First Carmen Herrera art added to National Gallery in Washington

Carmen Herrera (1915–2022, Havana) was one of the leading practitioners of abstract art who emerged during the second half of the 20th century. Largely ignored for most of her life, Herrera is now widely recognized. Associated with non-representational, concrete abstraction in Europe, the United States, and Latin America, Carmen Herrera art contributed to the cross-pollination of modernist ideas. Combining crisp contours with contrasting chromatic planes, Herrera’s works create movement, rhythm, and spatial tension across their surfaces. The National Gallery of Art has just acquired Herrera’s painting Untitled (2013) and her sculptural relief Untitled Estructura (Yellow) (1966/2016). The works are the first by the artist to enter the National Gallery’s collection.

“The National Gallery is honored to acquire two works by the renowned abstract artist Carmen Herrera, including Untitled, among the last of her signature green-and-white paintings, and one of her painted sculptures known as Estructuras (Structures),” James Meyer, curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, said. “We are particularly grateful to have acquired these works before Herrera’s passing. The acquisition gave the artist great satisfaction late in her extraordinary career.”

Untitled, in Herrera’s distinctive green-and-white color palette, recalls her series Blanco y Verde (1959–1971), 15 earlier works that combine rectangular supports with triangular shapes in these hues. Painting works in green and white is “like saying yes and no,” Herrera once said. This combination of value and color creates intense visual effects that challenge the viewer’s perception: in Untitled, space appears both illusionistic and flat, receding and coming forward simultaneously. Herrera made Untitled at the age of 98, and it was the last green-and-white work in her possession.  

Untitled Estructura (Yellow) is one of several sculptural structures that Herrera conceived during the mid-1960s. It consists of two identical, triangular wedges hung opposite each other, with a narrow slice of wall visible between the inverted forms. The Estructuras allowed Herrera to push the boundaries of painting as a medium by painting the frames and edges of her canvases—a feature integral to the viewer’s perception of the work.

Lacking the resources to produce sculpture, Herrera instead began making wall reliefs in painted wood in 1971. Owing to her success later in life, she was able to realize the Estructuras in wood and, eventually, painted aluminum.

The youngest of several children of a newspaper editor and journalist, Herrera studied architecture and art at the Universidad de La Habana before moving to New York in 1939 with her American-born husband, Jesse Loewenthal. In New York, Herrera developed her artistic skills at the Art Students League and in the studios of painters Samuel Brecher and Jon Corbino. In 1948 the couple moved to Paris, where Herrera encountered many of the leading artists and writers of the period and emerged as an abstract painter, exhibiting her work at the prestigious Salon des Réalités Nouvelles annually until 1953.

Returning to New York in 1954, Carmen Herrera art produced work continuously over the next several decades, refining and simplifying the formats of her painting. In contrast to contemporaries such as Ellsworth Kelly and Leon Polk Smith, Herrera, a woman of Cuban background, was unable to sell her work. She was offered her first retrospective at New York’s Alternative Museum in 1985. The turning point of her career came in 2004–2005, when her work was featured in well-received shows at Latin collector in New York and her painting Untitled (1952) was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. A retrospective exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, was held during her centenary at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016.

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