Important Art by Carmen Herrera
This painting, ambiguously entitled A City, was created during a key phase of Herrera's life, while she was living in Paris following the Second World War. Herrera has since commented of this time: "[i]t was about meeting new people and gaining a new set of influences and learning to filter and absorb those. Everything was marvellous; everything was possible". The sense of possibility and excitement is fully apparent in this work through the jostling shapes, colors, and forms.
In this painting as in many others, Herrera seems to combine her love of abstract space with the careful planning and composition of an architectural drawing. Her time as an architect was extremely influential, not just in terms of the aesthetic of straight, clean lines, but also the training it gave her in drawing and planning. For every painting, Herrera makes dozens of drawings before setting on the final structure. In this picture, that planning process manifests itself in a sense of carefully harnessed energy. Shapes seem to jostle against each other, and the painting feels spontaneous and lively, ironically as if it were the work of a quick, spontaneous process.
This sense of formal energy, combined with what is surely a visual reference to the Eiffel Tower on the left of the canvas, seems to evoke the multiplicity and excitement of urban experience. The contrasting blacks, blues, and yellows suggest different times of day, as if expressing the experience of living and being in the city across a stretch of time. In its allusion to key features of the Parisian landscape and incorporation of the frame around the picture, the painting may also make a subtle nod to Robert Delauney's earlier, avant-garde homage to Paris, Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912).
Writer and novelist Claire Messud notes of this painting: "[m]ore visually complicated than her later paintings, it evokes, with its sharp juxtaposed turrets of light and dark overlaying broken oblongs of opposing color, the architecture and bustle of urban life. It is hard not to smile at Herrera's witty use of the rectangular burlap frame and within it, the squared oval of tri-colored paint, which in turn contains the measured interplay of various geometrical forms." In evoking the city landscape, as Messud identifies, Herrera demonstrates the powerful language of shape and form, which can communicate so much with such simplicity.
Acrylic on burlap - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Many of Herrera's earliest paintings were created on round canvases. In this form the painting therefore has no 'frame' as such, but instead seems to frame itself, through the quality of self-containment that circular forms, unlike rectangular forms, are able to bring to the picture-space. In fact, the idea of framing this piece would seem inherently paradoxical, especially because the title, Iberic, a synonym of 'Iberian', signifies an interest in the landmass of Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal), thus asking questions about belonging and identity to which there are no definitive answers. Identity, Herrera suggests, like artistic form, cannot be put in a box.
The lack of frame, that is, which might be read as imposing an organizing principle on the shapes contained on the canvas, puts the question instead to the viewer: how do these shapes fit together? And who decides what they mean? The subtly orthographic qualities of many of those shapes -their likeness to written symbols - further heightens the air of enigmatic or buried significance. Taken in the context of the title, these questions seem redolent with issues of self-identification. As a woman of Hispanic origin living as an expatriate in New York and Paris, Herrera wrestled with questions of belonging. This canvas presents that quandary as one without end or solution, but worth pursuing nonetheless.
This is also one of Herrera's earliest works to establish a compositional approach which would serve Herrera throughout the remainder of her career. As the curator Dana Miller notes, "[t]he interaction between forms of solid, unmodulated color (taken straight from the tube or can of paint) became the predominant subject of her work and remains so to this day." The oranges, blacks and reds of this painting indeed constitute blocks of uniform color, but the shapes are various, and seem to fall in and out of harmony with each other. It is this sense of energy and tension, achieved with a minimum of compositional elements, that ensures the value of Herrera's work.
Acrylic on canvas - Collection of the artist
In this stark painting, black and white lines traverse a canvas bisected by a jagged line, splitting the frame into two sets of triangles. It is a bare, almost violent image, in which precise sharp edges generate a counter-intuitive sense of vibration and movement. Herrera seems to be exploring the very process by which the viewer makes sense of shape and color on the canvas, pointing to their active role in constructing the final image in their own mind.
The obvious point of reference for such work is the post-war Op Art movement which, like Herrera's oeuvre itself, emerged substantially out of post-Constructivist groupings based in Paris in the post-1945 years. It is notable that the Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely, himself famous for producing similar works of black-and-white optical dazzle, was establishing his mature style in Paris in the late 1940s during Herrera's time there (though there is no apparent evidence of their interaction). Nonetheless, like Vasarely, Herrera manages to imbue a work constructed purely from straight lines and blocks of monotone color with a sense of lively, almost magical energy. But whereas Vasarely's style emerged partly from scientific explorations into the process of ocular cognition, for Herrera, these Op-art-esque works were achieved through a more practical series of experiments, and served to celebrate the process and potential of composition. As she has remarked in interview, "[t]here is nothing I love more than to make a straight line...It's the beginning of all structures really".
Dana Miller points out that there is often little evidence of Herrera's hand in her paintings (another key point of similarity with Op Art). In the exacting lines she produces, Herrera is perhaps questioning the role of the individual artist in a new age of technological precision, wondering how and where the mind behind the work can and ought to express itself. The subtle nod to a city-scape or urban and industrial space in the suggestion of jagged roof-lines also bespeaks her love of design and urban life, and her sense of the creative potential of the architectural drawing.
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Blanco y Verde
Like Untitled (1952), this striking painting is created from two colors arranged into simple shapes, and yet the longer one gazes at the image, the more complex and suggestive it become. Herrera would go on to make an extended series of works based on the motif explored in Blanco y Verde, all of them in green and white, and based around the intersection of verticals and gentle diagonals shown here.
As Dana Miller comments, this work is "indebted to [Herrera's] fascination with three-dimensional structures". The intersection of the two lines (leaving a small and enigmatic gap at the point of convergence) and contained spaces they create, filled with a simple but verdant green, take on a series of expansive yet enigmatic associations: a landscape with receding fields, perhaps, or the interior or exterior of a building, even sunlight breaking over a horizon. The most interesting aspect of the piece formally speaking, however, is that neither green triangle allows the eye to fully settle on the perspective and three-dimensional arrangement suggested by the other. None of these associations therefore holds sway and the piece remains, as its title suggests, an arrangement in white and green.
Herrera's compositional skill is thus in ample evidence in the Blanco y Verde series, again reminding us of her particular genius for exacting and organised yet formally playful canvases. In spite of its few elements, nowhere on the canvas do we encounter mere blank space; instead, Herrera shows just how imaginatively transformative geometric minimalism can be.
Acrylic paint on canvas - Tate Galleries, London
Though Herrera primarily works on canvas, she has always been interested in sculpture and sculptural forms. This piece, part of her Estructuras series, explores the creation of shapes and the formation of space (and of further shapes) as their inverse. Some of the other pieces in this series stand alone on the floor, but this piece is hung on the wall, and therefore provokes a series of questions about the characteristics of, and boundaries between, different artistic media and compositional elements. Is this a sculpture or a painting? Are the gaps created between the two structures integral elements of the composition or just blank space? How does our sense of the weightiness of, and friction between, the two affect our sense of them as shapes?
As in her earlier works, then, Herrera seeks to emphasise the interplay and interdependence of different elements of an artistic composition, not allowing us to engage with any one shape or aspect of the piece in isolation from the others. At the same time, might we be missing more figurative, homely, even sexual connotations? The title, Dos or "Two", suggests the presence of two figures: figures in friction, perhaps, lying down, embracing, and kissing. The imperfect correlation of the shapes in this case may become a coded comment on the nature of human intimacy. The piece was, itself, created with the aid of a collaborator, a carpenter whom Herrera hired after receiving a grant to support her work. She has spoken since of her desire to create further "structures" such as this one, though her erstwhile collaborator has since died.
Like many artists whose work embraces aspects of Op Art, Herrera has long been working at the boundaries of painting and sculpture through her visual formultations of three-dimensional form within two-dimensional composition. Works such as Dos in a sense show the natural extension of this interest in sculpture, as well as her versatility and creative adaptability as an artist.
Acrylic on wood - Maria Graciela and Luis Alfonso Oberto Collection
This painting is from a series that Herrera worked on between 1975 and 1978 entitled Days of the Week. In this series, Herrera connected different color combinations and shapes with different days, suggesting that, despite the clean and clinical abstraction of her work, as an artist she has a strongly intuitive feel for shape and color, connecting them to the most basic aspects of her - and our - feeling of being in the world.
These paintings, as much as any others in her oeuvre, partly show Herrera's connection to the movement of Hard-Edge Abstraction that had, by the early 1960s, spread east from its point of origin in California to her home-city of New York. New Yorkers such as Frank Stella had been selected for inclusion in the Second-Generation Abstraction exhibition held at the city's Jewish Museum in 1963, which was seen to have significantly advanced the style and movement. In this sense, Herrera's local art-scene perhaps became more conducive to her own cool, classical style, and the stark, bare feel of this painting may reflect the relationship between her work and the Hard-Edged school. However, it is worth pointing out that Herrera remained more interested in color harmony than color opposition - which had been explored in key Hard-Edged works such as Frederick Hammersley's Opposing #15  - and that the title once again anchors the piece in subtly figurative and emotive suggestions (is this a rain-drenched city-scape, for example?)
Again, we can also sense an interest in creating ephemeral illusions of three-dimensional form that places her work primarily in the company of Op Art. The upwards diagonal stroke to the left of the canvas, the main point of formal interest in the piece, seems to stretch both away from and towards us, leaving it, as it were, gyrating in mid-air with a subtly disconcerting effect perhaps evoking early-week malaise.
Acrylic on canvas - Collection of the artist
Rondo (Blue and Yellow)
An example of a relatively-late work employing Herrera's signature round-canvas style, Rondo is more structurally complex then it may first appear. It is made up of various shapes that seem to sit apart from each other even as they form elements of a larger whole. Like earlier works, this sense that different aspects of the painting will not quite sit still next to each other creates a peripheral sense of flicker or movement between different iterations of the overall form, almost tricking the eye, into believing that the central diamond shape is emerging from the center of the canvas.
We are perhaps used to seeing such effects in the work of Op Art artists such as Vasarely and Riley. What is remarkable is that Herrera worked for so many years at the cutting edge of developments in post-Constructivist, Concrete, and Optical Art with so little acknowledgement. In this case, she also brings a unique musical association to the Op Art mode, the term "Rondo" referring to a movement in a musical score based around a recurring lead melody. This suggests a playful awareness of the painting's capacity to present repetitive visual rhythms to the viewer, while the roundness of the canvas is perhaps a nod to the circularity of the musical motif represented.
At the same time, works such as Rondo are notable for the pronounced sense of color-harmony that they express. The critic Edward J. Sullivan comments that '[i]n Herrera's paintings, color cannot be separated from form. One embodies or promotes the importance of another within a given composition." As so often in Herrera's work the interaction of color also suggests figurative or naturalistic themes (in this case perhaps nautical ones - might we be looking at a sail on a horizon at sunset?)
Acrylic on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
In this work created in her 103rd year, Herrera again explores the imaginative possibilities of elementary color and shape combinations. Like the green triangles in her Blanco y Verde series, the red lines on this canvas nearly touch, as if the arrangement were both drawing them together and keeping them apart. Again, the work teaches us how much of artistic form is constructed through our own perception, as the lines also seem to enclose, at either corner of the canvas, raised and perhaps minutely off-white rectangles.
Some of the most interesting work of this painting is done by the conjunction of image and title. Does "The Way" refer to a route through a city or building, for example? In this case, we might read the red lines as paths on a diagram or map, or part of an aerial cross-section of an urban landscape. This reading would certainly reflect Herrera's lifelong interest in architecture. At the same time, the overall visual effect may be of a crucifix, in which case "The Way" might indicate a path to spiritual enlightenment. Herrera was born and raised Catholic, and has kept her faith throughout her life, filling her house with religious iconography. By this reading, Herrera shows that abstract work can follow in a long line of religious painting, including work by the Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán whom she counts as an influence.
Perhaps, finally, and like all of Herrera's work, her title alludes to "the way" in which painters (and viewers) are able to work with a minimum of compositional elements to create a wide range of imaginative themes and forms. In this case, the title is about how we understand and read art: Herrera seems to suggest that there isn't simply one way, but many possibilities.
Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection