Museum  December 16, 2020  Lauren Moya Ford

At 105, Carmen Herrera Goes Monumental in New Sculpture Series

© Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery, Photo © 2020 Paul Hester , courtesy Buffalo Bayou Partnership

Carmen Herrera, Pavanne, (1967/2017), 1971/2019. Acrylic and aluminum. On view as part of Carmen Herrera: Estructuras Monumentales, presented in collaboration with Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Public Art Fund at Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, October 22, 2020 to April 23, 2021.

Carmen Herrera has reached a new milestone. Known for her bold-hued, pared-down geometric paintings, the 105-year-old Cuban-American artist has created her first series of large-scale, monumental sculptures. Herrera first envisioned these massive painted aluminum structures nearly five decades ago, in her architecturally-inspired drawings and paintings. But neglect by the art establishment for most of her career meant that Herrera lacked the means to bring her three-dimensional visions to life–until now.

Co-organized by Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Partnership and New York’s Public Art Fund (PAF), Carmen Herrera: Estructuras Monumentales features four of the artist’s new monumental sculptures. This is Herrera’s first public art exhibition in Texas, and only the second time that these large-scale works have been presented: an initial display took place at New York’s City Hall Park in 2019. A concurrent exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Structuring Surfaces at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH), showcases more than thirty works from the 1960s to present, including paintings, drawings, prints, wall structures, and objects that served as models for the new sculptures. Together, the two exhibitions offer a rare glimpse into the decades-long story behind Herrera’s move from two to three dimensions, a journey fueled by the artist’s determination and clarity of vision.

© Carmen Herrera, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Carmen Herrera, Amarillo uno (Yellow 1), 1971. Acrylic on plywood.

Herrera was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915 and raised in a large, cultivated family. As a young woman, Herrera studied art in Paris and New York, but it’s her architectural training at the Universidad de la Habana in the late 1930s that most shaped the artist’s trajectory. “She attributes that moment as encouraging her belief in the beauty of the straight line and of the clarity of form that her work has always had since,” PAF curator Daniel S. Palmer told Art & Object.

Like an architect, Herrera’s basic tools were graph paper, pen, pencil, and masking tape, and her early designs work from floor plans as points of departure. “From the very beginning,” MFAH co-curator Dena Woodall emphasized, “she was thinking in architectural terms even though she wasn’t making buildings.” 

© Carmen Herrera, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2018, acrylic on paper.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Herrera lived in Paris, where she immersed herself in the city’s rich, post-war cultural scene. She moved in the same circles as artists like Josef Albers, Max Bill, Theo van Doesburg, Argentine Grupo Madí painters, and Russian Suprematists, and exhibited her work at the city’s Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. In the French capital, Herrera had access to experimental new materials like acrylic paint from Germany, which she mastered well before her American counterparts.

The artist’s years in Paris solidified her style. “I began a lifelong process of purification, a process of taking away what isn’t essential,” Herrera said later of this period. By the time she settled in New York City in 1954, Herrera was already working in her mature mode. Her bold colors and simplified forms would remain steadfast throughout the decades.

© Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera, Verde y negro (Green and Black), 2017. Offset lithographs on wove paper, edition 5/20.

Since the 1960s, Herrera has limited herself to working in only two colors at a time. This includes the white walls around her pieces, which–perhaps because of Herrera’s architectural background–she considers part of the work. “She constantly thought between two and three dimensions,” MFAH co-curator Rachel Mohl said, explaining that during the 1960s and 1970s, Herrera “was really trying to figure out how to influence and invade a viewer’s visual perception and physical space.”

Financial support from a fellowship enabled the artist to hire a carpenter who assisted her in creating Azul “Tres” (1971), her first monochromatic, free-standing structure. Herrera’s Estructuras, as she called them, were composed of wood, canvas, and paint, and protruded suggestively off the wall. The stage was set for more sculpture until Herrera’s carpenter died suddenly and her financial resources ran low. Over the next decades, the artist’s three-dimensional impulses developed across her drawings, paintings, and prints instead. 

© Carmen Herrera, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2018. Acrylic, marker, and foam core.

“The art world really missed how incredible [Herrera] was, partly because she was an immigrant, [and] partly because she was a woman,” Palmer said. But the artist stayed true to her vision, and the opportunity to create the monumental sculptures Herrera had planned finally arose. Because her mobility is limited, Herrera oversaw all aspects of the project via video conferences, 3D renderings, and mockups from her New York studio. Palmer also enlisted the help of Peter Ballantine, a fabricator who created 3D works for Donald Judd and other Minimalists during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when Herrera ironically had to cease her own sculptural experiments.

The results are truly marvelous. Herrera’s sculptures range from seven to twelve feet in size, and practically vibrate under their pure, intense coats of color. Walking around each inventive work uncovers an infinity of dynamic angles and views. All sculptures have a historic date marking when they were conceived on paper in the 1960s and 1970s, and a fabrication date. Though most of the streamlined, colorful sculptures emit a sense of joy, Pavanne (1967/2017)–an interlocking, ultramarine block that stretches nine by nine feet–is a solemn memorial to Herrera’s brother, who was dying of cancer at the time she composed it. Herrera injects an unexpected depth of emotion into her sleek, geometric forms.

© Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery, Photo © 2020 Paul Hester, courtesy Buffalo Bayou Partnership

Carmen Herrera, Angulo Blanco (front), 2017. Acrylic and aluminum. On view as part of Carmen Herrera: Estructuras Monumentales, presented in collaboration with Buffalo Bayou Partnership and Public Art Fund at Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, October 22, 2020 to April 23, 2021.

How did Herrera respond to seeing her sculptures take shape after so many years? “It really was a dream come true for her,” Palmer reports. Herrera’s story is a testament to the power of keeping the course and being true to oneself. It’s a lesson any person–artist or not–can benefit from.

Tony Bechara, Public Art Fund

Carmen Herrera visits Estructuras Monumentales in New York.

Carmen Herrera: Structuring Surfaces is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston through January 18, 2021. Carmen Herrera: Estructuras Monumentales is on view at Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston through April 23, 2021.

About the Author

Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is an artist and writer based in Madrid.

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