Carmen Herrera, 1915 – 2022

by Jessica Fuentes February 23, 2022
A black and white photograph of artist Carmen Herrera at age 33. She wears a short sleeve black dress and sits in a chair with one arm across her knee and one resting on the chair back. Her hair is pulled up away from her face and she looks into the camera with a serious tone.

Carmen Herrera, 1948. Photo by Victor Laredo, courtesy of Lisson Gallery

Carmen Herrera, a Cuban-born abstract artist who gained fame in her late 80s, died on February 12, 2022 at the age of 106. 

Though Ms. Herrera’s artistic practice dates back to the early 1940s, her work was not widely acknowledged by the art world until the early 2000s. Her abstract paintings and sculptures that use crisp lines, high contrast, and simple shapes and forms have earned their place alongside artists such as Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Latin American art groups like the Venezuelan Los Disidentes, Brazilian Concretists and the Argentinian Grupo Madi. 

A large abstract painting on canvas by artist Carmen Herrera. The rectangular canvas is painted black with a long thin zig-zag white line that moves through the painting. The line starts at the top left, extends about halfway down, juts up and to the right edge of the canvas, and then extends straight down to the bottom right edge. The painting hangs on a white gallery wall.

Carmen Herrera, “Black and White,” 1987, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Ms. Herrera was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915. From 1938-39, she studied architecture at the Universidad de La Habana. During this time she met and married her husband, Jesse Loewenthal, who was visiting Cuba from New York. She then moved to New York with Mr. Loewenthal, and studied at the Art Students League from 1942-43. The couple lived abroad in Paris from 1948 to 1954, and Ms. Herrera painted and exhibited throughout that time. 

A black and white photograph dated around 1950 of Carmen Herrera and her husband Jesse Loewenthal in Paris with the Eiffel Tower behind them in the distance. The couple looks directly at each other rather than the camera.

Carmen Herrera and Jesse Loewenthal in front of the Eiffel Tower Paris c.1948-53. © Carmen Herrera, Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

When she returned to New York, Ms. Herrera continued to produce and exhibit work; she counted artists such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman among her friends, but did not rise to the same level of fame as them until much later. In 1998, El Museo del Barrio was the first institution to exhibit a major survey of her work. The exhibition, Carmen Herrera: The Black and White Paintings 1951–1989, was organized by the institution’s former curator Carolina Ponce de Leon.

A photograph of the Buffalo Bayou Park sculpture garden with four large abstract sculptures by Carmen Herrera. The image includes a large rectangular blue sculpture, a thin white triangular sculpture, a green rectangular sculpture with triangular cutouts, and a red sculpture created from two interlocking "L" shapes. The Houston skyline is in the background.

Carmen Herrera, “Estructuras Monumentales,” 2020-2021, installed at Buffalo Bayou Park. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

In 2020, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston presented an exhibition of more than thirty works by Ms. Herrera which included paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptural pieces. Concurrently, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a Houston-based nonprofit organization which works to protect and revitalize the banks of the bayou, exhibited a show of outdoor sculptures by the artist, which had previously only been exhibited in New York. 

A digital rendering of a mural designed by Carmen Herrera for the Blanton Museum. The mural consists of large green squares each with thin white triangles extending from the corners of the square toward the middle creating a smaller, inner square. The mural is situated behind archways.

Detail of Carmen Herrera mural commissioned by the Blanton and made possible with generous funding provided by the Kahng Foundation, near the entrance of the Mari and James A. Michener Gallery Building. Image courtesy of the Blanton Museum.

In 2021, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin commissioned Ms. Herrera to create a mural as part of a larger redesign of its outdoor spaces. Regarding the mural for the Blanton, Ms. Herrera stated, “It is an honor that my first major public mural commission will be with the Blanton Museum of Art, an institution that I have admired and respected for decades. As a museum that has long been at the forefront of collecting work by artists of Latin American descent, as well as the place where Ellsworth Kelly realized his last great work of art, entering the collection at this moment marks a high point in my long career.”

A large circular canvas painted by artist Carmen Herrera. The abstract work includes a large diamond shape with each corner touching the edge of the circular canvas. Inside the large diamond is a tall thin diamond with just the top and bottom points touching the edge of the circular canvas. The canvas is painted yellow and blue with the colors alternating throughout.

Carmen Herrera, “Rondo (Blue and Yellow),” 1965, acrylic on canvas, diameter: 100 cm. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund, 2007

Ms. Herrera’s work is in public and private collections including the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC; the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and El Museo del Barrio in New York; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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