At 101 years old, Carmen Herrera's abstract paintings are finally getting the attention of the art world's sexist gatekeepers, and the cubana, like the rest of us, thinks it has been way past due.
After half a century dedicated to her passion and skill, the Havana-born artist sold her first painting at 89 years old. Today, arthritic and wheelchair-bound, her work is being belatedly shown at an exhibition at New York's Whitney gallery – delayed triumphs she attributes to the art world’s misogyny.
But Herrera has been challenging gender norms since her college years, when the daughter of journalists studied architecture, a “man’s job.”
“We were breaking down that business of staying home for women. We were breaking through,” she told the Guardian.
The rule-breaker never finished her studies, however. In her late 30s, Herrera fell deeply in love with Jesse Loewenthal, an English teacher, who she wed in 1939. The pair packed their bags and moved to the U.S., where she discovered her love of art.
Herrera knew right away that her calling was more of a curse, recognizing that “it was going to be a hard life.”
And it was. As Herrera’s artist friends gained world recognition, she couldn’t even get her foot in a local door.
She remembers visiting one avant garde gallery to discuss her work and, when leaving, the owner, Rose Fried, told her, “You know, Carmen, you can paint rings around the men artists I have, but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.”
Fried’s rationale: men had families they needed to support. Herrera, devastated, called the excuse “lame.”
“I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing. I just walked out,” the artist said.
While the inequity was painful, Herrera said it wasn’t surprising.
“Everything was controlled by men, not just art,” she recalls.
When women did reach some level of prominence, they were resented for it.
“I knew Ad Reinhardt and he was terribly obsessed with Georgia O’Keeffe and her success. He hated her. Hated her! Georgia was strong, and her paintings were exhibited everywhere, and he was jealous,” she remembered.
While the art world remains the terrain of the white male elite, Herrera is finally making some income and recognition for her decades-long work.
Her pieces, which will be on display until January 9, 2017, are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, money she says she needs in her old age.
Catch Herrera’s “Lines of Sight” before it closes at The Whitney.