Carmen Herrera - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Thursday, June 30, 2022 | Phillips

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  • 'For me, black is all the colours somehow. The other colours are like a decoration.' —Carmen Herrera Executed in 2012, not long after the first major museum presentation of her work in the United States held at Miami Art Central, Stanzas is a work of powerful compositional balance and harmony by Cuban-born American artist Carmen Herrera. Already 90 years old when she received this institutional recognition, Herrera had spent a lifetime honing her skill and singular vison, continuing to paint up to the end of her long life and ignoring the assumptions that as a woman ‘You were supposed to do maternity scenes or watercolours, but not something as tough and decisive as what you do’, as her friend and fellow artist Tony Bechara had surmised.i

    Highly representative of Herrera’s unique and arresting geometric abstraction, Stanzas is composed of sharply rendered, tessellating forms of boldly contrasted and perfectly poised hues of red and black, a mature work which exemplifies critic Laura Cumming’s description of the artist’s painting as ‘euphoria kept in perfect order.’ii Emphasising structure, symmetry, repetition, and momentum, the title’s reference to the formal arrangement of poetry into stanzas is equally appropriate, succinctly capturing the blend of precise craft and expressive energy, and the supreme importance placed on the exact relationship between things that both poetry and Herrera’s works aspire to.  

    Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1952, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © Carmen Herrera


    The Road to Abstraction

    Born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, Herrera initially studied architecture, a practise she would eventually abandon for sculpture and painting after her move to New York with husband Jesse Loewenthal in 1939. Nevertheless, a sense of spatial form, weight, and density remained constant across her work, worked out in masterfully executed preparatory sketches and clearly evident in the serene formal arrangement of Stanzas’ constituent parts. 
    'I believe that I will always be in awe of the straight line, its beauty is what keeps me painting.'
    —Carmen Herrera
    While Herrera spent the majority of her adult life in the United States, the post-war years based in Paris would prove decisive in her move towards the purified, hard-edged abstraction for which she is remembered today. Finding a more open and adventurous artistic community than she had left behind in late 1940s New York, Herrera was quickly drawn into the group of artists gathered around Sonia Delaunay-Turk under the title of the Salon des Réalités nouvelles, exhibiting alongside the likes of Joseph Albers and Theo Van Doesburg as early as 1949. Refining her pictorial vocabulary into a restrained repertoire of colour and shape, Herrera continued a legacy of European modernism pioneered by artists of the Bauhaus, Russian Suprematism, and De Stijl, her rigorous sense of form drawing comparison to Piet Mondrian’s geometric balance. 

    Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow and Black, 1922, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis. Image: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Bruce B. Dayton / Bridgeman Images


    Herrera’s canvases also extend this sympathy for modernist form into an affinity for Brazilian neo-concretists Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, as well as the formal simplicity developed by contemporaries Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, who rose to prominence during the same period that Herrera executed her strikingly restrained black and white paintings, an example of which now resides in the Museum of Modern Art. 

    Although her work sits in tension with the gestural exuberance of a then-dominant Abstract Expressionism, her distillation of ‘the impossibility of pure objectivity, of pure rationality and universalism in painting’ highlights the dialogue that she maintained with these artists, and the challenges that she leveled at them.iii While for Rothko, colour was an emotional vehicle to explore higher, spiritual territory, Herrera instead pursued the tensions between colour and form. As Charles Darwent describes: ‘A slow look at the picture – Herrera’s canvases benefit from slow looking – and the two strong colours begin to pull apart. One of the triumphs of the Abstract Expressionists was to do away with the figure-ground conundrum, Rothko making his ground the figure, Pollock his all-over figures the ground. By contrast, Herrera exploits doubts about which is which – orange on black or black on orange? – and breeds uncertainty from certainty.’iv

    Mark Rothko, 1957 #20, 1957, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Image: © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / Purchased 1978 / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko / DACS 2022


    Despite the historical marginalisation of women artists - and especially those working within the macho climate that dominated mid-century Abstract Expressionist circles typified by Irving Sandler’s complete omission of women from his 1970 history of the movement – Herrera survived, and her legacy continues to thrive. Reaching critical attention late in her long career, Herrera maintained a consistent focus and dedication to her practice, refining the minimal and sharp-edged but lyrical abstraction for which she is now so revered. The subject of significant solo exhibitions, films, and monographs, Herrera also occupies a prominent place in the ambitious touring group exhibition Women in Abstraction previously on view at the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. 


    Collector’s Digest 

    • In 2015, the release of Alison Kalyman’s acclaimed documentary 100 Years Show proved to be highly instrumental in reinvigorating an interest in Carmen Herrera’s work in the last years of her long life.

    • Following a significant 2005 survey exhibition at Miami Art Central, Herrera’s first European presentation was hosted by the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England in 2009, before traveling to Museum Pfalzgalerie, Kaiserslautern, Germany. More recently, Herrera was the subject of a major career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 2016 at the age of 101. 

    • Examples of Herrera’s work can be found in major institutional collections including The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, and the Tate Modern, London. 


    i Tony Bechara, quoted in Simon Hattenstone, ‘Carmen Herrera: “Men controlled everything, not just art”’, The Guardian, 31 December 2016, online
    ii Laura Cumming, ‘Carmen Herrera’, The Guardian, 2 August 2009, online
    iii Tom Denman, ‘Carmen Herrera “Colour Me In” The Perimeter / London’, Flash Art, 24 December 2020, online
    iv Charles Darwent. ‘”Her canvases breed uncertainty from certainty” – the art of Carmen Herrera’, Apollo, 7 October 2020, online

    • Provenance

      Lisson Gallery, New York
      Private Collection, Europe

    • Artist Biography

      Carmen Herrera

      Cuban / American • 1915

      At the age of 101, Carmen Herrera is finally receiving long-deserved recognition for her arresting, hard-edge geometric compositions. Born in Cuba in 1915, Herrera has spent most of her life outside the island, permanently settling in New York in the mid-1950s. Herrera was formally trained as an architect at the Universidad de la Habana, and later completed studies at the Art Students League in New York from 1943 to 1945. During this time she became acquainted with key figures of postwar abstraction including Barnett Newman, whose work undoubtedly influenced Herrera's minimalist aesthetic.

      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



signed, titled and dated '"STANZAS" "Stanzas" Carmen Herrera - 2012' on the overlap
acrylic on canvas
91.4 x 91.4 cm (35 7/8 x 35 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2012.

Full Cataloguing

£280,000 - 350,000 

Sold for £315,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Head of Evening Sale
+44 7391 402741


Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 30 June 2022