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  • Overview

    'My quest is for the simplest of pictorial resolutions.'
    —Carmen Herrera
    A mature painting hailing from Carmen Herrera’s quietly rigorous oeuvre, Aquila Verde beautifully typifies the Cuban-American artist’s minimal and abstract work, focusing on the neat, manual separation between two chromes on a geometric plane. Throughout her life, Herrera’s mantra has been order. This visual mission was materialised most strikingly in her trademark style — a pared-down, essential distillation of the painterly plane, loosely abiding to the visual imperatives of ‘optical art’ — but also manifested in her earlier abstract works, which were widely glossed over during her life. In fact, Herrera only truly came to prominence in recent years, as a nonagenarian, when the first sale of her work in 2004 fostered more attention and interest in her craft. ‘I waited for almost a century for the bus to come’, she said. ‘And it came’.1 Painted in the year she turned 100 years old, Aquila Verde is at once uniquely skilled, testifying to Herrera’s enduring painterly prowess, and the material culmination of a lifetime of work — a loud-voiced gem speaking for all its silenced predecessors. The painting revisits her seminal Blanco y Verde series that she created between 1959 and 1971 — widely regarded as her most significant body of work. It specifically recalls an eponymous painting five decades its senior, boasting a similar use of green and white, and residing at the Tate, London. Notably, it was two years after the execution of the present work that Herrera would be bestowed her most important —and long overdue — retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art, New York.

     

    Carmen Herrera, White and Green, 1959, acrylic paint on canvas, Tate, London.  Image: © Tate. © Carmen Herrera.
    Carmen Herrera, White and Green, 1959, acrylic paint on canvas, Tate, London. Image: © Tate. © Carmen Herrera.

     

    A Life of Work

     

    Born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, Herrera studied at the Universidad de La Habana to obtain a degree in architecture. Yet when she moved to New York with her husband in 1939, she abandoned this endeavour and took on that of artmaking — first experimenting with sculpture, and finally deciding upon painting. New York frightened Herrera at first, as the city was replete with a synaesthetic dynamism that eluded her experience of a calm and pastel-full Havana. In her new surroundings, she began looking for modern art, but as she recalls, never found something that truly caught her eye. The only two great painters that she remembers from the 1940s are Georgia O’Keeffe and Stuart Davis — favourites whose work she would not miss the opportunity of seeing when exhibited.

     

    Georgia O'Keeffe, Blue and Green Music, 1919-1921, oil on canvas, The Art Institue of Chicago, US.   Image: Bridgeman Images.
    Georgia O'Keeffe, Blue and Green Music, 1919-1921, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago. Image: Bridgeman Images.

    'Carmen genuinely wanted recognition, from peers, critics, and a public, but I don’t think she was ever interested in fame. She wanted her work to be appreciated and evaluated on the same level as [that of] any male, non-immigrant artist. She doesn’t want to be known as a Cuban painter, a female painter, or an old painter.' —Dana Miller

    In the early 1940s, Herrera painted at home or in a studio provided to her when she trained at the Art Students League, and in 1948, she went with her husband to Paris. There, she honed her unique approach to painting and began formulating the abstract visual language that she has since become associated to. Herrera spent six years in a richly intellectual international scene, surrounded by a wild cast of art characters, including Jean Genet and Marie Raymond. She was exposed to a large amount of European paintings including canonical works by Malevich, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Esther and other Suprematist and De Stijl artists. From 1949 to 1953, she exhibited five times at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, alongside Theo van Doesburg, Max Bill and Piet Mondrian, and a younger generation of Latin American artists — members of the Venezuelan Los Disidentes, Brazilian Concretists and the Argentinian Grupo Madi. Herrera’s paintings were angular, typically combining no more than two primary, straight-from-the-tube colours. Her work has not changed much since she found her niche back in the 1950s; within them pulsates a lasting affinity for the simplicity of form and colour.

     

    Portrait of Carmen Herrera. Image: Victor Laredo 1948.
    Portrait of Carmen Herrera, 1948. Image: Victor Laredo.

    'The initial point of departure in my work is a process of organization that follows the dictates of reason… It is a process that must choose, among innumerable possibilities, the one that balances reason and visual execution.' —Carmen HerreraWhile some of Herrera’s work has drawn comparisons to Brazilian neo-concretists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, further similarities have been noted between her painterly style and that of Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, who introduced their ground-breaking bodies of formally reduced work around the same time. Notably, Herrera’s carefully balanced arrangement of sharp, geometric planes echoes her training as an architect, aptly elucidated by Ponce de León, who stated, ‘The harmony, the study of proportion, the conception of space and the abstract thought intrinsic to the discipline [of architecture] were concerns that evolved rapidly in her painting’.2 Following from Herrera’s seminal twelve-year series Blanco y Verde, the present work displays a similar rigorously applied structure, as well as a deconstruction of traditional landscape painting, using the central focal point as a point of departure from which to create symmetrical harmony. The deliberate contrast of white on green also captures the essence of many landscape colour-schemes in a very abstract sense.

     

    Kelly Ellsworth, Study for Rebound, 1955, ink and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence.
    Ellsworth Kelly, Study for Rebound, 1955, ink and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Scala, Florence.

     

    Herrera’s Great Art

     

    Herrera’s coming-of-age story has become something of an iconic anecdote in recent years. She became the subject of a short documentary entitled The 100 Years Show, was quoted by Michelle Obama as an overlooked great, and has overall become the go-to cautionary tale for women in the arts. Yet Herrera’s art transcends these loaded narratives; it is an exceptional thing in itself that, at face value and in the flesh, commands the viewer’s attention and emotional engagement. ‘Carmen genuinely wanted recognition, from peers, critics, and a public, but I don’t think she was ever interested in fame’, Dana Miller said. ‘She wanted her work to be appreciated and evaluated on the same level as [that of] any male, non-immigrant artist. She doesn’t want to be known as a Cuban painter, a female painter, or an old painter’.3 An exquisite example of Herrera’s painterly abilities and a testament to her superior sense of composition, Aquila Verde stands as an enduring symbol of her virtuosity and incredibly resilient spirit.

     

    1 Carmen Herrera, quoted in Natalia Korchina, ‘I waited for almost a century for the bus to come. And it came’, ArtHive, 2017, online.

    2 Ponce de León, Carmen Herrera: The Black and White Paintings, 1951-1989, El Museo de Barrio, p. 3.
    3 Dana Miller, quoted in Natalia Korchina, ‘I waited for almost a century for the bus to come. And it came’, ArtHive, 2017, online.

    • Provenance

      Lisson Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, United States
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2019

    • Exhibited

      New York, Lisson Gallery, Carmen Herrera, 3 May - 25 June 2016, no. 10, pp. 27, 48, 75 (illustrated, p. 49)

    • Artist Biography

      Carmen Herrera

      Cuban / American • 1915

      Carmen Herrera is finally receiving long-deserved recognition for her arresting, hard-edge geometric compositions. Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera spent much of the 1930s and 1940s between Paris and Cuba before settling permanently in New York in 1954. Initially trained as an architect at the Universidad de la Habana, Herrera later studied at the Art Students League in New York City from 1943 to 1947. She received recognition for her artistic accomplishments in postwar Paris, exhibiting alongside Theo van Doesburg, Max Bill, and Piet Mondrian, but was long overlooked upon her return to the male-dominated New York art world. Despite breaking ground simultaneously with her peers, Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith, Herrera was often sidelined as a woman and a Latin American artist.

      Herrera's work is chiefly concerned with formal simplicity and experimentation with bold color. Through the use of sharp lines and stark color contrasts, she creates dynamic and technically sophisticated compositions that reflect movement, balance and symmetry.

      View More Works

Property of a West Coast Collector

30

Aquila Verde

signed and dated 'Carmen Herrera: 2015:-' on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas
152.6 x 183 cm (60 1/8 x 72 in.)
Painted in 2015.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£450,000 - 650,000 

Sold for £724,300

Contact Specialist

 

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

 

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021