Two days before her 99th birthday, Carmen Herrera is cracking jokes. “Let’s get all the 100-year-old people together and give them a whiskey,” says the artist when asked how she would like to celebrate, adding that she’s nearly survived a century because she “was never suicidal.”
Indeed it is Herrera’s positive spirit, exemplified by her sharp, sometimes biting, wit that drives her. She began her career as a painter some 60 years ago and, despite running with the likes of Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith, was largely overlooked until the early 2000s, due in no small part to her gender (female) and her heritage (Cuban). “Somebody once told me if you wait for the bus, the bus will come,” she says.
Herrera’s ride may have been a long time coming but at last it has arrived. Major institutions, such as The Whitney Museum of American Art, have recently acquired her work, and director Alison Klayman, best known for her groundbreaking Ai Weiwei documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, has been working on a documentary about Herrera, the trailer for which was released today. Next year, to honor the artist’s 100th birthday, Lisson Gallery will present a major retrospective of her work.
All the while, Herrera has been unwavering in her vision. Her paintings, which deal with primary colors and mechanically straight lines, have only become more minimalistic over time. In the past, she has used multiple colors at a time, but more recently she began working strictly with two colors and, lately, only one, using the blank canvas as a complement. “Someone told me one day I will just paint a dot and be done,” she says.
Herrera may not have achieved financial success through her work until recently—a fact she jokes about often—but her life has certainly been rich. She met an American English teacher, the late Jesse Loewenthal, when he “knocked on her door” in her native Havana, and settled in New York with him in the mid 1950s. She counted Barnett Newman and his wife Annalee as good friends. “We had breakfast practically every Sunday,” she says. She saw the first ever performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in Paris and though she never met Beckett, she did know Jean Genet. “He was a sweet man,” Herrera says, recalling a time that her beaded necklace broke and Genet came to the rescue. “He was down on the sidewalk looking for the last beads,” she recalls. Now the artist spends her time in the same Union Square apartment-slash-studio she has called home for over 45 years. She still paints every day.
“Life is wonderful and funny,” Herrera says. “And then you get to be 100.”