101 years old. Each morning you go into your studio to make art, same as you’ve done for the last seventy-something years. Every now and then, you take a break and have a scotch. Then you get back to your painting. Your mobility has decreased, you are in a wheel chair, and have assistants that can help you when you need it. You are successful and your work is internationally recognized. When I am 101 years old, if I get there, I imagine I will just lie in bed and moan and drink tea with my dogs. But Carmen Herrera, Cuban centenarian and brilliant abstract artist, just keeps on creating.
Herrera was born in Cuba in 1915. Her father was the editor of the El Mundo newspaper. Her mother worked there as a reporter. In the early 1930s, Herrera traveled to Paris. She returned to Cuba in 1935 and started studying architecture. In 1939, she met and married Jesse Loewenthal, a teacher, and they moved to New York City. In New York, Herrera began studying art at the Art Students League. She returned to Paris 1947. While in Paris she began to simplify her style and focus on spatial relationships in her paintings. Herrera said of this period, “I began a lifelong process of purification, a process of taking away what isn’t essential.” She exhibited her work at the Salon des Realites Nouvelles. Herrera returned to New York in 1954 and has remained there ever since. Over the next two decades, she showed her work at the Galeria Sudamericana, the Trabia Gallery, and the Cisneros Gallery. Herrera received a Fellowship from the Cintas Foundation in 1966 that ran through 1968, and a Creative Artists Public Service Grant in 1977. In 1986, she exhibited at the Alternative Gallery. She continued to remain pretty unknown, but kept getting up every day and painting. She explained that “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure.” It wasn’t until 2004, at the ripe old age of 89, that Herrera sold her first painting. So much yay! Since then, she has enjoyed growing recognition and success. In 2009, there was a small retrospective of her work in the IKON Gallery in England that also traveled to the Pfalzgalerie Museum in Germany. A large retrospective is planned for the fall of this year (2016) at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Herrera’s art is in the collections at the Tate Modern, MoMA in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A documentary, directed by Alison Klayman, was made about her life, The 100 Years Picture. It may have taken 90 years, but the world is finally paying attention to this kickass painter.
Herrera’s art is abstract, geometric, and colorful. She begins a painting by doing a pencil sketch on graph paper. Then she makes a small color sketch on velum with paint markers, and sometimes does a larger color sketch on paper as well. After that, she paints. To get sharp clear lines and saturated colors, Herrera uses tape and rolls the paint on with a roller in several coats. Once it is complete, it is hung on the wall and she thinks about it. Sometimes she keeps it, sometimes she scraps it and starts over. Herrera’s love of painting began almost a century ago, her success followed decades later. Her paintings combine her intellect and her heart in minimal compositions with vivid colors. And they keep on coming. We should all be so lucky to find a passion that carries us through the centuries. Carmen Herrera, you are a fucking inspiration. Keep creating!