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Carmen Herrera, 101-Year-Old Overnight Success, Gets Her Whitney Close-Up (with video)

Given her centenarian status, I was astonished by the Whitney Museum’s decision to schedule its Carmen Herrera show to open more than a year after the Whitney had unveiled its new facility. I felt the show should have been fast-tracked at all costs, to increase the odds that this doggedly persistent, under-recognized artist would live to see it.

Happily, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight (to Jan. 2), did not turn out to be a memorial exhibition: The feisty artist, now 101, is still working and at last getting some very belated adulation. Covering only three decades of her seven-decade career, 1948-78, this is the first NYC museum show for the Cuban-born artist since El Museo del Barrio’s 1998 display of her black-and-white paintings.

Here’s a great black-and-white in the Whitney’s display, owned by the Museum of Modern Art. Like much of Herrera’s work, it’s a marriage of Minimalist and Op-Art sensibilities, invented before those movements were “a thing”:

"Untitled," 1952 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Untitled,” 1952
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As illustrated by this painting, Herrera’s compositional sensibility was influenced by her study of architecture in Havana. MoMA’s painting includes the frame in the composition and is constructed from four panels, although that’s hard to discern in person, let alone from a photograph.

Here’s a close-up of one of the seams (running vertically, down the middle of this image):


“It takes tremendous courage to maintain a singular focus over seven decades with little or no encouragement. I can’t imagine it,”” Whitney director Adam Weinberg marveled at yesterday’s press preview (as you can hear in my CultureGrrl Video, below).

While hopefully not a swan song for the artist, this show was Dana Miller‘s final project as a Whitney curator. She returned there for its opening but has moved to Seattle (due to the exigencies of her husband’s job).

Whitney ex-curator Dana Miller at the Herrera show Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Whitney ex-curator Dana Miller at the Herrera press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Miller ascribed Herrera’s neglect, in part, to “discrimination against her as both a woman and as an immigrant.” The curator became interested in doing this show after seeking to acquire a Herrera to appear in the Whitney’s inaugural display in its new downtown digs. She chose a beauty—a two-panel work from what is arguably Herrera’s greatest period, her “Blanco y Verde [White and Green] Series.”

Miller whimsically installed the new acquisition in the downtown Whitney’s inaugural show next to a John McLaughlin that echoed its green and white hues:

L: John Mc R: Herrera, "Blanco y Verde," 1959 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L: John McLaughlin, “#1, 1963”
R: Herrera, “Blanco y Verde,” 1959
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The wall text for the current show’s last gallery mentions that “upon careful study, it becomes clear that many of Herrera’s paintings began with a three-dimensional concept,” in keeping with the “architectonic aspect of her vision.” Had Miller not pointed this out to me, I might not have noticed that the green, barely touching triangles of the painting in the foreground echo the shape of the void in the two-part yellow wall sculpture in the next gallery:

R: "Blanco y Verde, 1967 L: "Amarillo 'Dos,'" 1971 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

R: “Blanco y Verde, 1967
L: “Amarillo ‘Dos,'” 1971
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The above “Blanco y Verde” from 1967 exemplifies what I most admire about the series—the delicate yet energetic way in which the rarefied forms interact. There’s plenty of energy in the dense works that Herrera painted in Paris from 1948-c. 1954, but not much delicacy.

This Paris picture is the earliest work in the show, owned by Metropolitan Museum chairman Daniel Brodsky, who also loaned two more works and provided financial support for the exhibition:


"Untitled," 1947-48, Collection of Estrellita & Daniel Brodsky Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Untitled,” 1947-48, Collection of Estrellita & Daniel Brodsky
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The latest works in this otherwise chronological show are the dazzlers from the out-of-sequence “Days of the Week” series, which are the first works that you first encounter upon exiting the elevator. Herrera gave the Whitney freedom to install them in any order it chose. (The other two days hang to the right, on the other side of the entrance to the galleries.)

L to R: "Wednesday," 1978; "Tuesday," 1978; "Sunday," 1978; "Friday," 1978; "Thursday," 1975 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R: “Wednesday,” 1978; “Tuesday,” 1978; “Sunday,” 1978; “Friday,” 1978; “Thursday,” 1975
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In her glowing NY Times review for tomorrow’s paper (online now), Karen Rosenberg asked the same question that was my first query to the Whitney’s curators yesterday.

Karen wrote:

Why didn’t the Whitney give Ms. Herrera not just the show she ought to have received some decades ago, but also the show that she deserves today? Meaning a full retrospective.

The answer I received was that this was the pivotal period from her oeuvre, when she developed and perfected her signature style. Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s deputy director and chief curator, told me that I could view images of her most recent work on the website for the Lisson Gallery’s recent show (closed June 11). As with many Minimalist and Op-Art works, images cannot adequately convey the visceral charge of experiencing them in person.

It’s surprising that the commercial show wasn’t scheduled to coincide with the interest generated by the museum show, as is customary. Even more surprising (unless quality was an issue) is the Whitney’s not trying to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about what this 101-year-old artist has been producing lately.

Come join me now at the press preview to hear Miller and Weinberg give their own perspectives on Herrera—the artist and the exhibition:

an ArtsJournal blog