NEW YORK (AP) — Cuban-born artist Carmen Herrera says she’s still bursting with ideas she wants to put on canvas, but the centenarian doesn’t feel any urgency to hurry.
“I don’t let anything push me,” said Herrera, who turned 100 on Sunday.
She’s been painting since the 1930s. Yet fame arrived late. She sold her first work in 2004, when she was 89. After that, recognition came quickly. Today her works are in the permanent collections of major museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London.
“Blanco y Verde,” a 1966 canvas of white dominated by an inverted green triangle, is part of the inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 2016, the museum plans a solo show of her work.
This month, Herrera’s work will be featured at Art Basel in Switzerland and in October at the Frieze Masters art fair in London.
When the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, presented a solo exhibition of her work in 2009, The Observer of London hailed her as “the discovery of the decade,” asking “how could we have missed these brilliant compositions?” A retrospective at the German Museum Pfalzgalerie followed.
Her paintings are simple geometric abstractions accented with one or two striking primary colors.
“She’s a distiller,” said her longtime friend and neighbor, painter Tony Bachera, in describing her radiant compositions. “She’s an abstractionist but tending toward minimalism. … She may start with a painting that has three shapes and after a week it’s reduced to one shape. … There’s a kind of quality associated with spiritual simplicity in her work and in her life.”
Like her minimalist artwork, Herrera is a woman of few words — precise and to the point.
During a late-morning interview at her modest but cheerful apartment in a three-story walk-up on East 19th Street in Manhattan, the silver-haired artist sipped scotch on the rocks and tapped her elegant long fingers against a wooden table as she animatedly talked about her life and career. She alternated between English and Spanish, which Bachera translated.
Born in Havana in 1915, her father was the founding editor of the daily El Mundo and her mother was a journalist. She took art lessons as a child, attended finishing school in Paris, studied architecture and trained at the Art Students League in New York. In 1939, she married Jesse Loewenthal, an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.
She developed her artistic style during the postwar years in Paris, where the couple lived from 1948 to 1953. Between Paris and New York the couple socialized with many artists including Jean Genet, Barnett Newman, Wifredo Lam and Willem de Kooning. She joined the influential Parisian gallery, Salon of New Realities, where she exhibited alongside such abstract artists as Max Bill and Piet Mondrian.
But while she exhibited here and there, including at the Alternative Museum in 1984 and El Museo del Barrio in New York in 1998, she never sold anything.
Bachera said he and other artists who lived in her neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s “knew she had something important and we all wondered how come she wasn’t getting the recognition.”
Her big break came when she was included in a show in 2004 at the Latin Collector gallery in Manhattan, thanks to Bachera.
Gallery owner Frederico Seve complained to Bachera over dinner one day that one of three Latin American geometric painters had pulled out of an upcoming exhibition. Bachera introduced him to Herrera. Seve was enthralled, included her in the show and called several collectors.
“The New York Times and other publications gave a great review and this time she sold,” said Bachera. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a collector with a Miami art foundation bearing her name, bought five paintings. Collector and philanthropist Estrellita Brodsky also bought five works and MoMA president emerita Agnes Gund bought several and donated one to the museum.
The Lisson Gallery, which represents Herrera, became interested in her work after its owner saw it at a London exhibition.
“I was wrapping up the works and putting them in a crate when he came by and said could you remove them from the crate,” said Bachera. “I almost said ‘no.’ He became interested. It’s a top gallery in the world and then the word spread.”
Was she disappointed recognition eluded her for so long?
“Not really,” Herrera said. In a sense it was liberating, she said, giving her the freedom “to do what was inside of me” without the pressure of the market.
But when pressed why it took so long, she said “prejudice against women” artists when postwar abstract expressionism, dominated by men, was in vogue — not her style of geometric compositions.
She recalled being told by a Manhattan gallery owner: “Carmen, you can paint around the painters I have here but I’m not giving you a show because you are a woman.”
Fame hasn’t changed her lifestyle. She still paints every day because “I have a lot to say yet,” she said.
Her birthday celebration was a low-key affair at a local restaurant attended by 30 guests, each of whom received a small work signed by Herrera printed on the back of the menu. The birthday cake was based on a design she recently completed.
Asked how she’d like to be remembered, Herrera replied, “I don’t want to be remembered.” When the questioned was rephrased to “How do you what your artwork to be remembered,” she didn’t hesitate.
“Great,” she said.
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