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Carmen Herrera

La Havana, Cuba 1915-2022


Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera spent much of her time in the 1930s and 1940s between Paris and Cuba before settling permanently in New York in 1954. Initially trained as an architect at the Universidad de la Habana, Herrera later studied at the Art Students League in New York City from 1943 to 1947.  During a stint in Paris that lasted from 1948 to 1956, she developed the style for which she would much later become renowned, characterized by abstract geometric shapes whose sharp angles were informed by mathematical logic.
Throughout her career, she focused on simplicity, color and line.  Through the use of sharp lines and stark color contrasts, she created dynamic and technically sophisticated compositions that reflect movement, balance and spatial tension across their surfaces.  In a 2016 interview with Artforum, Herrera said: “I like things very simple.  I never saw a straight line I did not like!  My visual language is based on the idea of contrasts and on the juxtaposition of shapes.  As for color, my feelings depend on the color.  Colors are really intuitive.  There is no formula.  I like to juxtapose shapes and colors until they tell me to stop.  Then I know I have a painting.”
She received recognition for her artistic accomplishments in postwar Paris, exhibiting alongside Theo van Doesburg, Max Bill, and Piet Mondrian, but was long overlooked upon her return to the male-dominated New York art world.  Despite breaking ground simultaneously with her peers, Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith, Herrera was often sidelined as a woman and a Latin American artist.  She was only able to secure spots for her work in modest group shows, enjoying just four solo shows in a nearly thirty-year span.
In the early 2000’s things changed for Herrera; a global audience was finally ready and eager for her Minimalist compositions, and her work began appearing in numerous institutional shows.  Most notably, Herrera’s work caught the art world’s attention in 2015 when her 1965 work Basque sold at Phillips for $437,000, more than three times the low estimate.  Only two years later, the artist’s prices broke the million-dollar mark when Untitled (Orange and Black), 1956 sold for $1,179,000 in Phillip’s November 2017 New York Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art.  Today, Herrera’s auction record sits at USD $2.9M for Blanco y Verde, 1966–67 achieved during a charitable auction held by Sotheby’s in 2019.
Herrera’s work has been exhibited in major institutions.  The Whitney Museum of American Art staged a landmark exhibition of her work in 2016–17 to wide acclaim; the show traveled to the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, and Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsselddorf.  More recently, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art gave her solo shows in 2020 and 2021, respectively.  Herrera’s work is in numerous important collections and museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Museum, New York, the Tate Modern, London, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Art photo courtesy of Tate
Profile photo by Carmen Herrera, courtesy of The Print Society