Claire Messud at the NYRB:
When Carmen Herrera is asked to explain her paintings in Alison Klayman’s film about her life and work, The 100 Years Show (2015), she says, “If I could put those things in words, I wouldn’t do the painting. I would tell you…Usually artists are not the best people to talk about art. I think it’s a great mistake. You cannot talk about art—you have to art about art.”
Herrera, now 101 years old, has spent the better part of a century doing just that. For most of that time, the world paid scant attention to her “arting”: only in the last decade has she been granted the attention she should by rights have received half a century ago. As a Cuban, as a woman, she found little public support in the New York art world. Reluctant to be classified by national origin or gender, she struggled to find a place, but continued to produce work, prolifically, for decades: “I kept going,” she says in Klayman’s film. “I couldn’t stop.”
Herrera paints or draws daily even now, and her work has remained an exhilarating example of hard-edged abstraction. Inspired by Miró and Mondrian, a friend of Barnett Newman and of Leon Polk Smith, a young artist in post-war Paris at the same time as Ellsworth Kelly, she is an artist for whom the pure line remains the source of inspiration and joy (“I like straight lines…I like order. In this chaos that we live in, I like to put order,” she explained in a 1994 interview).