Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2012, acrylic and pencil on paper, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8".

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2012, acrylic and pencil on paper, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8".

Carmen Herrera

Lisson Gallery | Milan

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2012, acrylic and pencil on paper, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8".

The combinatorial possibilities of flat geometric shapes are nearly infinite. Over the course of her long career, Carmen Herrera has filled thousands of sheets of tracing paper, drawing innumerable variations based on mathematical logic. This Cuban-American artist, who has been painting since the 1930s but attained wide recognition only in the last decade, transposes onto the larger dimensions of canvas those compositions that, among so many examples, respond to her desire to attain an ideal balance and represent the solution to a problem she poses. She made a few paintings on paper in the mid-’60s and then stopped. She started making paintings on paper again in 2009.

In these recent works, the composition does not occupy the entire surface of the sheet. A rectangular frame of smaller dimensions, drawn sometimes in pencil and sometimes in paint, establishes the boundaries of the image, and it is within this space that the composition is concentrated. Delimiting the painting in this way, preventing it from coinciding with the entire surface of its support, may correspond to a desire to clearly mark a space and the boundaries of each of its elements. The eye focuses on what occurs within the perimeter that the artist has rationally and mathematically established. The space is divided into regular or irregular polygons, painted in with uniformly applied colors. At least one corner or one side of the polygons touches or often coincides with the border of the area Herrera has marked off. There are rare cases in which the geometric forms float, isolated, against the background; in this exhibition, for instance, of thirteen paintings on paper, all Untitled, one from 2010 was characterized by a solitary white quadrilateral inside a black rectangle. Touching or merging with the border, the corners and sides push against it, engendering a sense of outward-expanding movement. The lines of the frame become animated; they not only separate the space of the action from the bare sheet of paper but also constitute one of its active elements. In a work from 2012, two identical black rectangles face each other at the right and left corners of a white rectangle that contains them. The upper margin of the rectangle in the right corner and the lower margin of the one on the left are located along an ideal bisecting line. Pushed to the extremities of the white rectangle, they expand it yet make it collapse at the edges, piercing it and transforming it into an irregular polygon. The white zone that contains the image is not read as simple background, but as geometric space that vibrates upon contact with the two black rectangles. Sometimes tension seems to emerge from the dynamic relationship between plane and line. In two works from 2012, a dense, broken red line cuts the white surface in half, establishing a visual rhythm.

Enumerating the terms in a lexicon of flat geometric spaces, articulated on the basis of principles of symmetry and specularity, Herrera rediscovers a fundamental element in color. Since the ’50s, the artist has favored the use of two pure colors in each work, juxtaposed through contrast. One piece in the show, from 2012, was paradigmatic and played off the resonances between a green polygon and the large orange one into which it has been inserted. These paintings on paper also reveal a musical score of contrapuntally modulated rhythms. Herrera’s works—fields traversed by interrelated forces—live on measured proportional and chromatic relationships where nothing is left to chance.

Alessandra Pioselli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.