How Carmen Herrera Paved the Way for Latina Artists – Artsy | Candle Made Easy

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Salomé Gómez-Upegui

Portrait of Carmen Herrera in her New York studio, 2015. Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera spent most of her life admiring the beauty of the straight line, but the trajectory of her triumphant career has been anything but linear. While Herrera spent well over half a century developing her now-iconic style, she didn’t sell her first painting until 2004, at the age of 89. Although the sale was long overdue, the sale indicated a long-awaited turning point for the artist, where her visionary abstractions finally found recognition. In the final two decades of her life, Herrera was finally being 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 had an incredible career, admired her and saw her as a mentor, but also as someone who could become her,” said María Elena Ortiz, curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami. “I think the market for Latinas, but also for female artists, is so sexist. To know that there was an artist who was still alive, who was a pioneer, who was doing such great work, was incredible – she was an idol.” On Saturday, February 12, Herrera died in her sleep at her home and hers Studio in New York, where she has lived and worked for the last 55 years. The artist lived to be 106 years old.

Herrera was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915 and grew up surrounded by art, music and literature. She studied architecture at the Universidad de La Habana in the 1930s and lived with her husband in Paris between 1948 and 1954. There she began experimenting with abstraction and solidified her sharp geometric painting style as part of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles alongside artists such as Sonia Delaunay, Josef Albers and Jean Arp. Herrera settled permanently in New York by 1954 and painted for over five decades, mostly without recognition.

During a recent phone interview with Artsy, artist Tony Bechara, Herrera’s close friend and legal representative, spoke about the importance of educating the artist to understand her resilience and integrity as a Latina artist. “Her mother, Carmela Nieto, who was probably the first feminist in Havana, Cuba, in the 1900s, was a reporter, a very strong and assertive woman,” Bechara said. “Carmen was inspired, moved and encouraged by her. She already had a certain power within her to confront issues that disappointed women throughout the 20th century.”

Portrait of the artist in her Paris studio, ca. 1948-53. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

Portrait of the Artist, 1941. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Herrera has never been shy about acknowledging the role machismo played in delaying her success. On many occasions – also in The 100 Year Show, a documentary about Herrera’s life by Alison Klayman, the artist recounted how a gallerist once told her that despite her great talent, she would not get a solo exhibition because of her gender. Herrera said of the incident: “I walked out of the place like someone had hit me. A woman to a woman?”

Herrera echoed this sentiment in an interview with The guard in 2016, where she famously made the statement that art is a difficult path for women “because everything is controlled by men, not just art.”

Portrait of the artist in her New York studio, 2015. Photo by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy of the Lisson Gallery.

Stressing the importance of women holding power in art, Bechara pointed out that other women such as Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Estrellita Brodsky, and Agnes Gund were among the first collectors to purchase Herrera’s work. The artist recognized the importance of this support between women and made it her goal to pass it on through the support and mentoring of women in the industry.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to see her and want to talk to her, but she had a fondness for young artists, writers and journalists,” Bechara said. “I’ve received hundreds of emails today asking for offers, but I wanted to speak to you specifically for this article because I know that’s exactly 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 stark reality. “She had 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 you.

Ortiz was referring to “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” a canonical retrospective curated by Dana Miller that focused on work created between 1948 and 1978, a time when Herrera was developing her signature style. Lucia Hierro, a young Dominican-American artist, first encountered Herrera’s work thanks to this exhibition, having never known about the artist’s work during her time at SUNY Purchase or Yale.

“Their omission from the art historical canon should not have been surprising, but I still remember the overwhelming sadness and joy I felt upon seeing all of these works in person,” Hierro told Artsy. “The surface tension, the liveliness and the humor were felt at my core. Herrera was always there, between two lines that barely touched, working, making, smiling.”

Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña had a similarly profound experience with Herrera’s work. “I learned about Carmen very late in my life, but when I first saw her work I was struck by the mystical quality of her way of organizing space on screen,” she said. “I couldn’t understand how an artist like her could remain hidden from us for so long.”

Vicuña further explained the isolating effect of such an omission by explaining that it was not until the opening of Radical Women: Latin American Art at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles that she became aware of the other women artists in the exhibition. “Very few of us had heard of the other artists from Latin America,” she said.

Much like Herrera, Vicuña has spent much of her career fighting sexism in the industry. “[I do wonder] how a power like Herrera’s can be hidden from us by this male-centric system we live in,” Vicuña said. “There is sadness in this, but also joy to meet her and to get to know the spiritual power of the soul of an artist like Carmen, who nevertheless continues to work.

“I admire them,” she continued. “Not only for their art, but also for this spirit.”

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