R.I.P. Carmen Herrera, Cuban-American artist, 1915-2022

Carmen Herrera Nieto

Cuba has lost another talented giant — though no one in Castrogonia will notice or care.

Carmen Herrera Nieto was a talented artist who didn’t gain the recognition she deserved until she was in her 90’s. She can serve as an inspiration for all those who excel at their craft and continue to practice it because it is at the very core of their being.

In the art world there have always been artists like Carmen Herrera, who are so far ahead of their time that it takes too many years or decades for them to be appreciated and lauded.

She was born in Cuba. Her father Antonio Herrera y López de la Torre (1874–1917) fought for the independence of Cuba from Spain and became executive editor of Cuba’s first post-independence newspaper El Mundo. Her mother Carmela Nieto de Herrera (1875–1963) was one of Cuba’s first female journalists, a women’s rights activist, and a philanthropist who was deeply involved in supporting the hospital for lepers at El Rincón, outside Havana, as well as its San Lazaro chapel. She also often cared for the lepers herself.

Her mother Carmen Nieto de Herrera, who was known as “Carmela” in our family, was first-cousin to my paternal grandfather. Her Christmas presents were always among the very best that my brother and I would receive. We could count on her to deliver on Christmas day, for sure. And she was always very generous. But the giant San Lazaro statue at the back of her house always scared the living daylights out of me. (A sculpture, by the way, which was diametrically opposed to the art created by her daughter, the recently-deceased Carmen). I devote all of chapter 12 to that house and its eccentric members –including San Lazaro — in my memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana.

One of her brothers, Addison, worked in Hollywood for a while, vetting movies for anti-Hispanic prejudice, checking for derogatory stereotyping. He returned to Cuba later in life and died there. Not surprisingly, Addison is now loathed by the woke crowd and condemned as a “racist” because he insisted that Latin American characters should NOT be portrayed as dirty, uncouth, uneducated, shabby, or as exclusively swarthy or “negroid.”

Carmen — the artist who died Saturday at age 106 — was known as “Carmencita” in our family. “Carmencita, la artista que se fué a vivir en Niuyor y se casó con un Americano” (the artist who went to live in New York and married an American).

Her death, like that of Aurelio de la Vega on the same day, marks the passing of a generation of Cubans who still had living links to the colonial era, and were themselves children of the new independent republic. Her death and that of Aurelio set Castrogonia further adrift in the pitch-black ocean of time and also further and further away from its own past glory. May she rest in peace, and may she enjoy being reunited with her loved ones in the Great Beyond. And if there is a Cuban neighborhood or ghetto in the Great Beyond, maybe she’ll get to exchange stories with Aurelio.

I had a very weird — and very Cuban– dream on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Up until that night, I had only dreamt about my long-deceased father a single time, over thirty or forty years ago. But he showed up again two days ago, unexpectedly, in some dream that had absolutely nothing to do with him or with the past. He was suddenly there, looking young, as if no time had passed since 1958. In the dream, he was not returning from the realm of the dead, he had simply been “away”…. and in that dream, it seemed perfectly normal that he had simply gone somewhere for several years and was now returning to surprise me. Spooky, yes. But it made sense, within that dream. After all, everyone in my family had, in fact, left Cuba and gone somewhere else, basically disappearing from my life. I left too, and he stayed behind.

It’s part of our Cuban history. Family members disappear all the time. As do we. And sometimes someone just shows up, years later. Or we show up, wherever those relatives happen to be, unexpectedly.

Did this weird and very brief dream reunion have some message to convey? And why did it occur at almost exactly the same time that cousin Carmencita, “la que se fué a vivir en Niuyor”, died? I find this coincidence way too weird to be a mere coincidence. And I’m very happy that my father did not haul Carmencita’s mother’s giant statue of San Lazaro into the dream.

Carmen in the 1950’s (L) and with her six older siblings (R) circa 1918, center, with a huge bow in her hair.

From ARTnews:

Carmen Herrera, a Cuban American artist whose trailblazing hard-edge abstractions received mainstream recognition in the later years of her life, died on Saturday in her New York City apartment at 106. The news was confirmed by Lisson Gallery, which has represented her for a decade.

“Carmen made works that are alive and in constant flux, even when she seemed to have reached an apotheosis or a summit, she kept looking over the edge,” Lisson Gallery CEO Alex Logsdail said in a statement. The gallery will stage a solo exhibition at its New York space in May, to mark what would have been her 107th birthday. That exhibition will be followed by a related solo show to inaugurate Lisson Gallery’s forthcoming Los Angeles space this fall.

Herrera is best known for her dazzling abstractions in which crisp whites and blacks, eye-popping greens and oranges, and electric blues and yellows butt against each other in such a way that can only be described as a creation of pure beauty. She created these works in various patterns: vertical stripes, alternating cubes, askew zigzags, and more. All were defined by their sharp edges. Her most recognizable innovations are often her most minimal ones: a sliver of green on a brilliant white, for example, feels intimate and raw in her hands. She first worked on canvas, then began creating shaped canvases in wood.

Herrera first began making these works in the 1950s, at the height of pure abstraction’s prowess during the postwar era, particularly in New York, where she was long based. That era was dominated by white straight male artists, like Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman, whose own abstractions share affinities with hers. Her work was long under-known during this period—and even for decades later. Still, Herrera persevered, continuing to make art well into her final years.

Continue reading HERE. For the Marti Noticias obituary go HERE. And for the obituary in the ever-fiendish Niuyortain, go HERE

1 thought on “R.I.P. Carmen Herrera, Cuban-American artist, 1915-2022”

  1. No, Castrogonia couldn’t care less. It would only ever have cared if it could have used her, like it used the painter Wifredo Lam, who let himself be used to his discredit. The Castro people were always intrinsically vulgar, and only really cared about power and its perks. Like Aurelio de la Vega, Herrera had nothing to do with them and operated in a different dimension. May she rest in peace.

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