The first European retrospective of works by the 94-year-old Cuban artist Carmen Herrera, who has been lauded by some as the ‘find’ of the decade, was undoubtedly a coup. Herrera, who settled in postwar New York (apart from a brief spell in Paris), is associated in friendship and style with American colour-field painter Barnett Newman. Known for a tongue as bold as his palette, Newman once said of Alberto Giacometti: ‘He made sculpture that looked as if it was made out of spit – new things with no form, no texture, but somehow filled.’ Herrera’s painting Les Lieux (The Places, 1949), this retrospective’s starting point, looks like it should be spat upon, not because it’s contemptible, but because it might free up some of the tension in the composition. Areas of fluidity – occasional free strokes of vivid yellows, greens and blues – seem parched by others, where globular shapes are laboured and layered with brushstrokes of dull earth tones. Les Lieux set the pace for Herrera’s later works, in which form and colour provide a lively to-and-fro of kick and respite.
Around Les Lieux hung paintings – dating from Herrera’s arrival in Paris in 1948 – that splice together the influences of both the European Modernists and their Cuban counterparts with whom Herrera occasionally exhibited. Four small abstract compositions from 1948–9 (Chromatic Discourse, Composition with Pink no. 34 and two untitled works) employ biomorphic shapes that could claim Afro-Cuban ancestry, like those by René Portocarrero or Wilfredo Lam. Herrera configures these in alternating colour planes set against black, similar to those of Jean Arp or Fernand Léger. Two paintings from 1950, Conquête de l’air no.10 (Conquering the sky no.10) and Habana Painting no.21, show increasing fluency with assorted colour washes on unprimed canvas, yet are still forced behind a black Joan Miró-esque lattice. As with later works whose titles and forms refer to grid systems and cityscapes, Herrera’s canvases function as a springboard from which form and colour emerge or recede.
Works were exhibited on the basis of formal resemblance rather than chronological order, which echoes the artist’s method of revisiting colour configurations and canvas shapes decade by decade. Five large black and white canvases with measured geometric compositions followed the introductory colour planes and were some of the exhibition’s most staggering works. Verticals (1989) is a rectangular black canvas, with seven tall white columns ascending to the right along which the eye might climb. It hung opposite Black and White (1952), a diamond-shaped canvas that feels like an endless lift-shaft into which you could fall.
An architect by training, Herrera once said that art is, ‘something that is inside me, something that could not be said with words [...] I am expressing it with lines and colours.’ Yet her taste for construction remains clear and through it a distinction from Newman’s colour-charged ‘fields’ might be drawn. Unlike his fields, which absorb the entire canvas and avoid an obviously ‘logical’ composition (therefore, arguably, achieving a more immediate and spiritual effect), Herrera’s employ a scheme: she ensures that her pictorial planes remain visible – by painting a background white, by leaving a canvas unprimed, or by joining two canvases together and using the seam. From these unclad strips, her colour forms gain leverage or momentum. In the rectangular Epiphany (1971), a bottom-heavy red ‘L’ appears to sink through its white background to the lower and left-hand margins. With this virtual descent, the entire composition seems to ascend – an idea taking flight. Red and White (1976) depicts a red cube set askew from its white background, somehow losing balance and falling off its throne to stage left. Interpretations will vary, but Herrera’s knack for abstract choreography became increasingly clear as the exhibition unfolded. This was particularly well articulated in an archive of works on paper. In an untitled series from 1970, four drawings feature a single pencil line articulating four fractionally different meeting points on a triangle’s outline. Although the fractions are only marginally different between each one, the shifts are dramatic.
Herrera’s paintings and drawings confidently fight their corner against the many worthy art historical references with which they are confronted. One hopes that the spotlight remains on her oeuvre long enough for it to have some closer evaluation. Rearticulating the history of Abstract Expressionism in a contemporary vocabulary with work as rich and playful as Herrera’s on the wall is one enviable task. Forecasting its legacies is another.