Inside the mind of Carmen Herrera

Exploring the creative processes of artists featured in Vitamin P2
Portrait of the artist Carmen Herrera, photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu
Portrait of the artist Carmen Herrera, photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu


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The crisp, primary abstractions of painter Carman Herrera very nearly passed the art world by. Born in pre-revolution Cuba in 1915, Herrera left after the Second World War and spent time in Paris and New York during a period when her friends Leon Polk Smith and Wilfredo Lam were forging their own reputations. However, Herrera failed to achieve a similar level of success for herself, owing perhaps to her marginalised status as a Hispanic woman producing minimalist work. In fact, Herrera didn’t sell an artwork until 2004 when she was 89 years of age. London's Lisson Gallery recently hosted the 97-year-old's first ever European major gallery show. We thought it was rather good and wanted you to know a little more about her. 

Who are you?

I am Carmen Herrera. I was born in Cuba during the great war, the first World War 97 years ago in 1915. I have lived most of my life in New York. I wanted to be an architect but in Havana in those days the university was always closed due to some revolution or another. I became a painter and in 1939 moved to New York. During the forties and fifties I met many artists that would later become rather well known. I was friends with Barnett Newman, Leon Polk Smith, Wilfredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez and many others. From 1948 to about 1953 I lived in Paris at number 5 Rue Campagne Premiere in the 14th. What years those were - Paris was full of bicycles and artists from all over the world. I exhibited in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelle with artists like Ben Nicholson and Soto and Pierre Soulages and Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman and Vasarely. Those years shaped the vision of my life's work. In short, who am I? I am a painter.

 

Carmen Herrera, Two Worlds
Carmen Herrera, Two Worlds (2011), acrylic on canvas

 

What’s on your mind right now? 

London is very much on my mind right now. The exhibition at the Lisson Gallery was my first major gallery exhibit in Europe. I think of my sister Teresa Durland. She worked at the Cuban embassy in London in 1939. When war broke out everyone left but not Teresa. She stayed on and became an air warden. She spent the rest of her life in London and is buried there. A Cuban air warden during the blitz, that is one irony for the record book.

How do you get this stuff out? 

You never get it out. It is always churning. It is a constant, continuous process. You finally say something, and then it just leads to more questions.

How does it fit together? 

A sense of perspective holds it together. I mean, you step back a bit and you will discern the sense to it all. You identify a lexicon of forms and ideas. Your visual language is revealed during the process of making art and as you apply principles that guide you.

What brought you to this point?  

Many years and many paintings.  Each painting is the result of choices made. Each work is a series of paths not taken and paths taken. 

 

Carmen Herrera, Yellow and Black
Carmen Herrera, Yellow and Black (2010), acrylic on canvas

 

Can you control it?

It controls you, really. One engages in a long process and a dialogue where one attempts to define. Then there is also time and place and other circumstances that enter into the equation. It is not necessarily about simple control.  

What’s next? 

What a question to ask a 97 year old! However, since you asked, I will respond. I want to make larger works, but then there is the problem of getting them in and out of this studio - the lift is tiny, the staircase crooked, and I never go out. So again, I have choices to make - how to make them larger, or seem larger, or maybe make the world smaller?

 


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