To See Now: Lines Of Sight By Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera has been known to say, “If you wait for your bus, your bus will come,” but few have waited longer than she. The artist was painting for decades before she made her first sale at 89. Now, at 101, Herrera is finally getting her due, via a stunning retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Entitled “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” the survey includes roughly 50 works, spanning from 1948 to 1978, though there easily could have been more; to this day the artist can be found diligently painting a few blocks from Union Square, in the same studio that she’s lived and worked in for 45 years. However, it was during those three decades that Herrera developed and solidified her signature style; minimal, geometric paintings featuring sharp edges and vibrant colors. When viewed en masse on the Whitney’s spacious eighth floor, the work is simply breathtaking.

These days just about everybody seems to agree that Herrera is an artist whose position is solidified in the art history books of the future – her recent show at Lisson Gallery sold out, she now earns six-figure bids at auction and there’s even a documentary about her called The 100 Years Show available to stream on Netflix – but why did it take five decades for the art world to take notice? Unfortunately it had little if anything to do with her work; the artist was overlooked because she was a woman, and a Cuban woman at that. And while most artists would be infuriated by their friends and contemporaries, in Herrera’s case Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith, achieving success and notoriety while they worked in near-obscurity, Herrera maintained a steadfast patience which, at long last, has paid off.

“Lines of Sight” is broken into three sections, presented in chronological order. The first highlights paintings she made during her formative years in Paris, where she lived with her late husband, an American English teacher named Jesse Loewenthal. Here we see Herrera playing with different types of abstraction. The work is busier and colorful. The second section, including works from 1959-71, showcases the artist using the shape of the canvas as a tool as she explores ideas of space and composition. The last section, featuring works from the 60s and 70s, shows a mastery of her unique visual language. The pieces are sparse and confident, featuring only two colors or, in some case, just one, accented only by the bare canvas.

More than anything, Herrera’s retrospective illustrates that the artist deserves mention in the same breath of her male contemporaries. Her heartwarming story is one that an impatient crop of millennial artists ought to take note of. Carmen Herrera is the living embodiment of the age-old saying: Good things come to those who wait.

Carmen Herrera: Lines Of Sight will be on display at The Whitney Museum of American Art until Jan 2, 2017.

Words by Allyson Shiffman