists would be jealous of her apparent overnight success, except for the fact that it took close to six decades her efforts to be prized by the art market. For her latest solo she’s created three new structures, which are featured alongside two others done in the ’70s. Still enjoying fine whiskey, she bakes a mean strawberry shortcake and is happy to recount the difficult, dark road to art stardom. 

Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera’s liberally minded mother sent her to study art in Paris. She was too young to associate with Picasso and his band of Bohemians, but she did absorb the classics and Modernist currents. In 1939, as WWII began, she married Jesse Lowenthal and came to live in New York where she befriended other avant-garde artists, including Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Herrera remembers countless evenings spent debating art. “Barney felt strongly that abstraction needed a mythological, a religious basis,” says Herrera. “I, on the other hand, wanted something clearer, less romantic and dark.” 

In 1948, Herrera returned to Paris and began showing in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles exhibitions. The event promoted geometric and pre-minimal abstraction, art forms the Nazis had outlawed. As supplies were hard to find in post-war France, Herrera worked on horse blankets. She began to question every aspect of painting, slowly stripping away distractions in order to explore the essence of color and line. American Ellsworth Kelly was also in Paris at this time experimenting with his first hard-edged paintings. 

In the late ’50s she returned to New York. Despite her Parisian success and her bold ideas, Herrera was told that because she was a woman and didn’t “paint like a Latin,” even female dealers would not exhibit her. Her male friends also refused to help and some even ended their friendship with her as they became famous. She was left to work in obscurity. “Letting go,” Herrera sighs, “of the old realities, the old baggage, is very difficult.” 
Feminists rediscovered Herrera along with artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in the 1970s, but Herrera took the renewed attention in stride; her art, after all, was never dependent on fame or money. For contemporary artists who live impatiently, Herrera offers useful advice: “I feel art is a calling. To be an artist, you have to be strong.” 

Through Jan. 19, 2008 at Latin Collector, 37 W. 57th St., 4th fl. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 212-334-7813.

Carmen Herrera featured in Exhibition at Eli Klein Fine Art

Carmen Herrera, "Referencing Alexander Calder: A Dialogue in Modern and Contemporary Art" - Eli Klein Fine Art, New York

We are pleased to announce that Carmen Herrera is included in the inaugural exhibition of Eli Klein Fine Art, curated by Rebecca Heidenberg: Referencing Alexander Calder: A Dialogue in Modern and Contemporary Art. This group show brings together 24 diverse artists from modern masters to emerging artists including: Jean Arp, Bo Berkman, Alexander Calder, Amilcar de Castro, Daniel Chadwick, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, Monique Van Genderen, Jean Gorin, Jean Hélion, Barbara Hepworth, Carmen Herrera, Shirley Jaffe, Judith Larsen, Fernand Léger, Micah Lexier, Clement Meadmore, Joan Miró, Graeme Patterson, Joel Perlman, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, José de Rivera and Yves Tanguy. The exhibition will run from September 29th – November 15th, 2007. 

Included in the exhibition will be the following works by Carmen Herrera, which are fine representations of her greater body of work: Shocking Pink #20 (1949); The vision of Saint Sebastian (1956); The Way (1970); and Rising (1971).

Iberic • 1951

Iberic • 1951

Carmen Herrera • The Sights of Silence • Miami Herald

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.

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.

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.