When the Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera painted her canvas “Diagonal” (1987) — a dizzying composition of concentric squares in alternating black and white lines — she was still nearly two decades away from selling her first painting. Now, she is considered one of the most eminent minimalist artists of her time, and a variation on “Diagonal” will be seen by thousands every day. A new sprawling mural based on the design, painted by middle and high school students, has just been unveiled in East Harlem, visible to passersby and approximately 175,000 daily vehicles on the nearby FDR Drive.
Titled “Uno Dos Tres,” the mural measures 17 feet high and 54 feet wide, taking up a wall of JHS 99, a school in Spanish Harlem. It was executed by students aged 13 to 18 enrolled in Publicolor, an arts and education program that utilizes design to engage students from the lowest performing middle and high schools throughout the city.
Though Herrera may be best known for her hard-edged geometric paintings in bright hues, the artist returned to a black and white palette time and time again over her career. A solo exhibition at El Museo del Barrio in 1998 rounded up 22 of those canvases, created over almost 50 years, including “Diagonal.”
Herrera considered the mural’s heavily trafficked location when selecting the design, which faces a highway, parking lot, and playground. “It needed something strong and bold and different to compete with all the visual noise,” she told the New York Times. The artist had previously worked with Publicolor students on another collaborative mural at MS 244 in the Bronx.
“I did not hesitate to embrace this project once I was told that students themselves would be engaged in its creation,” said Herrera in a statement. “It is so important that they experience art and work with art as part of their earliest education. There has to be more art in public schools, especially in those from the neediest parts of the city.”
Originally slated to be finished in May in time for Herrera’s 105th birthday, completion of the work was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The mural was finally unveiled on October 26 in a ceremony that included a dedication by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
“I am proud to offer this image to Spanish Harlem and particularly proud that students, so many of them Spanish speaking like me, will be creating this,” Herrera said.