Overlooked But Undeterred, A 101-Year-Old Artist Finally Gets Her Due
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For most of Carmen Herrera's career, her innovative abstract paintings went unnoticed, even with all their bright colors. The artist didn't make her first sale until she was 89. This fall, the Whitney Museum of Art will put on a solo show of her works. Carmen Herrera is still painting at the age of 101 and is finally getting recognition for it. Karen Michel has this profile.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Carmen Herrera cries quietly, tears streaming as she sits in her wheelchair, slowly visiting each piece at the Lisson Gallery in Manhattan.
CARMEN HERRERA: Not bad (laughter). Not bad at all.
MICHEL: The 13 paintings and one sculpture made up her first solo exhibition in the U.S. in nearly 10 years.
HERRERA: It helps that they recognize you, that your work is not going to disappear.
MICHEL: That's kind of a surprising statement, considering that in the 1940s, Herrera was exhibiting her work next to Piet Mondrian, part of a community of artists in Paris exploring the boundaries of painting and sculpture. The Lisson Gallery's Alex Logsdail points out that other artists who found acceptance and a reputation in Europe also languished in the U.S. But Herrera, who's not much of a self-promoter, had more working against her.
ALEX LOGSDAIL: I think it's partly because she's a woman. I think that also in the '60s and '70s, being a Cuban woman was particularly complicated. She very much sees herself as an American artist, given that 75 years of her life has been spent outside of Cuba.
HERRERA: Herrera rejects all of the labels - Cuban...
HERRERA: I will never go back.
HERRERA: They hated the idea of a woman making it, but that happened.
HERRERA: I waited a long time, but you are here now (laughter).
MICHEL: Herrera kept working because she felt compelled to make art. She'd rather people focus on that.
HERRERA: I mean, I'm just an artist. That's all.
MICHEL: Every morning after a cafe con leche, Herrera sits at her work table at one end of the loft she's lived in for 50 years. A neat row of colored marking pens is on the table - red, yellow, blue, black and green. She uses them to fill in the geometric shapes she draws on vellum graph paper, sometimes cutting them up and moving them around. Later, with the help of an assistant, the drawings are amplified to fill canvases larger than the artist. For the past seven decades, Herrera has been figuring out variations on the straight line.
HERRERA: I'm still looking for it (laughter) because I get a pleasure from doing it. This is done with pleasure.
MICHEL: One of the pieces in the Lisson show was a painting seven feet square, formed of three equal sections. Many of Herrera's paintings are either diptychs or triptychs. The background is white. Three cobalt blue rectangles descend from the top edge and three poke up from the bottom. They are offset from each other. There's a sense of movement in the stillness and the hint of a joke about upsetting expectations.
TERESITA FERNANDEZ: There's always some little thing that's off that kind of makes you look again and look more carefully.
MICHEL: Artist and MacArthur Fellow Teresita Fernandez is a friend and admirer of Carmen Herrera's. Born in America to Cuban parents, she too rejects the labels.
FERNANDEZ: She's still looked at in isolation as a kind of anomaly. And I do think that some of the innovations in her work must have influenced some of her contemporaries. How do we not know that Barnett Newman wasn't influenced by Carmen?
DANA MILLER: And she's still pushing herself.
MICHEL: Dana Miller is the curator of the upcoming show of Herrera's work at the Whitney Museum of Art. For Miller, Herrera continues to be more inventive than many artists less than a fourth her age.
MILLER: By creating these limits around her composition - limiting herself to two colors and working with a kind of a key set of forms, shapes - she kind of liberates herself to go deep.
MICHEL: For a still-working artist who made her first sale at the age of 89, having two shows in the same year is a vindication.
HERRERA: Yes, yes, yes.
MICHEL: But there's also a downside.
HERRERA: Embarrassing, frankly (laughter).
MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.
SIMON: And tomorrow on Weekend Edition Sunday, you can hear Rachel Martin talk with an artist whose work inspired Kanye West's new controversial video.
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