On ViewLisson Gallery
May 3 – June 11, 2016
To inaugurate its new Chelsea space, Lisson, one of London’s most significant and established galleries, presents works created over the past two years by the painter Carmen Herrera. Born in Cuba, Herrera has been a New York resident since 1954. She found her path into abstract painting upon discovering the artist group Salons des Réalités Nouvelles when she lived in Paris in the 1940s, and her earlier paintings tend to organic abstraction—curved shapes echoing natural forms. By the mid 1950s, the edges of these forms had sharpened and a radical simplicity—honed to this day, and a salient feature of this exhibition—had taken hold. This desire for “utter simplicity,” in Herrera’s own words, produces a lucid complexity even when, as is often the case, she uses only two colors and one shape.
A single painting on one wall, Alpes (2015) is the kind of work that stops you in your tracks: it is at one and the same time direct, open, and unpredictable. The composition is utterly compelling in its implications of a continuous space, which includes the white of the wall behind it, and in the contradiction of this, its two green triangles: one is seemingly incomplete, a half of the other—which is itself already complete. Herrera creates this effect with a sophisticated optical structure. She paints the sides of each painting the color of the shape that reaches that edge. Alpes comprises two panels; the vertical line of their meeting divides the complete isosceles triangle. The green and white triangles interchange visually as positive and negative inverting shapes. The white triangles, one complete at one scale while the white space to the right of the second green triangle implies a much larger one that is only partially seen, imaginatively continues across the wall itself. These differences are felt, rather than intellectually discerned. While they can be analyzed formally, their effect is more intense, musical and emotional. It could be described as spiritual: not only are we engaged physically, we are displaced from a state of certainty by such ambiguities, and—with pleasure, it has to be said—made to see something so apparently simple operate on another nuanced plane of visual experience. It is not so much a case of reduction as of distillation and refinement.
In Portal (Diptych) (2014) the black, central, symmetrical shape makes a mirror image across the two panels of the painting, in fact resembling a portal, or an Italian Renaissance portico. At 84 × 56 inches it is a size (like the majority of paintings here) that invites a physical relation with the viewer. What would have been a painting of sharp chromatic contrast and finely judged enigmatic symmetry instead becomes, through the use of the two panels, a play of doubling or reflection. The line created by the juncture of these panels is, in existing as a line, another contrasting element. As with the other works Herrera has painted the sides of the panels. This allows the paintings to be read as colored objects, an effect enhanced by the use of the abutted panels. The one sculpture present, Untitled Estructura (Blue) (1962/2015), is a logical extension of the optical into fully three-dimensional space.
Herrera’s achievement is clear. An artist who, subjected for decades to what might be called “benign neglect,” (as she put it: “I was happy to be ignored because I was interested in painting,”) continued working, despite being told by gallerist Rose Fried sometime in the 1950s, “You are a wonderful painter, but I will not give you a show, because you are a woman.” Thankfully, this absurd and stupid attitude towards women artists is a lot less in evidence these days (although of course—infuriatingly—not entirely purged). Herrera is making her best work now; this exhibition (along with further deserved acknowledgment upcoming in a survey exhibition at the Whitney this fall) offers the chance to fully appreciate its significance.