The story of Carmen Herrera’s life and work has been spreading. The talented and once undiscovered 95-year-old geometric abstractionist had a mini-retrospective in England with a handsome catalogue and a New York Times review last year that brought her story to the fore. But no matter, Herrera has pursued her vision in or out of the spotlight.
The starkly configured imagery in Herrera’s oeuvre moves between icon and field, as her forms continually shift between figure and ground. Having studied architecture in Cuba, her background has given her a particular grasp on working with scale and a sense of architectonic form even though she left architecture to devote herself to painting before completing her studies.
Early on in her career there was a complex weaving of forms, as in the “Siele” (1999), where yellow, red, black, and white rectangles arranged like patchwork form the inside of an oval; they seem to slip in and out as they cross over one another, confounding the space with a fluid motion that deepens over time.
In a black and white untitled painting from 1973, the tension between figure and ground, an L form and a T form, is so high-pitched that both forms alternate being perceived as the figure. In what should be a series of calm horizontal rhythms, Herrera has rendered the kind of dynamism usually reserved for the diagonal and the result is a field that oscillates like a strobe.
Stunning in its simplicity is a six-foot white canvas with two green rectangles running along the lower vertical edges, creating a kind of T form that hovers in front of the green rectangles. Initially the green rectangles don’t step forward, but when they do they insist on their presence as figures locking the painting into a vibrant struggle for dominance.
One could talk about Ellsworth Kelly, who especially comes to mind here with the bright green, but equal weight must be given to the deep-rooted tradition of geometric abstraction in Latin American cultures. An unbroken tradition whose constructivist beginnings played out differently south of the equator, it is one that is still becoming known here. In the 2007 show New Perspectives in Latin American Art, 1930-2006 at the Museum of Modern Art, the work of Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica entered the public realm as evidenced by follow-up shows at Hunter College and Gallerie Lelong this season. Now Herrara’s work is gaining visibility as well.
There are odes to Mondrian in Carmen Herrera’s canvases—like the diamond-shaped “Cobalt,” where a white H form divides the surface into two triangles and two pentagons when the figure-ground reversal becomes apparent. Pushing an icon form to the limit, “Way” from 1950 uses four ochre-colored equilateral triangles point to point to carve out a black cross where the edges don’t meet. Surrounded by a border in the same ochre hue, it points to geometry’s transcendent possibilities.
Stark contrasts give Herrera’s work a powerful presence and cause the edges to vibrate where opposites meet. The canvases are thick and assert their object-ness, a quality underscored by the way Herrera paints around the edges, especially visible in “B & W” (1974) and “Blue Angle on Orange” (1982-83).
What’s surprising about Herrera’s new works at Frederico Sève/Latincollector’s 57th Street gallery is the shift from planar geometry to forms that torque inside their planar constraints to create a volumetric condition.
In a series of two-panel acrylic canvases, 6 by 6 feet, Herrera’s architectural sensibility emerges through a modular 3 by 6 foot zigzag form. Herrera varies the orientation of her two zigzag schemes along their horizontal axis, using different combinations to create a series of unique paintings entitled “Pasado” (past), “Futuro,” and “Presente” (2010). Painted in calming green and violet grays, no matter which direction is up, a volume emerges from the hard-edge lines in a way not seen in her previous work.
Interestingly, “Pasado” seems to hold the greatest volume. In “Presente” the center line between the canvases takes on the greatest presence, as if here the canvas and support itself holds the greatest importance, giving a momentariness to the form. In “Futuro” the volume comes into view only slowly, supported by what can be read in “Pasado,” which hangs opposite in the gallery’s main room.
Using the same forms, although this time in a powerful, yellow and black contrast, “Castilla” (2010) works with two subtly differentiated shades of yellow to create a volume that rises from the lower edge of the painting. The torque cones when we see that volume as being cropped by the top edge, a flattening effect that opposes what rises up form below. “Castilla” is set in tension through both form and color.
There is as much to admire in Herrera’s stamina and willfulness as there is in the paintings. And with Agnes Gund’s designation of her as the 90-year-old “it” girl, she gives us all the satisfaction of seeing an artist who made it through the long haul with her artistic spirit intact.
JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.