Women in Art: Carmen Herrera

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I always used to mix her up with Carolina Herrera. However she couldn’t be further away than being a fashion designer. She’s a 103 year-old painter living and working in New York. She didn’t become famous up until very recently, even though she was always close with the biggest names of the 20th century both in France and in New York, including abstract-expressionist Mark Rothko, and working very hard throughout her career.

Jesse Loewenthal, Carmen Herrera at work in Havana, 1941

Carmen Herrera is one of the most prolific artists to date. Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1915, she studied architecture for a year. That was when she discovered her “love for straight lines”. She moved to New York in 1939 to live with her husband. There, she attended art school and took printmaking classes in New York. While moving to New York gave her exposure to the biggest museums galleries and opportunities for learning, she and her husband moved to France. There, they had the chance to meet the parents of Yves Klein, Simone de Beauvoir and none other than Jean-Paul Sartre. It is safe to say that she was in the middle of the intellectual and artistic elite and this is easily reflected in her style and work. It is nothing but ordinary.

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What makes Herrera stand out most is her unique orderly style of painting. Straight lines, the absence of extravagance and her well thought-out choice of colors for each of her paintings make for a cohesive body of abstracts that are nothing like the work of her female contemporaries. She never played it safe by indulging in what was expected from a female artist; watercolors, domestic or maternity scenes. Instead she worked hard to develop her own voice in painting, even if that resulted to her marginalization from museums and galleries.

Herrera continued working intermittently, without selling a single painting up until the age of 89. Better late than never, the Whitney Museum held Herrera’s retrospective entitled Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight at the end of 2016. Her rise to fame hasn’t changed her work style or decisive demeanor. She continues to work with the help of her assistant in her apartment in New York. After years of underappreciated work and refusals by gallery owners due to her sex, Carmen Herrera is finally getting the attention she undoubtedly deserves.

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