Carmen Herrera at Lisson Gallery
Words: Sam Wittwer
Images: Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery
May 22 2016
“They say if you wait for the bus, the bus will come. I waited 98 years for the bus to come,” says painter Carmen Herrera in The 100 Years Show, a film documenting the life and practice of the centenarian artist. This month, the London-based Lisson Gallery opens its first permanent space in New York City, and for its debut will show the first solo exhibition of new works by the uncompromising modernist.
Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera received what she calls an “old-fashioned” artist’s education in Cuba. The daughter of a newspaper editor and reporter, and one of seven siblings, Herrera traveled frequently in her youth. She spent time in Paris and New York before returning to Cuba to study architecture at the Universidad La Habana in 1937. It was during this time she would meet her husband and lifelong partner, Jesse Lowenthal, who worked as an English teacher in Cuba. It was with Lowenthal that Herrera would move to Paris before returning to his native New York in 1953.
During their first five years living in Paris, Herrera began exploring the abstraction of form and color, and was exhibited at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles alongside contemporaries Ellswoth Kelley, Leon Polk Smith and Josef Albers. Paris fueled the fire of Herrera’s aesthetic sensibilities, full of what she saw as the possibility and potential of a city rebuilding itself after a war. At one point Fredo Sidés — director of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, and one of the true advocates of contemporary abstraction in midcentury Paris — commented to Herrera that each of her compositions contained within it many beautiful paintings. Upon hearing this, Herrera, a minimalist at heart, began to take things out… and she hasn’t stopped.
In 1953, Herrera and Lowenthal moved to New York and settled into an apartment in what is now known as the Flatiorn district, where, nearly six decades later, Herrera still lives and works. Her works were — and are — focused compositions of geometry, line and color. The relative solitude in which she worked for nearly half a century gives Herrera’s pieces – her studies of simplicity – an almost spiritual air. Free of the whim or influence of the art market, of finance, of essentially any outside force, her compositions have remained almost hermetically pure expressions of her own creative will.
To say Herrera’s commercial success was delayed is, perhaps, an understatement. She made her first sale in 2004, at the age of 89. It wasn’t until five years later that The Guardian referred to her oeuvre as the “discovery of the decade.”
Her long overdue success, while mystifying, doesn’t entirely come as a surprise. Having emerged as an artist in a decade dominated by the American men (of which she was neither) of the abstract expressionist movement, and a bit too premature for the wave of Minimalism of which her work is so perfectly attuned, it can only be concluded that it was not the failures of Herrera’s efforts, but the failures of a system at large that denied the artist success for the better half of a century.
With her 101st birthday coming up on May 31st, Herrera continues to draw and paint every day, Herrera is finally getting a taste of the spotlight. The current show of her recent work at the Lisson Gallery in New York is a first-of-its-kind solo exhibition, and it precedes an upcoming show of Herrera’s at the Whitey Museum’s new space between the High Line and the Hudson, which will open mid-September.
“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she comments to Deborah Sontag in an article for The New York Times. “I never in my life had any idea of money, and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”