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Carmen Herrera was a Cuban-born artist
Carmen Herrera died at age 106. Photo: EFE

Remembering Carmen Herrera, a Cuban-born artist unknown for most her life

Ignored by the art world until she was 89, she died on Saturday, Feb. 12 in her New York City apartment at 106.

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Cuban-American painter Carmen Herrera, who sold her first painting and started being famous at age 89, died on Feb. 12 at her home in New York City at the age of 106.

“Carmen made works that are alive and in constant flux, even when she seemed to have reached an apotheosis or a summit, she kept looking over the edge,” Lisson Gallery CEO Alex Logsdail said in a statement. The gallery, which has been representing her during the last decade, will stage a solo exhibition at its New York space in May to mark what would have been her 107th birthday. That exhibition will be followed by a related solo show to announce Lisson Gallery’s upcoming Los Angeles space this fall.

Known for her dazzling abstractions in Pop colors and geometric patterns, Herrera had her first official show in 1998 at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, NY. That exhibition, curated by Carolina Ponce de León and titled The Black-and-White Paintings, 1951 – 1989, came about through Tony Bechara, a close friend of Herrera’s and the museum’s board president at the time. 

The exhibition produced small but favorable reviews, but no buyers. Still, Herrera persevered. As reported in The New York Times, "she lived frugally in her loft, stashed her trove of rolled up canvases in closets and went on painting," supported by her husband, Jesse Lowenthal, an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan for 45 years until his death in 2000. Four years later, her future changed radically when Bechara introduced her work to Frederico Sève, owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Tribeca, who was looking for artists to include in an exhibition. That exhibition led to sales of Herrera’s works to some of the world’s top art collectors, including Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Estrellita Brodsky, and Agnes Gund.  

After that, Herrera sold her first painting at the age of 90 and, despite having gone unnoticed for decades, her work now hang in New York's MoMA, Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and London's Tate Galerie.

From Cuba to New York, via Paris

Herrera was born on May 31, 1915 in Havana, Cuba. She was one of seven siblings. Her parents, Antonio Herrera y López de la Torre and Carmela Nieto de Herrera, both journalists,  were part of Havana’s intellectual circle. She began taking private art lessons from professor Federico Edelmann y Pinto when she was eight years old. She furthered her drawing training in 1929, at the age of 14, when she attended the Marymount School in Paris.

In 1938, Herrera continued her education at the University of Havana to study architecture, where she stayed for only one academic year because she wanted to pursue her architectural career and there was "always revolutions going on, and fighting in the street. The university was closed most of the time, so it affected my studies," she told  The Guardian in 2019. 

Quitting architecture, she completed her artistic education in Paris, Rome and Berlin, cities where she experienced the emergence of the avant-garde, particularly in Paris, where she lived from 1948 to 1954.

In that year, she married an American and moved with him to New York, where she befriended artists such as Mark Rothko and Barbara Hepworth, while developing his minimalist style of geometric abstraction, characterized by a very precise palette of only two or three colors in each composition.

"There is nothing I love more than a straight line, how to explain it? It is truly the beginning of all structure... Someone told me one day that I will paint a point and I will be done," she once joked.

According to the Lisson Gallery, who represented her, Herrera was saved and condemned at the same time for her refusal to embrace any movement. Even the one that was naturally closest to her — the minimalism of the 1970s — was "dominated by men," and the refusal "left her free to experiment in her own way."

The New York Times recalled that Herrera "painted in obscurity for decades," during which she lived off the income of her husband, an English teacher, and highlighted that her leap to true fame did not occur until 2004.

Beginning in 2014, Alison Klayman, director of the acclaimed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, began work on a documentary about Herrera. The documentary, titled The 100 Years Show, premiered in 2015 at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. It was then released to Netflix and Vimeo on Demand on Sept. 18, 2016. 

At the end of 2016, the Whitney Museum of American Art dedicated a retrospective to her, the second solo exhibition the Cuban artist achieved in a long career that began in the 50s, and long after the one she starred in 1984 at the now defunct Alternative Museum.

A week away from her 102nd birthday, the artist sold her painting Verticals at a Christie's auction for $751,500, a sign of the fame she has achieved in recent years.

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