Carmen Herrera, at the age of 103, has well and truly found her stride. Her show at Lisson Gallery in Chelsea encompasses austere sculptures painted single colors, as well as geometrically oriented drawings that date from the middle to later 1960s. Back then, such art was not much in fashion—especially by a woman working in New York who was originally from Cuba! Now, with several of the sculptures remanufactured after their decades-old originals, Herrera’s audience can see her work in all its advanced comprehension of minimal geometric form. This style, still practiced today, looks definitively modern in its aesthetic of simply defined planes, broken by crevasses that slightly disjoint the overall body of the work of art. The show, made up of both sculptures and drawings, feels more recent than it is. It is a testament to Herrera’s creativity, and not least her perseverance, that the examples in the exhibition demonstrate an urbane sophistication that begins in a modernism that, given her age, she personally experienced, and that she has continued in a most contemporary fashion. Not least to be praised is the art practice’s extraordinary sense of craft, in which angles and corners and planes come together with astonishing precision. If the show is not exactly an argument for up-to-the-moment creativity, its contemporary nature proves that current sculpture can be kept alive by artisanal craft, creative specificity, and historical awareness.
One can only admire the specificity of the pieces, which argue for an individualized creativity innate to each work shown. “Estructura Amarilla” (1966/2016) is a low-lying, horizontal work some 27.5 inches high, 49 inches long, and 5 inches wide. It consists of two L-shaped parts that fit together like puzzle pieces. The narrow spaces separating the two components have a sculptural dimension of their own, and offer the audience a narrow view across the body of the work. It is, like most of Herrera’s art, simply composed but capable, in its subtleties, of real intricacy. Another work in the front gallery, “Untitled Estructura” (Green) (1962/2015), also consists of two parts fitting together in a puzzle-like manner. The overhanging piece has an indentation in its middle, with the smaller floor piece pushing a vertical up into the opening. Painted a dark green, this sculpture’s dimensions are larger than the yellow ones, but they both evidence a deliberate preference for a nearly mathematical construction. One might debate the limited language we come across in these two pieces, but the truth is that their minimal simplicity is not only highly attractive in its own right, but also forges a link between earlier simplified abstraction, at its peak when the artist was a young woman, and similar forms that have persisted since the first third of the last century.
“Borealis” (1966/2016) is a wall piece made of aluminum painted over with white acrylic paint. It is composed of a near rectangle on the right, which is made offbeat by a bottom side that angles downward toward the floor on the left. On the right half are two longish rectangles; the upper one exists in perfect accord with the left part’s top line, while the bottom rectangle moves downward toward the right. The thin triangular space separating the two forms is striking in its own right. “Untitled Estructura” (Black) (1966/2016) offers two black vertical slabs, both 60 by 45 by 5 inches. The left slap is concave, while the right slab is convex. They hang in symmetry, commenting on each other’s penchant for a completion that can only be affected by the presence of the slab next to it. It is a witty piece, one in which the two components conjoin in an attempt at a wholeness that cannot be fully realized except in tandem. The descriptions of the four works here make it clear that purely abstract art can be seen in ways that extend and expand its meaning to a place where the work nearly takes on figurative qualities. For example, it is relatively easy to see the two black planks as figures standing side-by-side. This is not the conventional, or usual, reading Herrera’s art generates. Rather, it is a comment on how hard it is to see abstraction always entirely as abstraction.
Herrera’s drawings are equally schematic. One sketch in red ink looks like a study for the dark green piece; both drawing and sculpture were made the same year. One of the most attractive things about Herrera’s work is its hard-edge regularities, which provide the viewer with certitude in a body of work that otherwise relies on innate spatial and structural ambiguities produced by very subtle shifts of planar weight. We are living in a time when geometric abstract art continues to be practiced, although like most styles in art today, it remains the domain of the individual artist rather than a group. In this show, the drawings enact a visual realism that can only be described as ancillary to the sculptures, which communicate a physical reality leading us to esthetic self-sufficiency. In an untitled work from 1966, Herrera uses acrylic and pencil on paper to bring to the fore a vertical rectangle topped by a plinth resting at a slight angle on the larger form beneath. This very, very simple work of art is, despite its lack of complexity, deeply satisfying as form—as all the art by Herrera is. Given the great age of the artist, we can only hope that she will continue to produce despite the vicissitudes of time. Certainly, her work has not slowed down or decayed formally. Instead, it seems like she is at the top of her game. This is almost beyond belief, but the art must be credited for what it is: a body of work that makes use of reductive forms to elaborate a sophistication we can only wonder at. If it is, in fact, possible for Herrera to proceed for the next few years, we can only marvel at the continued production—and the contemporaneity of what she does.
Carmen Herrera: Estructuras
14 September – 27 October 2018
Lisson Gallery, 504 West 24th Street, New York
Writing by Jonathan Goodman
Images courtesy of Lisson Gallery and Arte Fuse