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Black and White, 1952. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame. 68 x 68 in. (172.7 x 172.7 cm). Collection of Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky.

Black and White, 1952. Acrylic on canvas with painted frame. 68 x 68 in. (172.7 x 172.7 cm). Collection of Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky.

Untitled, 1948. Acrylic on canvas on board. 40 in. diameter (101.6 cm). Art&Art Collection.

Carmen Herrera
Lines of Sight Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

ArtNexus #103 - Arte en Colombia #149
Dec - Feb 2017

Francine Birbragher

“Lines of Sight” is a rather meaningful title for an exhibition featuring a significant selection of Carmen Herrera’s early works. Born in Havana, Cuba, on May 30, 1915, Herrera studied Art, Art History, and Architecture in her native city and in Paris. In 1939 she married Jesse Lowenthal and moved to New York, where she enrolled in the Art Students League. Between 1948 and 1953, the couple lived in Paris, where Herrera frequented the Salon des Realités Nouvelles group, which promoted abstract art and counted Joseph Albers, Jean Arp, and Sonia Delaunay among its members. In this period, Herrera made paintings defined by geometric shapes and flat colors that are now seen as precursors to Abstract Minimalism.

Upon her return to New York, Herrera’s work was not well received, not only because Abstract Expressionism dominated the scene at the time but also because of the double discrimination she suffered as a Latin American woman. Despite all that, Herrera continued to paint and to explore different permutations of her abstract language for over six decades. In the mid-1980s, and starting in 2005 she began to garner recognition and honors for her pioneering role in the development of abstract art, including, most recently, the College Art Association’s Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement (2016).

Organized by Dana Miller, the former Richard DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection at the Whitney, “Lines of Sight” offers a view of Herrera’s early career through fifty works dated between 1948 and 1978. During that period, the artist developed an abstract style characterized by geometric shapes with well-defined angles and a palette limited to two or three vivid colors in each composition. During those three decades, Herrera reduced her work to its essential components, color and form, in a process that can be clearly observed in the exhibition.

Following a more or less chronological line, the exhibition is divided into three sections. The first, exhibited in two contiguous galleries, “Paris 1948-c. 1954” and “New York, 1954-1965,” presents a significant selection of abstract paintings made during the artist’s years in France and includes iconic works that illustrate different aspects of the abstract style that would eventually come to characterize her production. The second section, “The Blanco y Verde Series, 1959-1971,” features nine works from the titular series, which Herrera considers the most important of her career. The final section, “Painting, Drawing, and Structure, 1962-1978,” exhibits works that not only illustrate the close connection that exists between Herrera’s pictorial oeuvre and architecture, but also show how many of her two-dimensional works have a clear three-dimensional referent.

As we said before, the first section includes works from Herrera’s formative period, when she experimented with different modes of abstraction before developing her own visual language. The paintings dating from her Paris period (1948-1953) are examples of an abstract geometric style dominated by clearly defined lines and a limited palette. Among them are two circular canvases, “Untitled” (1948) and Iberic (1949), in which the geometric shapes that result from the intersection of curved and straight lines in three colors (orange, white, and black in the first case; orange, red, and black in the second) saturate the work and anticipate Herrera’s constrained use of color. Another standout is “Untitled” (1952), in black and white acrylic, composed of four panels that establish a precedent both for the use of black and white and for the use of the painted frame as part of the composition.

“Black and White” (1952) introduces the square hung at a angle to form a diamond, which makes the way in which the painting is to be displayed influential in its composition. By treating the edges of the canvas and the stretcher as elements in the composition, the paintings are interpreted as objects hanging from a wall rather than, as was the norm at the time, as representations of reality. Meanwhile, the interspersed deployment of black bands and white lines, as well the opposite combination, in two of the square’s four areas creates a visual effect related to the Optical Art being developed in Paris at the time, and also foreshadows Frank Stella’s iconic “Black Paintings” (1958-1960), landmarks in the evolution of minimalist abstract art.

“Green and White” (1956) presents green as the dominant color in a painting neatly composed by four white axis that cross to form an interior square. In its use of green and white, this work is a precedent for the works in the following section, devoted to the Blanco y Verde series (“Green and White”, 1959-1971).

In all the works on exhibit in the gallery, save for “Blanco y Verde” (1966), white is the dominant color. Green is used in delicate elongated triangles that shape innovative compositions of a clear minimalist bent. The nine paintings selected for this section exemplify the innovative way in which Herrera conceived her works as objects, using the canvas’ physical structure as a composition tool and integrating the painting into the space around it.

The selection of works in the final gallery, perhaps the most interesting in the exhibition, illustrates the experimental character of Herrera’s art. Sculptures that she called “structures”, paintings, and drawings highlight the architectural basis of Herrera’s compositions, and clearly show how many of her paintings have a three-dimensional concept at their starting point.

It is important to note the curators’ wise decision in placing at the center of the exhibition space two three-dimensional items, Untitled (1971) and Estructura roja (Red Structure, 1966/2012), as starting points for the establishment of an interesting dialog with the works around them, including a three-dimensional structure hanging from the back wall, titled “Amarillo Dos” (“Yellow Two”, 1971); four paintings in red and white: “The Way” (1970), “Epiphany” (1971), “Red Square” (1974), and “Red and White” (1976), with lines and volumes that echo the central work; and two paintings in black and white, “Ávila» (1974) and “Escorial” (1974), of a clearly architectural character.

Finally, the exhibition presents the series “Días de la semana” (Days of the Week, 1975-78) in its entirety. In it, each painting represents one day of the week by means of a geometric composition that contrasts two or three angular planes painted in black and another color (yellow, orange, red, green, or blue.)

“Lines of Sight” celebrates the work of Carmen Herrera, a visionary woman who even today, at the age of 101, continues to create art almost daily, and underscores the value of a body of work that not only reveals great discipline, but also constitutes a serious and profound study in terms of her exploration of form and color—a body of work that places its author on a par with the great abstract artists of the Twentieth Century.



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