Born May 31, 1915 in Havana
“I never met a straight line I did not like,” said the painter of the straight line, Carmen Herrera. Important also: her love of color: bold, daring, strong colors, frequently only two, white and green – she loves white – or green and black. A former architecture student, she loves geometrical, rigorous forms and utter simplicity. The less, the better. Less is more. Abstract work from the very beginning, nothing figurative, for over seventy years. A large oeuvre comes into existence and is finally discovered. At 89 she sells her first painting. She is now 101 and has just had her first show in a major museum in the USA, not a retrospective as would have been appropriate, but her early works from 1948 – 1978, which show that she was well ahead of her male colleagues. England and Germany had discovered her somewhat earlier - when she was 94 – and did give her a retrospective exhibition.
Carmen Herrera was born on May 31 in Havana; her mother was a journalist and her father editor of a newspaper. She had art lessons at 8 and at 14 spent two years in a private boarding school for girls in Paris. She studied architecture in Havana, which was not customary for a young woman at that time, but quit her studies – which was quite normal - when she fell in love and got married to Jesse Loewenthal, an American high school teacher 13 years her senior. In 1939 they left for New York. She was a student at the Art Students League from 1943-1947. Then Herrera and her husband moved to Paris, where they lived from 1948 – 1953. Here Herrera discovered her world: “I found my world in painting.” She developed her own visual language, her own style: the round forms and ovals disappeared, she found “the beauty of the straight line”; she reduced and reduced to the essential. Her sensibility for architecture showed up in her rigorous geometric forms; her color spectrum was reduced to two or at most three colors. She was successful: her paintings hung next to Mondrian’s. She showed at various times in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and moved in the circle of important artists who lived in Paris at that time. She liked Matisse and Yves Klein – she did not like Picasso, whom she saw through (Picasso: “when there is something to steal, I steal it”); she was friends with Genet and the parents of Yves Klein.
When she returned from Paris to New York in 1954, abstract expressionism dominated in the art world, and her geometric style did not fit in. With her large, quiet, minimalist abstract paintings she was ten years too early, anticipating the movement of artistic minimalism, and her work was not exhibited. Undeterred, Herrera kept on painting, further refining her method of work (she made dozens of drawings for each individual painting); she worked alone, isolated, in secret, ignored. In retrospect she sees this as a blessing, for she was able to adhere exclusively to her own aesthetic intuition and vision; she received neither acclaim nor criticism, did not have to curry favor yet was not denigrated. She did not need to sell her art because her husband supported her with his teacher’s salary. Married for 61 years, the two had no children. Loewenthal supported her painting and believed in her, but sadly, though he lived to age 98, did not get to witness her late success. This would only come after seven decades of painting.
“I waited for my bus for 94 years,” Herrera said, referring to the saying, “if you wait long enough, your bus will come.” Her “bus” was the British Gallery Ikon in Birmingham, which in 2009 presented a retrospective exhibition of her work; in 2010 this show went on to the Museum Pfalzgalerie in Kaiserslautern, Germany. On her “bus” were also two women collectors buying five paintings each – thank the Goddess that today a few women have money.
Herrera enjoys her success in her old age although she is still amazed and cannot believe that her pictures are selling all of a sudden – “I have never had so much money” – and that she is being honored. But even now, sitting in a wheelchair and suffering from arthritis, she works every day at her work bench with ruler and pencil and tape as she has done for 70 years. The beauty of the straight line keeps her working and is keeping her alive.
I am happy for her, happy that she is finally getting the acknowledgement and attention that she so well deserves, I am especially happy about every picture she sells at an ever higher price. But I have a few questions about the construction of success.
When I saw Herrera’s paintings, I noticed immediately the similarity with Ellsworth Kelly, whose work I had seen again and again beginning in the 60s in group shows and in individual exhibitions. His strong colors, next to each other, the primary red and blue, the beaming yellow, the deep Kelly green, white, later the diptychs and triptychs, then the sculptures. Kelly was eight years younger than Herrera and spent the same years as she did in Paris: 1948 – 1954. Like her, he showed in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. Did he see her works there? In an interview he stated that he was not conscious of her presence in Paris (Miller, p.39, footnote 31). It is clear that the two painters had a similar sensibility, and surely they saw similar shows, visited the same galleries; as it turns out – for Herrera does remember him – they even knew each other personally. Who learned from whom? Who was influenced by whom? Who copied ? who imitated? According to Picasso’s Motto: “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Be that as it may, what is striking is that two years after his return from Paris, in 1956, Kelly had his first single show at the Betty Parsons Gallery. Numerous exhibitions followed and along with them public recognition, reviews, acclaim AND sales. His works became more and more highly valued and by now sell for several million dollars a painting. Herrera’s works have also lately increased enormously and cost a few hundred thousand dollars; only one work approaches a million dollars.
Just as with Josephine Nivison and Edward Hopper and many other male-female pairs, two artists begin on close to the same level – Herrera was somewhat ahead of Kelly in her training – have similar influences and artistic experiences, move in the same art and intellectual world, and work similarly, but the man is accorded success, has a career, becomes known and famous, whereas the woman is ignored, becomes invisible, withdraws and disappears.
By a sheer accident Herrera did not disappear: someone mentioned her name in front of the right person, a collector, who then studied her works and bought and sold them.
On the occasion of her shows – three in all – Herrera was asked how she explains the fact that she was ignored, and she has her opinion: she remembers the gallerist (Rose Fried) who did not want to give her a show because “she was a woman and men had families to maintain.” Herrera observed that men controlled everything, not only in art; they were “streetwise”: “Men were better than me at knowing how to play the system, what to do and when. They figured out the gallery system, the collector system, the museum system, and I wasn’t that kind of personality.“ (The Guardian, Dec.31, 2016). By this she most likely meant that she had not wanted to ingratiate herself with “the right people.” She had integrity and stated her opinion, then and today.
But she may not have seen quite as clearly as Nivison (Cf. LEVIN , 1998) how the male system works, how men support each other, how they mutually supply buyers, prizes, competitions, jurors, critics – all of whom are of course male – for each other. That is the male network, without which one cannot succeed, and to which only very rarely a woman is admitted, such as perhaps Agnes Martin – but only perhaps – and Louise Bourgeois and Georgia O’Keeffe, only to be (as O’Keeffe) not well liked. Men form small groups, the New York School, “the color field painters,” the minimalists, and support each other, promoting the younger men who become their acolytes. It does not take away from their status that other men work similarly to them: Kelly, Newman, Youngerman, Stella, Reinhardt. On the contrary, it confirms them. The question of who influences whom becomes irrelevant; they animate and inspire each other. Women on the other hand are always influenced by someone, by many as Ingeborg Bachmann knew. (She counted 27 men who “influenced” her.)
The artist and friend Teresita Fernandez said about Herrera: “….and I think that some of the innovations in her work necessarily influenced some of her colleagues. How do we know that Barnett Newman was not influenced by Carmen?”
And I add: How do we know that Ellsworth Kelly was not influenced by Herrera? That he did not see the separate panels first done by her? For they were simultaneously using similar methods and had similar innovative ideas. ( Cf. Miller, p.25)
Herrera herself attributes her greatest influence to Japanese art because of its reductive quality. She sees her pieces as visual equivalence of the haiku.
But why does she not get support from friends and from women? Why did the abstract expressionist artist Barnett Newman, with whom she was friends, not support her? Why did she not get any help from Newman’s wife Annelee, who was an art teacher? The Newmans were good friends with whom she had breakfast every Sunday. It was a world of men which turned around men and was determined by men. The art world and the art business were male through and through; the critics were male, the curators were male, the jurors of competitions were male. Even the few women were male-identified: the artists with their husbands and the female gallerists with their male artists. After all, the men increased the prestige of the women’s galleries, which profited more than if a woman artist were exhibited. Had there been female collectors then, they would have bought Reinhardts and Kellys and Newmans.
It took the Women’s Movement to see behind these mechanisms and to bring them in to our consciousness. And indeed artists like the Guerilla Girls (1985) were among the first feminists who came together in groups and consciously supported women. Herrera was still surrounded by men – like Modersohn-Becker decades before her – and did not ask for or get support from women. Perhaps Herrera was too protected by her husband and relied too much on him; to be sure, he wished for her success but presumably did not ask himself why his wife did not count among the successful artists, or how their success was constructed. Bourgeois’ and O’Keeffe’s success might be partially attributed to the fact that they were married to men who knew their way around in the art world and themselves belonged to it – Bourgeois’ husband was a renowned art historian and art professor and Alfred Stieglitz was a famous photographer and gallerist. Both were men who did not compete, in part because they were in different fields, and they gave not only psychological but professional support by placing their wives in the right circles and art contexts and assuring that they were accepted. Thus Stieglitz exhibited O’Keeffe’s work again and again in spite of negative, sexist criticism until her name was as prominent as the male painters he showed; he made people look at her paintings, made them see their beauty, and he made them buy.
When Herrera decided at the age of 24 to become an artist, she knew it would be a hard life. She did not know that she would have to wait till she was 89, 94 and 101 to achieve broad acclaim and finally, well-deserved success. My advice to all women artists is to become as old as possible, at least 90, but better still over 100.
Author: Senta Trömel-Plötz
After Herrera’s first solo show in England 2009 a critic wrote: “Carmen Herrera is the discovery of the year, no – of the decade. How could we have missed these brilliant compositions?”
Hattenstone, Simon: Carmen Herrera: ›Men controlled everything, not just art‹. The Guardian, 31.12. 2016.
Online verfügbar unter https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/dec/31/carmen-herrera-men-controlled-everything-art, abgerufen am 08.03.2017.
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Literature & Sources
Bernadac, Marie-Laure and Hans-Ulrich Obrist ( eds.) ( 2001): Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father, Schriften und Interviews. Zuerich: Ammann Verlag.
Greenough, Sarah ( ed.) ( 2011): My Faraway One: Selected letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. New Haven: Yale University Press
Kellein, Thomas ( 2006): Louise Bourgeois: La famille. Koeln: Verlag Koenig
Levin, Gail (1998): Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press
Miller, Dana (2016): Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, Catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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