Carmen Herrera is finally receiving long-deserved recognition for her hard-edged geometric compositions, inspired by her training as an architect in Havana. Throughout her career, she focused on simplicity, color and line.
In her 12-year series, Blanco y Verde, created from 1959 to 1971, she deconstructs traditional landscape painting into the pure colors of white and green which she arrays horizontally to create a sense of horizon. This series is universally considered her most significant and is owned by such institutions as Tate, London, Whitney Museum of American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most recently, her work, Equilibrio, 2012, is included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera.
Born in 1915 in Havana, Cuba, Carmen Herrera’s burgeoning creative talent and love of art were fostered through private lessons from a local artist, and time spent exploring the hallowed museums of Paris while attending finishing school there. After graduating and returning home, Herrera became ensconced in a country in a state of flux; though the artist was able to join progressive artistic circles such as the women-led creative community of the Lyceum, and enroll at the Universidad de La Habana to study architecture, Herrera ultimately had to leave the country as the frequent unrest that dominated Cuban politics in the 1930s interrupted the rhythm of daily life. Herrera settled in New York with her husband, a public school teacher and began classes at the Art Students League. Herrera’s early experiences, both in Paris and at the Universidad de La Habana, would prove to be highly formative in the artist’s later mature style, exemplified by the present work and the series of Blanco y Verde as a whole.
Feeling unsatisfied and stymied in New York, Herrera would return to Paris with her husband, becoming immersed in the city’s artistic milieu and coming into contact with the avant-garde abstraction of the Réalités Nouvelles. At the same time, the artist’s architectural training manifested in an increasingly schematic visual style. Upon her return to New York, Herrera found herself exiled from the mainstream artistic discourse, her linear and diagrammatic formal style falling outside the hegemonic borders of Abstract Expressionism, precluding her from selling art, having frequent shows, or finding gallery representation. Compounded by her status as a Cuban woman in a xenophobic and male-dominated art world Herrera would find herself on the fringes of the artistic conversation, despite her pioneering and revelatory artistic vision, well into her 90s. It is in this time of creative isolation that Herrera came into her mature style, and developed the foundational series to which the present work belongs.
Unified by their spare, unadorned green triangular forms and expanses of white acrylic, the paintings in the Blanco y Verde series use the basic compositional tool of color contrast to conjure myriad representational associations. Carmen Herrera’s oeuvre is defined by this economy of means and proclivity for strict linearity, an artistic signature codified in the series to which the present work belongs. Describing the series, the artist explained, “look, to me it was a white, a beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for green, and the little triangle created a force field” (the artist in Deborah Sontag, “At 91, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting,” New York Times, 19 December 2000). Herrera’s 15 Blanco y Verde paintings span a decade of artistic production but are bound together by this “force field,” an intoxicating energy forged by the artist’s unique methodology of engaging proportion by creating spatial and chromatic harmonies. Bearing witness to the solidification of this integral tenet of the artist’s pictorial vocabulary, the present work is the embodiment of the developments of this series.
In Blanco y Verde, Herrera establishes multiple paradigms for how to experience her work using the most minimal of formal inputs. If the white acrylic in the present work is thought of as negative space, the green triangles which travel diagonally across the picture plane are frozen in a delicate equilibrium; the tips of each vertical triangle graze the edges of the horizontal triangle, achieving a structural stasis, taking on the silhouette of a precarious structure suspended in a void. Conversely, if the green of the composition is thought of as negative space, the two expansive planes of white acrylic undermine this precariousness, crafting the opposite notion. Similar but not identical, these L-shaped wedges of white paint refuse to resolve or fit together, their slightly variegated shapes precluding them from embracing snugly. What is left are the triangular slivers of green, emerging prominently through, rather than despite, their contrast with the white planes.
While much of the visual power of Blanco y Verde lies in the binary interaction between green and white, the work is also inherently planar, using three-dimensional illusionism to form intricate spatial relationships. Before Herrera paints her works, she executes scrupulous preparatory drawings and calculations which find a basis in her early architectural education, making the paintings in the Blanco y Verde series, particularly the present work, are inherently sculptural. Closely related to the artist’s wooden Estructuras, or Structures, that she displayed alongside her paintings in her landmark 1984 show at the Alternative Museum, the present work is an example of “paintings that were ‘really crying out to become sculpture’” (Dana Miller, Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win, in Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, New Haven, 2016, p. 30). The white and green of Blanco y Verde thus can be seen as an object built from segments that are tilting forward and backward on an axis, their irregular shapes a product of perspectival foreshortening. Composed of a highly limited range of elements, the present work exemplifies how Herrera’s genius lies in her ability to conceive maximal physical and conceptual associations from very few carefully selected inputs.
Long excluded from the artistic discourse surrounding minimalist abstraction and its proponents, Herrera was a true pioneer in the form. At the same moment that Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly were executing artworks that would emblazon their names in the pantheon of art history, Herrera was pulling from her formal training and in the words of the artist, “a compulsion that also gives me pleasure” (the artist in Deborah Sontag, “At 91, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting,” New York Times, 19 December, 2000) to establish a inimitable voice in the idiom. Now the artist’s works are in the most reputable and prestigious institutions in the world, including the permanent collections of Tate, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, signaling a long-delayed but much deserved institutional support for the artist. Acquired by renowned arts patron Agnes Gund in 2006, who first experienced the artist’s work at El Museo del Barrio, the present work is a highlight from Herrera’s long and prodigious career. Exemplifying Herrera’s groundbreaking artistic achievement, Blanco y Verde is a treatise in form, proportion and color that underscores the primacy of artistic vision over all odds.
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