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Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight was a groundbreaking exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and its catalogue—with essays by Dana Miller, Gerardo Mosquera, Serge Lemoine, and Edward J. Sullivan, over one hundred full color plates, and a chronology by Moñica Espinel—is the perfect supplement.
Carmen Herrera (b. 1915, Havana, Cuba) is female, Cuban, and an abstract and minimalist painter and sculptor. Her art background is in architecture and painting, and she utilizes both of these disciplines in her work. Before Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight opened at the Whitney Museum in fall 2016, Herrera’s name and her work were seldom known outside of the small art circles in which she existed. This catalogue helps situate Herrera in a space she should have been occupying since the early 1940s. Each essay in the catalogue covers different aspects of Herrera’s life and career. Miller’s essay, “Carmen Herrera: Sometimes I Win,” is where the reader’s journey begins, and there is no better place to start.
Miller opens her essay with the generalization often applied to Herrera: she was “an artist in the wrong place at the wrong time” (13). Miller’s use of this statement sets the tone for the entire catalogue. Herrera was not in the wrong place at the wrong time, but rather in all of the right places but with little recognition.
Herrera’s exclusion from twentieth-century abstraction stems both from her nationality and gender. She moved and worked in all of the same circles as famous American male abstractionists, like Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith, but was pushed out. Herrera was not only excluded from the movement, but also the canon. The essays in Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight deliberately separate Herrera’s life and work, marking one of the first times that this conflation has been addressed. In 1956, after a solo exhibition at Galería Sudamericana in New York City, New York Times art critic Dore Ashton wrote that Herrera’s work embodied “the sharp light and native excitement of Cuba” (24). There is no doubt that Herrera was influenced by her upbringing in Cuba, but her work was a result of her schooling, not her surroundings. “I don’t believe that the ‘Cuban painter’ exists, or the ‘French painter’ or the ‘American painter’ . . . I am not, in the sense of my work, at all nationalist. The artist is universal and neither definitions nor status limit him” (24). In her essay, Miller outlines how Herrera was excluded from the canon and quotes Herrera on her feelings about this omission. Miller then discusses Herrera and her artwork alongside that of her contemporaries and within the frameworks of minimalism and abstraction, contextualizing Herrera’s work in its rightful place in the canon.
It is imperative to note the difference between Cuban art and the art of a Cuban artist. Gerardo Mosquera begins his essay by stating how “Herrera’s relationship with Cuba exemplifies the complexity of the bonds and exchanges artists have with origins, context, and culture, and the difficulty of determining the nature and weight of these relationships” (43). Herrera is Cuban by birth, but being Cuban does not dictate the terms of her artwork. Herrera’s commitment to abstraction set her apart from Cuban contemporaries, but her nationality became her signifier regardless of her artistic intent or sensibilities while she was working abroad. Although Mosquera’s essay is highly biographical in terms of Herrera’s nationality, he does not pigeonhole Herrera as a Cuban artist. Refreshingly, Mosquera speaks about Herrera’s relationship with Cuba in much the same way that the artist thinks of it herself: as her place of birth, but not one of her distinctive characteristics.
Similarly to Mosquera’s exploration of Herrera’s relationship to Cuba, Serge Lemoine outlines the artist’s connection to Paris in an essay called “Paris est une fête.” The essay’s first section, “From Havana to New York,” is short, as Lemoine’s intent is to discuss Herrera’s relationship to Paris. The remaining sections, “In Paris,” “At the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles,” and “The Lesson of Paris,” all give readers a glimpse into the different aspects of Herrera’s life in Paris.
After the end of World War II, Herrera moved to Paris and quickly found a studio in Montparnasse. Herrera immediately fell into the Paris art world and began to make connections that would be crucial for her future development as an artist. She introduced herself to people such as director of the Salon des Réalités, Frédo Sidés, who agreed to show her paintings at his salon and guided her further towards minimalism (56). Lemoine goes on to discuss the Paris art world and its dedication to minimalism and abstraction. Paris and its artistic sensibilities were essential in the development of Herrera’s craft (59). In his essay, Lemoine includes examples of works created by Herrera’s Paris contemporaries such as Sonia Delaunay, Paul Klee, and Auguste Herbin. From these inclusions, it is not difficult to see how being an exhibiting member at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles impacted Herrera’s direction as an artist. After seven years in Paris, Herrera returned to New York, “where she would find her own path, developing the art for which, since the 1990s, she has finally gained recognition” (64). Herrera’s time in Paris, just like her time in Cuba and New York, did not make her work nationalistic. Rather, as Lemoine and Mosquera both demonstrate, what Herrera learned in a specific location impacted her artwork, rather than the location itself being the impact.
The catalogue’s final essay, “Carmen Herrera: South to North” by Edward J. Sullivan, most closely resembles Miller’s in that Sullivan traces Herrera’s artistic inspirations throughout her life rather than tracing influence through one specific location. He brings up the theory of “contact zones” very early on to describe how Herrera traveled to “places of cultural convergence, where ideas and creative impulses flourish and get transmitted in nonprogrammatic, even unconscious ways” (70). Sullivan uses biography as a stepping stone for a complex analysis of Herrera and her artwork using this theory of contact zones.
Like Lemoine’s, Sullivan’s essay is broken up into sections. The first two sections, “Herrera within the Contact Zones of Fluidity” and “Herrera at Midcentury and Beyond,” discuss how Herrera, despite living in Paris and New York, was connected to other Latin American artists through artistic sensibilities and styles. He explains how Herrera was a part of “successive waves of Latin Americans [who] had made Paris their home (temporarily or permanently) since the nineteenth century” (71). It can be postulated that, like Herrera, many other Latin American artists sought artistic training outside of their countries of birth to symbolically erase the nationalistic borders of the art world. Sullivan dutifully acknowledges that Herrera did not want to be associated only with Latin American artists.
The remainder of Sullivan’s essay elaborates on the connection between Herrera and other Latin American artists through the contact zone theory. While it is true that Herrera did not want to be considered a Latin American artist, Sullivan demonstrates to readers that it is just as important to place her within this national framework as it is to take her out of it—something that both the catalogue and exhibition attempt.
Over her very long career as an artist, Herrera has consistently maintained her minimalist style and refused to change it based upon the preferences of the art world. She has stayed true to herself and her form, and is finally getting the recognition she deserves. It is crucial to present both biography and artwork together without letting one eclipse or overly influence the other, a balance both the Whitney exhibition and the catalogue struck. Carmen Herrera has rightfully earned her place within the canon of art history, and this catalogue cements her place as one of the most important and influential abstractionists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, albeit one hitherto largely unrecognized and unacknowledged.
Art Director, Mosholu Montefiore Community Center