Carmen Herrera on fame's late arrival
Carmen Herrera, the 103-year-old Cuban-born artist, still paints daily in her Union Square loft, producing works of radiant clarity, which, since the mid-1950s, have consisted of no more than two colors. Herrera sees herself with a similarly radiant simplicity: as she told Frieze magazine in 2013, "I don’t want to be considered a Latin American painter, or a woman painter, or an old painter. I’m a painter."
She is foremost an extraordinary painter, but she is also an extraordinary person—which being female, Latin American and centenarian all play a part in. No piece sketching Herrera's story can go without mentioning her selling her first painting at age 89, after sixty years of devoted work. It was after Agnes Gund, President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, bought several works of Herrera's in 2004 that the artist's career suddenly bloomed. Five years later, the then-nonagenarian was declared "the hot new thing in painting."
When I met Herrera in 2010, she pondered why it had taken her so long to claim her fame. "You have to be in the right place at the right time, which I always managed not to be," she offered equably. "But, at the same time, people were not ready to receive my work."
Herrera, a contemporary of color-field artists such as her late friend Barnett Newman and such Abstract Expressionists as Willem de Kooning, suffered the sexual discrimination of the New York art world for decades. She recalls, for example, how a female curator told her she could "paint circles around the men artists that I have, but I'm not going to give you a show, because you're a woman."
However, waiting a lifetime to get your due has its advantages. "When you’re known, you want to do the same thing again to please people," she told me in 2010. "And, as nobody wanted what I did, I was pleasing myself, and that's the answer."
Herrera's popularity has grown only in the last decade. Now she is enjoying her first museum retrospective at New York's Whitney, which last year hung her work alongside Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Jasper Johns. This exhibition follows the success of her recent solo exhibition at New York's Lisson Gallery, which formed the inaugural show of its new Manhattan space. The exhibit featured twenty canvases made in the last two years, which bear her characteristically stark geometric shapes and the crisp, elegant lines that precisely divide color from canvas. Rather than seeming severe, these paintings transmit a luminous joy—much like their creator.
"You don't decide to be an artist,” she said. “An artist gets inside of you. Before you know it, you're painting. Before you know it, you're an artist. You're so surprised! It's like falling in love."
Which is something Herrera does every day. “It’s a passion," she says. "Every morning, I get up, I have breakfast, I go to the table, and I begin drawing.”
This article was originally published in Issue One of Us of America.