In recent years, Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) has become as renowned for her elegant, geometric abstract paintings as for her unflagging productivity during the decades in which the works were overlooked. Born in Havana, Herrera moved to New York with her American husband. The two spent several years in Paris in the artistically charged years following the Second World War. It was in Paris that Herrera, absorbing and transforming the city’s febrile creative currents, arrived at the deceptively minimal, restrained, and chromatically evocative style that we have come to recognize, unmistakably, as hers. On September 16, her long overdue solo exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ahead of the opening, Laila Pedro visited Herrera at her home and studio in New York to celebrate and reflect upon her long and finally groundbreaking career.
Laila Pedro (Rail): Carmen, here we are in New York, in your beautiful home and studio, as you are about to open a solo show at the Whitney. It’s a huge moment.
Carmen Herrera: Yes!
Rail: I was just reading the catalogue proofs. Dana Miller, who organized the show, writes its lead essay, which explicitly positions this exhibition as a corrective to the fact that your work, as hardly bears repeating, was overlooked for so long. I was struck by the very intelligent decision to focus this exhibition on a critical period for you: the years from 1948 – 78. This is the time when you were in Paris and in New York. And it was in Paris that you distilled your style—the minimal, restrained compositions that we now instantly identify as yours.
Herrera: Paris in 1948 was essential for me. I love France. It’s a tragedy to see how it is changing now. It is not only the terrorist attacks, but simply that the way of living, as an artist, which was so formative for me, is no longer possible. When I was there, everyone was there. It was a delicious time. But, these things end.
Rail: When you were first in New York, you were still doing figurative work. It wasn’t until Paris that you really evolved the precise, geometric abstract constructions that characterize your mature style.
Herrera: Of course. It was about meeting new people and gaining a new set of influences and learning to filter and absorb those. Everything was marvelous; everything was possible.
Rail: And in Paris you met and showed with the Salon des réalités nouvelles, which was important for you as well.
Herrera: Every year everyone came to exhibit—well, not everyone; you had to be accepted! [Laughter.] We would come together, people from all around the world. I showed with them several times. Someone who was very important to me was Fredo [Sidès, director of the Salon des réalités nouvelles]. He always told me the truth, like when a painting was too crowded, or I was trying to do too much, and I was grateful. I just showed up at his house and knocked on the door. I wasn’t scared of any of them.
But it was another time, and another community. And it was so open that I was able to gain all this exposure. Before, I didn’t know anything about all these different kinds of people. Germans, Italians—I barely knew anything about Americans! So it was very good, and very important, to be exposed to that community.
Rail: That was a sense of community that you hadn’t been able to find in New York, but that you had experienced in Cuba, with women artists like Amelia Peláez (1896 – 1968) and Loló Soldevilla (1901 – 71).
Herrera: Yes. Amelia had won a scholarship to study in France, and she spent some time there, but Cuba drew her back. She was older than me, significantly, and I admired her tremendously. She was tiny and she swore like a sailor. I admired her as a painter, but more so in her personality. Her personality informed her work, of course, but she was tough, and that was what inspired me. Loló also traveled to France, so she was part of everyone who was there. Wifredo [Lam] helped her a lot.
Rail: Did Wifredo help or influence you? I know you were friends—and people would even try to get in touch with him through you—but there is some artistic influence in your early work, no? In your Tondos from this period, for example. It’s this kind of more Cubistic, organic abstraction.
Herrera: We got along very well. I had been to school in Paris, but when I went back as an adult artist, Wifredo had already been there, in those circles, for some time. I would help him to navigate socially, because he came from a very humble background; he was not very sophisticated. And he always thought he had something to teach me! But in France everyone fell in love with him. And everyone thought we must be related because we were both Cuban.
Rail: In Cuba, your family collected art; you come from a very cultured, progressive home. Did they collect works by Cuban painters?
Herrera: They collected European works, but many intellectuals did visit our home. Langston Hughes came to visit. It was a very intellectual environment. There wasn’t as much money as there was culture. And in Havana there was also the Lyceum, the women’s club. That did a tremendous amount of good because it exposed women to literature and art. It was magnificent. And I had wanted to go to the university and take architecture classes, but it was difficult, because of all the political unrest. I had a group of friends who gathered to study architecture together—and they did all become architects.
Rail: Then you met your husband, Jesse Loewenthal.
Herrera: Yes, and we came to New York. You think you’re steering your own life, and then, all of a sudden, things change. That was it! [Laughter.]
Rail: Carmen, can we look at some of the works you’ve produced in this time? There are some I am very curious to ask you about.
Herrera: Yes, ask whatever you want. [Laughter.]
Rail: Let’s look at the Estructuras [structures], like Amarillo “Dos.” You’re very specific that they’re not paintings, they’re not sculptures—they’re structures. The use of depth and negative space to deploy shadow as a painterly device—almost a chromatic element—in what is otherwise a monochrome seems hugely important to me.
Herrera: I wanted to make these for a long time, and I think they are very important, but I couldn’t find the right person to help me with the fabrication. So there are many of them that are unrealized. I had a wonderful carpenter who helped me make them, but he passed away and I could never find anyone else who could do it properly. Recently, I’ve found a new assistant, who is finally able to fabricate and execute work the way I conceive it.
Rail: Are they free-standing?
Herrera: Some are. Some are hung on the wall, but they also protrude.
Rail: They’re obviously informed by your architectural mind.
Herrera: Of course. They’re minimal but you can walk around them. You can turn them around when you display them and change the display.
Rail: There’s the architectural aspect, which is part of a general concern with the materiality of your works. Sometimes, you’ve painted the frame as well.
Herrera: Painting the frame is my defense of the work, my way of protecting it.
Rail: Looking at your “diptych” works gives a sense of the intensity of expression and composition that you extract from very minimal elements. It’s not symmetrical: even where you’ve painted the edges, in some cases you’ve only painted one edge. Through radical reduction, you’ve made minimal optical components incredibly dimensioned and textured. It magnifies the relationships of scale.
Herrera: I didn’t always divide them in the middle. Sometimes the proportion is almost identical—but not quite.
Rail: This black-and-white work, Equation, from 1958, plays with some of the issues of scale, but also with orientation and dislocation.
Herrera: I think that is one of my first really serious works. One of my first serious, geometric works.
Rail: Now that you have a fabricator, a technical assistant that you trust, you are able to keep realizing your paintings. Can we talk about your daily process?
Herrera: Every day I make drawings in color, on paper, at my desk over there by the window. I make the drawings and then they are hung on the wall right over here. These are all the drawings I’ve been working on. I hang them and live with them for a while so I can see how I feel about them. I can see what needs to change, what needs to be taken out. This orange and black one, here—the small orange section at the bottom right needs to go. I’m absolutely sure. Do you see? It will be much more interesting if you remove that piece.
Rail: You are always reducing, Carmen.
Herrera: It seems obvious, now!
Rail: Like an architect, you make scaled preparatory drawings, with the dimensions indicated along each side of the work. Here you have them all marked; they look almost like blueprints. Do you always have a sense of the scale before you sit down to draw?
Herrera: Yes. When I’m working on the drawing, I always know roughly the size of final work I want it to become. I mark the proportions and then my assistant executes them. Behind you is one we just finished. He did all that blue there with a small roller, to get the very smooth surface, and the lines are marked off with tape.
Rail: You’ve left the bottom quadrants unpainted, so it is almost like in this section of the painting the bare, ivory cotton is working as its own color, its own pigment. The material is acting as a paint.
Herrera: Yes, everyone keeps telling me to leave that white there but I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure. I’ll leave it a bit longer and see what my brain tells me.
This conversation has been condensed and translated from Spanish by Laila Pedro. Carmen Herrera’s longtime friend, artist Tony Bechara, provided invaluable assistance and support.