PRINT October 2016


Carmen Herrera, Shocking Pink #20, 1949, acrylic on canvas, 32 × 40".

CARMEN HERRERA is finally, at the age of 101, gaining the attention she deserves. With a major survey of her paintings, sculptures, and drawings now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and having inaugurated Lisson Gallery’s New York space in May with her most recent work, key examples from her seven decades of extraordinary output are available as never before.

To understand what makes Herrera’s art significant, it helps to consider two major influences on her early artistic life: her friendship with Barnett Newman and her exposure to debates regarding abstraction in postwar Paris. Newman, who was a frequent interlocutor with Herrera after she moved from her native Cuba, where she studied architecture, to New York in 1939, would likely have impressed on her the capacity of abstract painting to address a viewer’s phenomenological experience as it is grounded in an upright, symmetrical body. When Herrera and her husband then moved to Paris a decade later (returning to live in New York after five years), she exhibited and published with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, the legion of international veterans including Jean Arp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Theo van Doesburg, Auguste Herbin, Antoine Pevsner, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, many of whom preserved the earlier avant-garde interest in painting’s properties as an object in real space even as they loosened abstract painting from its prewar politics. This Parisian context also gave rise to Ellsworth Kelly’s early monochrome panels, which turned the white walls of gallery spaces into the ground against which his black, white, and colored compositions would operate as figures. Never close to Newman, though, Kelly remained relatively uninterested in the conditions of viewers’ perceptual experience. Herrera, with her unique combination of postwar, transatlantic influences, was better equipped to produce work that explored art’s engagement with the viewer and its relationship to the literal space around it.

Some of the earliest paintings Herrera made during her time in Paris attend to the problem of orientation, as distinctive arrow motifs in the compositions work in concert with canvas shape. Though some of those motifs simply operate as abstracted depictions of swords and totemic elements (such as Flight of Colors #16, 1949, or Field of Combat, 1952), on other tondi, arrows situate the painted object on the wall with respect to gravity (and, by extension, the upright viewer). Thus, an arrow shape on Iberic, 1949, seems to indicate THIS WAY UP—a helpful directive to anyone wanting to hang a circular canvas for proper viewing. Arrows on other works (such as on the red, black, and white Untitled of 1948) head for the circumference and point clockwise, as if to remind the viewer that round things are not merely passive vignettes: Circles, in the real world, want to roll.

From such arrow shapes, Herrera developed her use of the triangle—which is a lot trickier than it sounds. If you keep a triangle close to equilateral and make sure its corners extend all the ways to the edges of the canvas, you generate a static geometry that counteracts representational or literal effects in an abstract work (Herrera does this in some of her later tondo paintings, like Rondo, 1958, when she protects a circular canvas from its literal capacity to roll, or its virtual tendency to bulge out into a sphere, by locking it down with a triangle). Make a triangle acute enough, however, and it gains semiotic energy, detouring attention from the shape’s own formal attributes in order to point at something else (such is the case with many paintings from the series “Blanco y Verde” [White and Green], 1959–71, in which long, thin triangles indicate the center or sides of her paintings, rooting the signifying gesture in the physical attributes of the canvas). Of course, the greatest danger that triangles pose for abstract painting is that they evoke perspective; Herrera cleverly manipulates this effect with works like the Whitney’s two-panel Blanco y Verde, 1959, where the base of a receding, perspectival triangle is perched on top of the literally receding gap between the panels. If you look closely at that gap, you will see that the base of the triangle even bends around the stretcher bar and travels into that wafer-thin space.

This attention to the stretcher bar is not unusual for Herrera, but one might be led to believe otherwise by publishers’ habits of reproducing works from the front and cropping reproductions down to the edges of a painting’s perimeter. Such habits (which enforce Greenbergian fantasies that paintings truly are nothing but two-dimensional surfaces) ensure that any action taking place along the z axis of a painting’s sides will remain unknown to those who don’t have direct access to the object. This has been particularly unfortunate for Herrera, whose work is only now appearing in exhibitions with any regularity, and has often been photographed with painted sides cropped off. These days, some of the most helpful photographers of abstract painting are the anonymous folks on social media who, unencumbered by either tripods or concerns with medium specificity, provide oblique views of canvases in abundance.

Herrera got to the frame early in her career, and she discovered it from the inside out. On the aptly named Shocking Pink #20 of 1949, for example, kite shapes with quadrants of purple, black, and white nestle amid the bends of a meandering pink band, which, in turn, locks the composition to fundamental structures of the canvas’s rectangle: The band of the eponymous color (a palette choice likely prompted by the 1949 Matisse exhibition at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris) highlights the top edge, turns right to declare the middle axis of the painting, then proceeds to hug the bottom edge before turning left to define the rightmost edge. However, as the kite shapes on the left are slightly longer on the bottom, this painting subtly suggests that the bottom of the painting as a whole weighs a bit more than the top—the work feels the pull of gravity. Which is to say that, no matter how abstract this painting is, no matter how rigorously the composition follows a graph-like logic, it is also a composition that depends on reference to the world out there, and will be viewed by a standing person whose perceptual experience depends on knowing which way is down.

Starting in the early ’50s, Herrera would often paint her stretcher edges as a way of mediating the relationship between the internal composition and the surrounding space, and on her return to the United States, where Color Field and Minimalist painting would soon develop, her attentions to painting’s periphery intensified. In the lozenge Blue with White Line, 1964, for example, a white equator extends around the east and west corners. If one looks at the painting from the side, one will see the white line taper to a point as it heads toward the wall, as if the line were speeding off into the distance, making its getaway from the frontal plane.

Occasionally, Herrera manages to evoke viewer experience and real three-dimensional space in a manner that subtly evokes art-historical traditions. Consider Red with White Triangle, 1961, which consists of two red canvas panels juxtaposed with their sides touching. Two white triangles, each painted on the inner edge of a panel, meet to form what looks to be a single white triangle at their point of contact. In its relatively modest size and diptych structure, the work invites associations with portable altarpieces, and so it encourages a certain quiet, intimate contemplation. The composition even hints at the hinged opening and closing of the altarpiece, since the triangles look as if they may have been produced when they folded in toward the viewer and pressed against each other. But the imbalance of the panels (one canvas is wider than the other) destabilizes that compositional mirroring to stimulate an even more fundamental consideration of the binary oppositions that govern both paintings and perceiving bodies: the opposition of left and right, of symmetry and asymmetry, of things that are open and things that are closed.

In these pages, Artforum presents an exclusive portfolio of Herrera’s works—all further examples of her bold invitation for us to consider painting both on its terms and on her own.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University.

“Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” curated by Dana Miller, is currently on view (through Jan. 2, 2017) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, Feb. 4–Apr. 16, 2017.

Click here to read an interview with Carmen Herrera published this month.

Carmen Herrera, Blue with White Line, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 67 7/8 × 67 7/8".

Carmen Herrera, Diptych (Green & Black) (detail), 1976, acrylic on canvas, 45 × 84".

Carmen Herrera, Diptych (Green & Black), 1976, acrylic on canvas, 45 × 84".

Carmen Herrera, Flight of Colors #16, 1949, acrylic on canvas, 28 1/2 × 46".

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1969, graphite and felt-tip pen on paper, 23 1/4 × 29".

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949, acrylic on canvas on board, 40 × 40".

Carmen Herrera, Untitled Estructura (Green), 1966/2015, acrylic on aluminum, 44 7/8 × 59 7/8 × 5 7/8".

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1970, graphite and felt-tip pen on paper, 16 1/2 × 23 1/4".

Carmen Herrera, Blue Angle on Orange, 1982–83, acrylic on canvas, 59 3/8 × 59 3/8".

Carmen Herrera, Red with White Triangle, 1961, acrylic on canvas, 48 × 66".