How Carmen Herrera Paved the Way for Latina Artists
Portrait of Carmen Herrera in her New York studio, 2015. Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Cuban American artist Carmen Herrera spent the majority of her life admiring the beauty of the straight line, yet the trajectory of her triumphant career was anything but linear. While Herrera spent well over half a century developing her now iconic style, she wouldn’t sell her first painting until 2004 at the age of 89. Though long overdue, the sale was indicative of a long-awaited watershed moment for the artist, in which her visionary abstractions were finally gaining recognition. In the last two decades of her life, Herrera would at long last be celebrated for her bold, dedicated practice, and for paving the way for other Latina artists working in an industry dominated by sexism.
“I know that artists like Teresita Fernández, who has an incredible career, admired her and saw her as a mentor but also as someone that she could come to be like,” said María Elena Ortiz, a curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami. “I think that for Latinas, but also for women artists, the market is so sexist. To know that there was a woman artist that was still alive, that was a pioneer, who was doing such great work was incredible—she was an idol.” On Saturday, February 12th, Herrera passed away in her sleep at her apartment and studio in New York, where she had lived and worked for the past 55 years. The artist was 106 years old.
Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1915, Herrera grew up surrounded by art, music, and literature. She studied architecture at the Universidad de La Habana in the 1930s, and lived in Paris with her husband between 1948 and 1954. There, she began experimenting with abstraction and cementing her sharp geometric painting style as part of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles alongside artists like Sonia Delaunay, Josef Albers, and Jean Arp. By 1954, Herrera settled in New York permanently and continued to paint, mostly unacknowledged, for over five decades.
During a recent phone interview with Artsy, artist Tony Bechara, Herrera’s close friend and legal representative, spoke about the importance of the artist’s upbringing to understanding her resilience and integrity as a Latina artist. “Her mother Carmela Nieto, who was probably the first feminist in Havana, Cuba, during the 1900s, was a reporter, a very strong and assertive woman,” said Bechara. “Carmen was inspired, moved, and encouraged by her. She already had some kind of strength built into her to be dealing with issues that disappointed women throughout the whole 20th century.”
Portrait of the artist in her Paris studio, ca. 1948–53. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Portrait of the artist, 1941. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Herrera was never shy about expressing the role machismo played in delaying her success. On many occasions—including in The 100 Years Show, a documentary directed by Alison Klayman about Herrera’s life—the artist would recount how a female gallerist once told her that, despite her great talent, she would be unable to get a solo show because of her gender. Speaking of the incident, Herrera said: “I walked out of the place as if someone had struck me. A woman to a woman?”
Herrera echoed that sentiment in an interview with The Guardian in 2016, where she famously stated that art was a difficult path for women “because everything was controlled by men, not just art.”
Portrait of the artist in her New York studio, 2015. Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Underscoring the importance of having women hold power in the arts, Bechara pointed out that it was other women like Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Estrellita Brodsky, and Agnes Gund who were among the first collectors to purchase Herrera’s work. The artist recognized how significant this support between women was and made it a point to pay it forward by supporting and mentoring women within the industry.
“There were many people who wanted to see her and speak to her, but she had a preference for young women artists, writers, and journalists,” said Bechara. “I’ve gotten hundreds of emails today asking for quotes, but I wanted to speak to you for this article in particular because I know it’s what Carmen would have wanted.”
Though Herrera’s career represents hope for many women and Latina artists, Elena Ortiz reminded us that it also represents a crude reality. “She got her first solo show at the Whitney at age 101, so there’s also this thought that even though you’re great, sometimes as a woman, and as a Latina, you have to keep working, and you can never stop believing in yourself,” she said.
Ortiz was referring to “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” a canonical retrospective curated by Dana Miller that focused on work made between 1948 and 1978, a time in which Herrera developed her signature style. Lucia Hierro, a young Dominican American artist, first encountered Herrera’s work thanks to this exhibition, having never learned about the artist’s work during her time at SUNY Purchase or Yale.
“Her omission from the art historical canon should not have come as a surprise, but I still remember the overwhelming sadness and joy I felt seeing all of those works in person,” Hierro told Artsy. “The surface tension, vibrancy, and humor were felt in my core. Herrera had always been there, between two lines barely touching, working, making, smiling.”
Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña had a similarly profound experience with Herrera’s work. “I learned about Carmen very late in life, but when I first encountered her work, I was deeply struck by the mystical quality of the way she organized the space of the canvas,” she said. “I couldn’t comprehend how an artist such as her had been hidden from us for so long.”
Vicuña went on to explain the isolating effect of such omission, stating that it wasn’t until the opening of “Radical Women: Latin American Art” at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles that she became aware of the other artists in the show. “Very few of us had heard about the other women artists from Latin America,” she said.
Much like Herrera, Vicuña has also spent a great deal of her career confronting sexism in the industry. “[I do wonder] how a power such as Herrera’s can be hidden from us by this men-oriented system in which we live,” said Vicuña. “There is sorrow in that but also joy in encountering her and learning the spiritual strength of the soul of an artist such as Carmen that continues to work regardless.
“I admire her,” she continued. “Not only for her art, but for that spirit.”