Lisson Gallery, February 2012
‘Only my love of the straight line keeps me going‘
Herrera’s most comprehensive European exhibition to date included paintings from the 1940s through to the present day, with a selection of previously unseen works and others shown in the UK for the first time. As with her exhibition last year at the Lisson Gallery, I was knocked out by the crisp, primary abstractions with their simplicity and clarity. They are outstanding. If I’d been aware of her work over the years I would have enjoyed a feeling of anticipation before each new work appeared.
Now recognised as a pioneer of geometric abstraction and Latin American Modernism, her radiant geometric paintings are striking in their formal control. The influence of her architectural studies at the University of Havana is clear. From the beginning, Carmen Herrera’s personal path to abstraction has been characterised by order and simplicity. These qualities are evident both in her definition of forms and her use of strong colour.
Herrera’s mature work attends only to its own internal rules, denying any meaning other than its own self. Over the years her works’ simple shapes and flat colours have become clearer and cleaner. But simple does not mean plain. It takes a lot of looking to fully realise the extent of thought and precision here, and the intuition and decisions that have gone into the work. Then we can see just how important is the exact depth, feeling, surface and position of the acrylic paint in each work, each element focused on the search for new ways of expanding the limits of the picture plane and the work’s materiality. Using a lexicon of forms and ideas her visual language is revealed in the process of making, applying principles that are the result of choices made over many years and many paintings. Each work is a series of paths not taken and paths taken.
When images of the works are printed out or viewed in books or on the internet then it is easy to make connections and ascribe influences onto Herrera’s oeuvre, particularly those of better known artists, though in fact her work often predated theirs; Josef Albers, Jean Arp, and Francis Picabia in Paris, the colour field painting of Barnett Newman (her husband’s friend), or the minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly with its eye on harmonious and discordant chromatic pairings. However when seen in reality, with quiet attention given to their actual physical presences, then all that drops away in the face of the impressive intensity of the works, each with their own separate unique integrity. You have to be there and look, see them in front of you, not simply on a screen. That of course is one of the ‘difficulties’ or rather a feature of painting (and of sculpture).
The structural basis for each work is the geometric division of the canvas with shapes or lines, complemented by blocks of colour. They often comprise just two bright pure colours, and one of those is often black. The longer one looks the more her colours interact, moving back and forth in focus. Her canvases function as a springboard from which form and colour emerge or recede, confidently fighting their corner. In some forms are put into vivid relationships, asserting the two-dimensionality of painting whilst conveying an intense physicality. Others, such as Partida where two green polyhedrons pivot upon each other in a delicate balancing act, achieve an ambiguity in which the figure/ground dichotomy swings back and forth. In the rectangular Untitled 1974 a bottom-heavy black line appears to sink through its white background to the lower margin. After this virtual descent the black line proceeds to spring up to the top margin before again descending.
Born in Cuba in 1915, throughout the 1930s and 40s Herrera moved between France and her homeland. In the late forties and early fifties she exhibited in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelle with artists including Ben Nicholson, Soto, Pierre Soulages, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and Vasarely. These were years which shaped the vision of her life’s work, and she began to reduce her formal vocabulary to its essential elements.
Though she continued to produce strong work throughout the 1950s, particularly with the beginnings of a series of stark black-and-white paintings, Herrera failed to attain the same recognition accorded her peers. Her work—some of which prefigured the later trends of Op art and hard-edged minimalism—was out of step with the period’s fashion for Abstract Expressionism. She was female in a male world and made reductive, hard-edged abstractions in obscurity, though occasionally appeared in female or Latin American themed group shows.
In 1984, after years of exhibiting only sporadically, Herrera received her first retrospective, at the Alternative Museum in New York City, though her first sale did not come until twenty years later at the age of 89. Her works can now be seen as important milestones in evolution of geometric minimalism and she started to become a world famous artist. Paintings that she had thought of throwing away after her husband died in 2000 are now in the collections of MOMA, the Hirshhorn, The Walker Art Center and Tate Modern.
At last the art world realises what a pivotal role Herrera played in the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas. In an era when the art world seeks and rewards the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who still persevered, and as in fairy tales the dream came true. Hurrah – because she had no choice really. Herrera herself believes that she was never taken into account because of her Latino origin, coupled with her being a woman and her refusal to make large-scale painting. However at 97 years old she has finally made it. The extraordinary thing is not only her longevity but also the beauty of the works.
I can’t resist a quote from Herrera about Life & Death:
‘When death happens it will happen – it can’t be that bad if everyone is doing it’