Carmen Herrera - a newly discovered modernist

How a 94-year-old New York artist has forced a revision of 20th century abstraction

Carmen Herrera
Carmen Herrera:
A City, 1948

It was Carmen Herrera's move to New York in 1954 that heralded a 40-year hiatus in a once promising artistic career.

Born in Cuba in 1915, Herrera studied art in her home town of Habana, then travelled to Paris in the early 1930s to continue her training.

Returning to Cuba in the mid '30s, she enrolled for a course in architecture, at the same time immersing herself in Havana's vibrant, pre-revolutionary cultural life.

At the age of twenty-three, she married US citizen Jesse Loewenthal and in 1939 accompanied him to New York. They lived in the city for almost a decade - Herrera taking classes at the Art Students League and producing boldly beautiful geometric abstraction - before deciding to move to Paris.

It was here that Herrera began to experiment with several newer styles of painting, but by 1950 had abandoned her "romantic" notions of composition. She painted her first hard-edge canvas in 1951, the same year, curiously, that Ellsworth Kelly, who also lived in the French capital at the time, produced his own first hard-edge abstraction.

Carmen Herrera
Carmen Herrera:
Habana, 1950

Herrera's work was included in shows such as the Salon des Realités Nouvelles, an important annual exhibition first organized in 1946 to showcase the new abstract tendencies that had been banned under Nazi occupation of France. She exhibited in this avant-garde salon from 1949 to 1952, alongside artists such as Josef Albers, Jean Arp and Sonia Delaunay.

But Herrera and her husband had decided to return to New York, a city which, by the time they arrived in 1954, was in the midst of its own artistic foment. It was a change that spelt disaster for Herrera: "... when we moved back to New York, (my) type of art was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn't get a gallery."

And this, quite simply, remained the case, despite the fact that Herrera's work (which she never stopped producing: "I do it because I have to do it; it's a compulsion that also gives me pleasure"), clearly anticipated the innovations in optical, hard edge painting of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all, Herrera enjoyed a long acquaintance with one of the key figures in these developments, Barnett Newman.

Did he know of her work? It seems difficult to believe this wasn't the case, but a recollection by that other great nonagenarian artist, Louise Bourgeois, provides a telling insight: "I had the feeling that the art scene belonged to the men, and that I was in some way invading their domain. Therefore my work was done but hidden away. I felt more comfortable hiding it."

Bourgeois' work was, of course, rescued from near-obscurity in the 1970s. By contrast, Carmen Hererra had to wait until 2004 to make her first ever U.S. sale. She was 89 years old at the time.

Carmen Herrera
Carmen Herrera:
Cobalto y blanco, 1960

Now, however, the floodgates have finally opened, with appreciation for her work rising at vertiginous speed.

And these days sales are not only made to a growing number of collectors, but to world class museums such as MOMA, The Tate and Hirschhorn.

Herrera's rediscovery brings with it a revised assessment of postwar artistic development. Ed Sullivan, a professor of art history at New York University, talks of her "remarkably monumental, iconic paintings" and the dawning realisation of Herrera's "pivotal role... in the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas".

A retrospective solo show held in the UK in July 2009 - Herrera's first ever outside the U.S. - drew ecstatic reviews, with the Observer's Laura Cumming naming her "the find of a decade" adding that "... It would be hard to overstate the surprise of seeing her radiant paintings for the first time... Two, occasionally three colours in geometric juxtapositions, they balance intensely beautiful hues with austerity of form."

In short, Herrera's work has the air about it of of an important archeological find, an unearthing of remarkable art that rectifies and enriches our understanding of late modernism.

What's more, Herrera herself - again, like Louise Bourgeois - provides an extraordinary living link with an almost mythical past through her friendships with seminal artists such as Wifredo Lam or Yves Klein as well as, of course, Barnett Newman.

Now, finally, she takes her rightful place within that history.

"I just worked and waited", says Herrera. "And at the end of my life, I'm getting a lot of recognition - to my amazement and my pleasure, actually."

Carmen Herrera
Carmen Herrera:
Untitled, 1970
Images © Carmen Herrera
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