This fall, The Whitney Museum Of American Art will present Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, the first museum exhibition of this groundbreaking artist in New York City in nearly two decades. Focusing on the years 1948–1978, the period during which Herrera developed her signature, hard-edged style, the exhibition will situate Herrera’s pioneering abstract work in its proper place in the history of twentieth century art.
Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight features more than fifty works, including paintings, three-dimensional works, and works on paper. Organized by Dana Miller, until recently the Richard DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection at the Whitney, in close collaboration with the artist, the exhibition will be on view at the Whitney from September 16, 2016, through January 2, 2017, and at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, from February 4 through April 16, 2017.
“Herrera has been painting for more than seven decades, though it is only over the past decade or so that acclaim for her work has catapulted the artist to international prominence. This overdue evaluation offers the first comprehensive look at her early career, the result of time spent in the art worlds of Havana, Paris, and New York,” explained Miller.
Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight is comprised of three sections, organized in rough chronological sequence. The first section features earlier works from the formative period, 1948–1958, during which Herrera experimented with different modes of abstraction before establishing the visual language that she would explore with great nuance for the succeeding five decades. Featuring more than a dozen paintings made while Herrera lived in Paris (1948–1953) in the years following World War II, many of these works have never been displayed before in a museum. It was during this period that Herrera developed her distinctive style of geometric abstraction, moving towards cleaner lines and a reduced palette. Crucially, she also began using the edges of the canvas and the frame as compositional elements.
An unprecedented gathering of works from what Herrera considers her most important series, Blanco y Verde, comprise the second section and this room will serve as the centerpiece of the exhibition. The nine paintings from the series, spanning the years 1959–1971, illustrate the groundbreaking ways in which Herrera conceptualized her paintings as objects, using the physical structure of the canvas as a compositional tool and integrating the surrounding environment. These Blanco y Verde works will be isolated in their own gallery, illuminating the various compositional twists and inflections of the dichromatic works and creating a dynamic interplay of visual correspondences.
The final section will feature work dating from approximately 1962–1978, illuminating Herrera’s continued experimentation with figure/ground relationships. Also included in this section are four sculptural works, which Herrera refers to as “estructuras.” These wooden works, alongside several drawings from the 1960s, will illustrate the crucial architectural aspect of her vision and the way in which many of Herrera’s paintings begin with a three-dimensional concept. The latest works in this section will be seven vivid paintings that comprise her brilliant Days of the Week series from 1975–78.
Born May 30, 1915, in Havana, Cuba, Carmen Herrera was educated in Havana and Paris, studying art, art history, and architecture. In 1939 she married an American, Jesse Loewenthal, and moved to New York City, where she attended classes at the Art Students League and was a frequent visitor to the Whitney Museum of American Art. From 1948 to 1953, Herrera and Loewenthal lived in Paris, where she became associated with an international group of artists, the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. Herrera exhibited her work with them regularly and developed a distilled, geometric style of abstraction, reducing her palette to three colors for each composition, then further to two. Herrera’s hard-edged canvases emerged at the same time that Ellsworth Kelly, whose time in France overlapped with Herrera’s, began producing his own abstractions and around the same time that Frank Stella began producing his famous black paintings.
Herrera’s ascetic compositions, which prefigured the development of Minimalism by almost a decade, did not find a warm reception when she returned to New York in 1954, a time when Abstract Expressionism still reigned supreme. As both a woman and an immigrant, Herrera faced significant discrimination in the art world; yet she persisted, and continued to paint for the next six decades, only rarely exhibiting her work publicly. Today, at the age of 101, Herrera continues to work almost every day in her studio, and her oeuvre demonstrates a disciplined but highly sophisticated exploration of color and form. As she once stated, “I believe that I will always be in awe of the straight line, its beauty is what keeps me painting.” Since the late 1990s Herrera has garnered increasing attention for her work, selling her first painting in 2004. The last significant museum presentation of Herrera’s work in this country was a 2005 show at Miami Art Central, which was preceded only by a 1998 show of her black and white paintings at El Museo del Barrio and a 1985 show at The Alternative Museum, both in New York. Her first monographic presentation in Europe was held at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, in 2009, which then traveled to Museum Pfalzgalerie, Kaiserslautern, Germany. In the last decade, the Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Tate Modern have all acquired works by the artist.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, with essays by Miller as well as Serge Lemoine, emeritus professor at the Sorbonne and former chief curator and director of the Musée d’Orsay; Gerardo Mosquera, art historian, critic, and curator based in Havana and Madrid; and Edward J. Sullivan, Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in the History of Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. The catalogue will also contain an illustrated chronology by Monica Espinel.
Major support is provided by the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation and the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Generous support is provided by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Inc.; Tony Bechara; Tom and Lisa Blumenthal; and The Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation. Additional support is provided by Estrellita and Daniel Brodsky, The Cowles Charitable Trust, Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla, Agnes Gund, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Museum Educational Trust, and an anonymous donor. Significant endowment support is provided by Sueyun and Gene Locks.