A Passionate Visual Idiom: Carmen Herrera at the Whitney
Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art
September 16, 2016 to January 2, 2017
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This exhibition is focused on a relatively short segment of Carmen Herrera’s long career (she is now 101), namely 1948 to 1978. It presents her painting in Paris during the years immediately after World War Two, and then her development when she moved to New York. In the first gallery you find Siete (1949), a relatively small painting with hard-edged yellow, red and black forms. The Parisian works in this room show her experimenting with hard-edge abstraction, moving quickly, restlessly seeking resolution, not always with entire success. Untitled (1947-48), for example, is a fussy-looking construction of many relatively small circles and geometric forms, an all-over composition which feels cramped; and Untitled (1948) a decorative display of intersecting rectangles lacking a clear resolution.
The second room, has paintings made in New York, (Horizontal, 1965, is the best, in my opinion) which simplify her earlier abstract constructions, creating large scale compositions which surely must owe something to American painting of this period. Then the next, larger gallery contains a roomful of her “Blanco y Verde” paintings, nine in all, made between 1959 and 1971. Constructed of green and white, with triangular wedges, these magnificent pictures show her in full command of a passionate visual idiom. Thus Blanco y Verde (1962) shows a narrow rising green triangle of color; and Irlanda (1965) is a diamond, with similar triangles of color at the bottom edges, and another green form coming down from the top. And then, in the next gallery you find four wooden sculptures from the 1960s, including Azul “Tres” (1971), a two-part construction in blue which really stands out. Finally, facing the elevator are her seven Days of the Week, large-scale hard edge abstractions from the 1970s. The last part of the show is less than impressive, as if she hadn’t figured out how to build upon her achievement in the 1960s.
As a woman and as a Cuban-born artist, Herrara was obviously treated unjustly by the art world in the period covered by this show. Complementing the Whitney’s belated attention, in a well-meaning act of reparation, Herrera is being much praised in the media. She certainly is a gifted artist—anyone can see that. But because this relatively small exhibition, which certainly doesn’t present her entire career, or even, so I imagine, identify her starting point, offers such a limited selection of her art, it’s impossible to offer a confident, critical evaluation. Compare, for example, her Green and Orange (1958) in this exhibition with the very similar-looking works by Ellsworth Kelly and other American men or women. Her picture is impressive, but it’s hard to place. How original was she? Did she borrow from Kelly, or did he learn from her? A third, tantalizing possibility is that they arrived at their results independently.
We are left hungry for more insights into her situation within the Parisian art world. And much more information about how exactly she found herself in New York in the 1950s. This is neither a complaint about this exhibition nor a criticism of the artist, but rather, a plea for a fuller show and, also, for a more complete presentation of the historical context in which she developed. But a long journey must start somewhere, and this show is a welcome first step.