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Carmen Herrera

Cuban-American Painter

Carmen Herrera Photo

Born: 30th May 1915 - Havana, Cuba

"My quest is for the simplest of pictorial resolutions"

Summary of Carmen Herrera

Though the story of a 103-year old Latina woman painter achieving fame in the final years of her life after selling her first painting at the age of 89 is a captivating one, Carmen Herrera's story is worth telling primarily because of the quality of her work, and not because of the unique, stranger-than-fiction circumstances of her discovery. Born in Cuba in 1915, she has lived as an émigré in New York for most of her adult life, producing crisp, clean works of abstract geometrical minimalism that nonetheless seem to hum with warmth, wit, energy, and life. Having worked in relative isolation from - though by no means in ignorance of - milieus and movements for most of her life, it is not clear whether we should call her a Concrete Artist, an Op Artist, a Hard-Edged Abstractionist, or some other, more finely nuanced term. What is clear is that her work has fed on - and fed back into - all of the most enriching currents in twentieth-century abstract minimalism. She is a modern artist of considerable significance.

Key Ideas

Based in New York during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Herrera's crisp, classical style was an ill fit for her home-scene, closer in spirit to the work being produced across the continent by the painters of California's Hard-Edged Abstraction school. When that movement began to diffuse itself more widely - through the discovery of New York artists such as Frank Stella in the 1960s, for example - Herrera's creative identity perhaps began to fit its locale more clearly. Nonetheless, her emphasis on harmonious color combinations, and her interest in subtle and whimsical figurative suggestion, marks her work out from many painters to whom the "Hard-Edged" label is attached.
Likewise, we might interpret Herrera's work in relation to Op Art. Based in Paris in the late 1940s when that movement was taking off in that city - through the work of Victor Vasarely and others - many of Herrera's works produce the same effects of optical dazzle that made artists such as Bridget Riley famous during the 1950s-60s. Again, however, it is hard to judge the extent of Herrera's interaction with the Op Art scene, and the inspiration she drew from it, because of her own unique circumstances.
Herrera's clinical and clean style of draughtsmanship can be connected to her brief time as an architectural student during the late 1930s. She reportedly makes many preparatory sketches for each work she produces, working with a methodical rigor that reflects her grounding in the craft of architectural drawing. Her persistent interest in architectural space and city-scenes also seems to reflect this aspect of her creative education.
Carmen Herrera Photo

Carmen Herrera was born in Havana in 1915, the daughter of two journalists. Her father established the newspaper El Mundo, where her mother worked as a reporter. As the youngest of seven children, Herrera's house was busy and chaotic; as only one of two daughters, she had to fight to assert herself. She showed an early aptitude for art, so when she was eight, she and her older brother Addison were given private lessons by Federico Edelmann y Pinto. A well-respected painter and teacher, Edelmann y Pinto had established several art institutions in Havana, including the Association of Painters and Sculptors, and an annual Salon for the artists of the city. He was her first point of contact with the artworld, and his teaching was at the root of her lifelong passion for painting.

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