Carmen's Abstract Attractions; A Veteran Cuban Artist's Work Is Being Exhibited at the Ikon Gallery. Terry Grimley Takes a Look

The Birmingham Post (England), August 6, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Carmen's Abstract Attractions; A Veteran Cuban Artist's Work Is Being Exhibited at the Ikon Gallery. Terry Grimley Takes a Look


Byline: Terry Grimley

The history of 20th century art is littered with talented women artists who have failed to sustain careers in the face of domestic pressures or institutional prejudice.

Others have soldiered on despite being largely ignored. In some cases they have been posthumously discovered, and their work has had to be fitted retrospectively into the history of their times.

Frieda Kahlo, long regarded as a mere satellite of her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, is one dramatic example from the past few years.

But the case of Carmen Herrera is exceptional. Born in Cuba as long ago as 1915 but settled in New York for most of her career, she is happily still with us in her 94th year, able to enjoy the rediscovery which has recently seen both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern acquire her work.

It has fallen to Birmingham, however, to stage the most comprehensive retrospective of her work, now showing at Ikon Gallery. The exhibition has been organised in association with the Museum Pfalzgalerie, Kaiserslautern, where it will be shown early next year.

Herrera is an abstract painter who has worked for most of her life in a geometric, hard-edged style. From the 50s her compositions took on an extreme simplicity which relate to, but possibly anticipate, minimalism.

In New York, where she settled in 1954, she was close to the minimalist abstract painter Barnett Newman, who was a schoolfriend of her America husband. But the relationship of her work to those of better known contemporaries - the minimalist "colour field" painter Ellsworth Kelly is another who comes to mind - is likely to provide an opportunity for lively debate.

Confronted with her 1952 painting Black and White, a simple design of alternating black and white concentric stripes on a square canvas tipped on one corner, you could be reminded simultaneously of Frank Stella and early Bridget Riley. But it comfortably pre-dates both.

There are two fascinating documentary films on view in the resource room on the second floor which I strongly recommend watching, because they reveal Herrera to be a woman of strong and enormously appealing character.

In one, she says about this painting that, though some viewers have related it to "Op" art, that was not what she had in mind when painting it. Also in these films she acknowledges the influence of Josef Albers and the Soviet movement Suprematism.

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