The Cuban American artist Carmen Herrera, celebrated for her transfixing geometric compositions that structure and define space, died this Saturday, February 12 at the age of 106 in her New York City apartment. Her death was confirmed by Lisson Gallery, which has represented the artist since 2010.
Much has been said of Herrera’s overdue ascent to art world acclaim: She had her first major museum survey at the age of 83, at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem in 1998, and sold her first painting only six years later. In 2016, when the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo exhibition of her work, Lines of Sight, she was already a centenarian.
Galleries and museums may have been late to discover it, but Herrera’s brilliance was evident much earlier. Born in 1915 Havana, where her art education began, she would spend the next four decades between Cuba, France, and the United States, taking in the 20th-century mushrooming of abstraction from the Bauhaus to Color Field painting while developing a style all her own. After earning a secondary degree from the Marymount College in Paris, Herrera spent a year studying architecture at the Universidad de La Habana, but quit in 1939 as military dictator Fulgencio Batista rose to power on the island. She then married the American professor Jesse Loewenthal and moved to Manhattan, where she earned a scholarship to the Art Students League. Between 1948 and 1954, the couple settled in Paris.
It was in those years, while living on the Left Bank of postwar Montparnasse and exhibiting with the likes of Josef Albers at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, that Herrera’s work shed all traces of figuration in favor of pure abstraction. Her early explorations of geometry, line, and form precipitated an idiosyncratic visual language of vibrantly hued, barely touching shapes, often in just two colors and deeply sensual in their simplicity.
Upon her return to New York in 1954 and in the years that followed, her paintings became increasingly sharp, crisp, and intense, sometimes occupying several panels or shaped canvases. “I had to forget about trimmings and go to the core of things,” she said in an interview in 2010.
The use of masking tape allowed her to achieve the clean, precise lines she sought. Among her most renowned bodies of work is the Blanco y Verde series (“White and Green”), produced between 1959 and 1971. In these compositions, emerald triangular forms are arranged sparsely on a ground of creamy titanium white, or vice versa, evoking strangely elegant pinwheels.
Beginning in the 1960s, inspired by her brief but impactful architectural training, Herrera also produced sketches for a group of large sculptures. But most of these striking, monochromatic pieces, known as Estructuras, were only realized during the last two decades, when institutions like the Public Art Fund undertook their fabrication.
Herrera’s gender and ethnicity certainly constituted barriers to wider recognition, and throughout most of her career, she had brushes with fame but remained in a paradoxical limbo. She was welcomed in the circle of Abstract Expressionists, for instance, becoming close friends with painter Barnett Newman, and yet a New York avant-garde dealer refused to give her a show because she was a woman. And while Herrera was included in some exhibitions of Latin American art, she did not fit neatly into that category, either: When the Museum of Modern Art organized its 1944 Modern Cuban Painters exhibition, featuring works by many of Herrera’s friends and colleagues on the island, she was excluded.
“I don’t want to be a Latin American painter or a woman painter,” she once protested. “I’m a painter.”
Once dealers and curators finally took notice, however, her rise to stardom was meteoric. Herrera’s Whitney survey traveled to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (K20) in Düsseldorthe and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Her works were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, among others. Furthermore, she was honored by the Royal Academy in London and New York’s National Academy of Design. Herrera has left an imprint beyond these rarefied spheres, too: In 2020, for instance, middle and high schools students in East Harlem painted a 17-by-54 foot mural based on her 1987 canvas “Diagonal”.
Though bound to a wheelchair and hindered by worsening arthritis in the final years of her life, Herrera continued to create art every day, enlisting the help of a studio assistant who would diligently lay down strips of tape on canvas. Why? She had one simple answer: “It makes me feel good.”