Carmen Herrera

View of “Carmen Herrera,” 2016–17.

Carmen Herrera is a Cuban-American painter who has been based in New York since 1954. Over the past seven decades, her practice has evolved in tandem with, but often separate from, the dominant aesthetic trends of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from post-Cubist abstraction to Minimalism. Herrera’s career is now being celebrated with a survey exhibition, focusing on her work from the years 1948 to 1978, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition is on view through January 2, 2017.

SOMETIMES ways of working from fifty or sixty years ago return in my work. This is why I continue to make black-and-white paintings, for example, and in fact I was trained to paint that way—directly on raw canvas. Not only in Havana, but especially in France. While I was there I showed with the Salon des Réalitiés Nouvelles, which was very important to me. Materials were so scarce there after World War II that I was forced to use horse blankets as canvases. I learned to use bare material as a finished product. Even though that was hard, thanks to a German company we were able to use acrylics very early on. I was attracted to acrylic paint for the same reason I use it today: because it dries quickly, you don’t have to wait. In twenty-four hours you could paint over it.

When I came to New York I tried going to the Cedar Tavern, but they were always drunk there, and I can’t stand drunkards! I like to drink but I don’t get drunk. However, I met many of the older generation of Abstract Expressionists, like Barnett Newman, who had gone to school with my husband, Jesse Loewenthal. We used to have lunch every Sunday. I knew Ad Reinhardt and others too, but it was hard because they didn’t like the work of women. See, women are just like men. But in those days, no, it wasn’t like that. Me, I like all kinds of artists, even figurative ones. Georgia O’Keefe, Rufino Tamayo, and Stuart Davis are among my favorites. I especially like Zubaran, whose work I saw in monasteries in Spain. Not a brushstroke too much, not a composition too busy. I have always tried to stay away from looking too much at other artists, though. If anyone gives me a catalogue on Picasso I give it away immediately, otherwise I will start painting like him! I have also always loved architecture, which I studied before painting. As a student I liked most the work of Oscar Niemeyer and Roberto Burle Marx. But all modern architecture was interesting to me. I loved spaces, shapes, and lines.

I have always sketched and worked from sketches. As I was getting older I started working by cutting up my sketches to make plans for my paintings, since I cannot work things out on canvas anymore. I have to be able to tell Manuel, my assistant, what to paint. Late in his life Matisse had a nun to help him with his cutouts, and I have Manuel. I show him my final collaged sketch. I select the colors, then he gets going while I watch—we do it together. I am lucky. At this point he’s doing all the things I can’t do and he’s very precise. No more and no less; he doesn’t get creative on me.

The main thing has always been to take things out and refine. I like things very simple. I never saw a straight line I did not like! My visual language is based on the idea of contrasts and on the juxtaposition of shapes. As for color, my feelings depend on the color. Colors are really intuitive. There is no formula. I like to juxtapose shapes and colors until they tell me to stop. Then I know I have a painting.

A few things that I had the idea for in the 1960s, which I am finally able to do now: sculptures and relief paintings. I only did a few back then, since my carpenter died and he was very good. Now I am working with Donald Judd’s fabricator, Peter Ballantine, to realize drawings I made back then. With the reliefs, it’s the space between the top and bottom parts that’s important. I light them so that a shadow is cast and there is some mystery. One I am having made now is an homage to my brother. It’s two pieces covered by a third. I think of it as being like hands in prayer.

My recent show at Lisson in New York was my first chance to see my work in a very large space. It surprised me how the pieces seemed to grow in size in there. It was such a shock that at first I felt that I preferred an intimate space for my work, like I have here in my studio. But then I returned and I grew to like that show very much. I am excited to now be showing at the Whitney. I used to go there when it was on Eighth Street, and then it went uptown and I didn’t go. Now it’s back downtown and I’m there!

View Herrera’s portfolio for the October 2016 issue of Artforum here.