Art Review: Carmen Herrera’s “Lines of Sight”
Here’s some context. Carmen Herrera is a centenarian painter who’s been plying her trade since the 1940s. She’s lived and worked in Cuba, Paris, and New York. Largely ignored by the art world, Herrera didn’t sell her first painting until she was 89. Thankfully, recent years have been kinder to the artist. Interest in her work has grown. Her paintings now command upwards of six figures. Her gallery shows sell out. She is the subject of a 2015 documentary The 100 Years Show. Her work was featured in a solo exhibition at the prestigious (and newly minted) Whitney Museum of American Art. Herrera, a Cuban-American, lives in New York City and continues to work and paint.
If that all sounds a bit rote in its delivery (or tidy or mechanical or obligatory) I apologize. The truth is, Herrera’s story is a compelling one. It’s a story that should be told and considered through a range of perspectives (including gender, immigration, power, politics, our relationship to people who are aging, and the arbitrary way the art world doles out recognition). It’s all very important to be sure, but it’s not her art. Her art is something altogether different.
Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight (the aforementioned Whitney exhibition) is currently on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Arranged roughly chronologically, Lines of Sight focuses on Herrera’s output from 1948 to 1978. The assembled works present an artist striving deliberately and methodically towards a minimalist ideal. The earliest paintings on view retain vestiges of 1930s era abstraction (the muted palette of Gottlieb’s pictographs, the carved geometric patterns of Klee), but as Herrera continues to explore shape and space, the works become more spare and hard-edged.
That Herrera studied architecture (Universidad de La Habana, Havana, Cuba, 1938–39) should come as no surprise. Her works in their structured, balanced and interlocking way are as resolute as carved stone or poured concrete. Architectural to be sure, but inviting as well. Works from the “estructura” series in particular are downright playful in their bold use of color and shape.
Cool and deliberate in her approach, Herrera asks a lot of viewers. It’s as if she’s creating visual puzzles, trying to say as much as possible with the fewest number of visual clues. This method makes the viewer a partner in the process. We’re called upon to join the artist in finishing a thought, in seeing a shape that’s implied, in closing an edge or resolving a line. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Blanco Y Verde series. Here the figure and ground flip and flop, while perspectives stretch well beyond the picture’s edge. It’s incumbent upon us as viewers to resolve these works.
Ultimately it’s Herrera’s ability to create visual tensions in ways that are so precise and so unexpected that makes her work so successful. That she can do it with so few elements adds even more credence to the old dictum “Less is more.” Austere and inviting are concepts that don’t often go hand in hand, but they are Herrera’s sweet spot. Their unlikely intersection is where Herrera’s particular brand of magic happens. And back to context, let’s celebrate Herrera’s age, her gender, her status as an immigrant, and her well-deserved fame, but first and foremost let’s celebrate her art.
Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through April 16.
For more information, visit www.wexarts.org.
Blanco y Verde
Acrylic on canvas with painted frame
(l to r, Amarillo “Dos” (1971), Estructura Roja (1966/2012), Azul “Tres” (1971))
Acrylic on canvas
Acrylic on canvas
Acrylic on burlap