Carmen Herrera, Cuban-Born Artist Who Won Fame at 89, Dies at 106

An obituary by Robert D. McFadden for The New York Times.

She painted in obscurity for decades, living on the earnings of her husband, an English teacher. Everything changed with a gallery show in 2004.

Carmen Herrera, a Cuban-born artist who painted abstract geometric shapes in Paris and New York all but unnoticed for most of her long life, then soared to international fame after her canvases began selling when she was 89, died on Saturday at the loft in Lower Manhattan that had been her home for 60 years. She was 106.

Antonio Bechara, an artist and friend and her legal representative, confirmed her death.

In an art world that worships the new and the young, Ms. Herrera advanced into old age ignored by the commercial markets, savoring only the solitary pleasures of all struggling artists: creating wonders for their own sake.

The passing years became decades, and then a half-century. Patiently, her brushes yielded minimalist geometric configurations, like visual haiku, in stark black-and-white and later in radiant colors: triangles and trapezoids, curvaceous shells, rondos and diamonds floating in a pristine white-canvas universe.

Ms. Herrera’s started her paintings as ink sketches that she cut up to perfect the composition before painting on canvas. At left is a portrait of her late husband.
Ms. Herrera’s started her paintings as ink sketches that she cut up to perfect the composition before painting on canvas. At left is a portrait of her late husband.

In postwar Paris, Ms. Herrera exhibited at the Salon des Réalites Nouvelles, the venue for abstract artists. In New York, she found space in storefront galleries, sidewalk shows, anywhere she could catch eyes. Years later, her work was displayed at the Alternative Museum in the East Village and El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. There were small but favorable reviews, but no buyers.

Still, Ms. Herrera persevered. She lived frugally in her loft, stashed her trove of rolled up canvases in closets and went on painting, supported by her husband, Jesse Lowenthal, an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan for 45 years until his death in 2000. Then her fortunes changed, almost overnight.

In 2004, Mr. Bechara recommended her work to Frederico Sève, the Brazilian-born owner of the Latin Collector Gallery on Hudson Street in TriBeCa, a longtime advocate for Latin American artists, who was mounting a show for three Latinas.

In a brief review for The New York Times, Holland Cotter wrote: “This crisp handsome show picks up a thread of geometric abstraction in 20th-century Latin American art, and follows it in the work of three women who have made significant contributions to the history of that art.

“The senior artist,” he continued, “who is also the least well known, is Carmen Herrera, who was born in Cuba in 1915 and has lived in New York City since 1954. Her declarative, witty, hard-edge style has points of contact with Mondrian, Ellsworth Kelly and Op Art, but is most immediately connected to the vanguard Neo-concrete work of artists like Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica who flourished in Brazil after World War II.”

A 1958 painting by Ms. Herrera titled “Green and Orange.”
A 1958 painting by Ms. Herrera titled “Green and Orange.”

The reaction to the show was swift. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a Cuban-born collector who had an art foundation in Miami, bought five of Ms. Herrera’s paintings. Estrellita Brodsky, another prominent collector, bought five more. Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also bought several and, with Mr. Bechara, donated one of Ms. Herrera’s black-and-white paintings to MoMA.

Accolades in art publications and the general press followed solo exhibitions in New York and London. A traveling Herrera retrospective was a hit across Europe. Her work was acquired for the permanent collections of MoMA, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, the Tate Modern in London and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Private collectors also snapped up her work. Reporters clamored for interviews.

The value of her paintings soared. By 2009, they were going for $50,000 each, and for up to $160,000 by 2014 — sums unimaginable when Ms. Herrera was in her 80s. The Observer of London called her work the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these brilliant compositions?”

Much of her new money went for round-the-clock aides, enabling her to keep the studio-loft she had then occupied for nearly five decades. “The money is useful because at the end of life, to my amazement, you need a lot of help,” she told The Telegraph of London. “Otherwise I would end up in a nursing home. And I dread that.”

“Rondo (Blue and Yellow),” acrylic on canvas, 1965.
“Rondo (Blue and Yellow),” acrylic on canvas, 1965.

By her 94th year, Ms. Herrera, Giacometti thin, with wire-rim glasses and shoulder-length, bone-white hair, was homebound, a regal woman in a wheelchair, afflicted with arthritis, but still painting. How had she persevered after decades of being unknown?

“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she told The Times in 2009. “I never in my life had any idea of money, and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”

As she turned 100 in 2015, her status in the modern art canon was affirmed by the release of a half-hour documentary, “The 100 Years Show,” by Alison Klayman, and by inclusion of Ms. Herrera’s diptych, “Blanco y Verde” (1959), with works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns as the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new home in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

“It’s about time,” Ms. Herrera told a reporter over a Scotch at her loft, on East 19th Street near Union Square. “There’s a saying that you wait for the bus and it will come. I waited almost a hundred years.”

In 2016, Ms. Herrera was showered with encomiums when the Whitney opened “Lines of Sight,” an exhibition of 50 of her paintings focusing on the period 1948 to 1978, years in which she developed her signature geometric abstractions, including a canvas featuring backgammon-like elongated triangles, titled “A City” (1948).

“At 101, the artist Carmen Herrera is finally getting the show the art world should have given her 40 or 50 years ago: a solo exhibition at a major museum in New York,” Karen Rosenberg wrote in The Times. “The show presents her as an artist of formidable discipline, consistency and clarity of purpose, and a key player in any history of postwar art.”

“Blanco y Verde" (1959) was shown with works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns at the Whitney Museum of American Art when it opened its new home in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
“Blanco y Verde” (1959) was shown with works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns at the Whitney Museum of American Art when it opened its new home in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Carmen Herrera was born in Havana on May 31, 1915, to Antonio Xavier Herrera and Carmen Nieto. Her father was the founding editor of El Mundo, a Havana newspaper, and her mother was a reporter there. Carmen grew up in a prosperous and cultured household, surrounded by art, music and literature. Visitors included Langston Hughes, the poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

She learned French and English and studied art in Havana, then attended the Marymount International School in Paris for her secondary education. She later studied architecture at the University of Havana but quit college amid the turmoil surrounding the rise of the military dictator Fulgencio Batista. She married Mr. Lowenthal, who was visiting Cuba from New York, in 1939. They never had children; Ms. Herrera’s survivors include a niece and a nephew, Mr. Bechara said.

After marrying and moving to New York, Ms. Herrera studied at the Art Students League for several years. She and her husband then lived in Paris, from 1948 to 1953, and there she developed a style that featured bold colors and sharply defined geometric shapes. Her work was exhibited with that of Josef Albers, Jean Arp and other postwar abstract artists.

But by the time she returned to New York in 1954, her vision of abstract geometric forms had taken a fateful turn, becoming simpler in conception, often in black and white, trending toward a Minimalist style, in contrast to the larger-than-life works of friends like the Abstract Expressionists Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, whose broad gestures on canvas were increasingly popular.

Ms. Herrera at age 94 with two of her paintings.
Ms. Herrera at age 94 with two of her paintings.

“The prejudices some gallery owners held against women and Latin-American artists put her at a disadvantage, as did the fact that her work — some of which prefigured the later trends of Op Art and hard-edge Minimalism — was out of step with the period’s fashion for Abstract Expressionism,” John M. Cunningham wrote in a profile of Ms. Herrera for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Ms. Herrera pursued her vision, however, and while her paintings went unsold, critics noticed what she was doing.

In 1966, Hilton Kramer told Times readers: “Within the limits of the geometrical and hard-edge modes, a painter’s success often depends on a correct gauging of what personal innovations are possible within the impersonal conventions of these styles. Miss Herrera shows a canny understanding of this problem and is thus able to confer something distinctly her own.”

Four decades later, in 2005, the Times critic Grace Glueck refined the point. “The abstractionist Carmen Herrera produces minimal but eloquent paintings whose strength comes from their intense fusions of color and ascetic form,” she wrote. “Over a long career, Ms. Herrera has accomplished a rare feat: she has managed to imbue her ascetic, normally impersonal mode of art with emotion and spirit.”

That career was recognized last July by the French government, which named her an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. And only days before her death, Ms. Herrera learned that the National Gallery of Art in Washington had acquired two of her works, Mr. Bechara said.

“She was so thrilled,” he said.

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