Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mothers of Invention, Part 1: Carmen Herrera

Part 2: Hilma af Klint
Part 3: Agnes Martin
Part 4: Alma Thomas   

Before there was Ellsworth Kelly, there was Carmen Herrera (born 1915) who developed a particularly powerful form of reductive abstraction. And before there was abstraction, there was Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), who painted large geometric canvases inspired by her visions. 

Hilma af Klint, The Swan, No. 17, 1915, oil on canvas, shown at The Keeper exhibition at the New Museum this past summer

Carmen Herrera, installation view of three tondos from 1958-1965 at the Whitney, up now

Havana-born Carmen Herrera is 101 years old. Though she has been painting for eight decades and has been included in numerous group shows, her first museum solo, Lines of Sightis at the Whitney Museum of American Art now. "I waited a long time," says Herrera, who still works most days in her New York City studio. 

Stockholm-born Klint, who lived from 1862 to 1944, was painting visionary geometric abstraction in the early 1900s. It would be logical to begin with Klint, but I’m starting with Herrera because her Whitney solo is up through January 9 . You still have a chance to see it—or see it again. Lines of Sight focuses on 30 years of Herrera’s career, 1948 to 1978, a period in which we can see how her involvement with geometric abstraction let to a signature minimalist style. 

“She continued to paint circles around the men, even when she was painting squares,” wrote Karen Rosenberg in her review of Hererra's show in the 
New YorkTimes in September. Though identified as a Latin American artist, Herrera has lived most of her life in New York City, with time spent in Paris in the late Forties and early Fifties among other international painters. 

We start with Green and Orange, 1958, acrylic on canvas, which hits you like a bolt when you step off the elevator. Photo from the Whitney Museum website

Here, a panorama of the eighth-floor Whitney galleries where the exhibition is installed.
At far left: Days-of-the-week paintings, mostly 1978, acrylic on canvas; center: Green and Orange; right: Blue Monday, 1958, and Saturday, 1978, both acrylic on canvas. We're going to begun our tour in the galleries in the far distance

All photos Joanne Mattera except the image noted

In the early work, shown here, we get a sense of the artist feeling her way within geometric abstraction, as her contemporaries Leon Polk Smith, Barnett Newman, and Frank Stella did. The painting shown below is on the left wall above, barely visible in the oblique angle

Untitled, 1948, acrylic on burlap
Detail below

We're still in the same large gallery but on the other side of the wall that bisects the space.
At left, the three tondos that opened this post.  On the far wall is the painting you see below

Shocking Pink, 1949, acrylic on canvas

Herrera likely made this work in Paris, as the date would have placed her there. A Parisian contemporary, whether they knew each other or not, was the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, whose signature color was shocking pink. I wonder if there was a connection, as the color seems so far out of Herrera's regular working palette

As we move to the right around the gallery, we see two black and white works

 Untitled, 1952, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

 Black and White, 1952, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

 As she painted, Herrera distilled her expression, culminating in Blanco y Verde (White and Green), a 14-year series begun in 1959. Knife-sharp slivers pierce the field of each work to create such exquisite tension that they seem to bend the paintings out of rectilinearity

Green and White, 1956, acrylic on canvas with painted frame

Irlanda, 1965, acrylic on canvas with painted frame
Note the idiosyncratic frame, below:

 I love this panorama of the Blanco y Verde gallery because it is bracketed by the earlier work, left, and the newer red, yellow and blue paintings and sculpture that came later

Sight line like the ones above and below make me want to kiss the curator, who shows us how Herrera made the leap from flat painting, to painting as object, to sculpture itself

 Blanco y Verde, 1966-67, acrylic on canvas, left, leads us to more sculptural incarnations, estructuras, of the same visual thinking. My favorite is Amarillo "Dos," 1971, acrylic on wood--that's the yellow estructura you see in this group of photos

 Panorama of the estructuras. The wall text for this grouping of works carried this quote from Herrera: "I wouldn't paint the way I do if I hadn't gone to architecture school. That's where I learned to think abstractly and to draw like an architect."

Conversation between the freestanding works and those on the wall

 Above and below: Niche of works on paper in relation to the works inspired by them

This wall, with Blue Monday and Saturday, is on the other side of the niche where the sketches are.  We have thus made a complete tour of the exhibition.

More on Carmen Herrera:
. The Whitney Museum website includes a short video 
. David Carrier's review on artcritical

. Eileen Kinsella's review on Artnet

. Karen Michel's NPR interview on the occasional of Herrera's solo show at the Lisson Gallery in Chelsea this past summer