Carmen Herrera: ‘Men controlled everything, not just art’

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by  for The Guardian

It’s noon at Carmen Herrera’s home in downtown Manhattan. Time for a drink. “Would you like a cup of tea, or a scotch?” she asks. Scotch, please. She smiles. It’s the answer she was looking for. We rummage among the boxes – bottle after bottle of the finest single malts – before settling on the super-peaty Lagavulin. We clink glasses.

At 101 years old, Herrera is in her artistic prime. She has been a working artist for the best part of a century, but it wasn’t until 2004, at the age of 89, that she sold her first painting. For the past four months, there has been a gorgeous exhibition of her work at New York’s Whitney gallery, soon to transfer to the Wexner Center in Ohio. The Cuban-born artist has belatedly been recognised and her pieces are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Good job, too, she says. It’s not cheap getting old.

Herrera has a lovely, raspy voice, and segues between English and Spanish when the mood takes her. Her friend Tony Bechara, also an artist, is here to translate. Her help, Maria, lays on the biscuits and pours the whisky. But there is no mistaking who is boss here.

Herrera was born in Havana in 1915, to journalist parents. Her father was the founding editor of the newspaper El Mundo, her mother a reporter and columnist. Herrera, one of seven siblings, says she grew up surrounded by journalism. Were her parents political? “Oh yes! Which I think is terrible. They were always against the current government.” Many of her relatives were imprisoned for anti-government activity.

The Cuba of her childhood was governed by Gerardo Machado, a former army leader who was elected to the presidency in 1924 and went on to become a despised dictator. “It was a very cruel time,” Herrera says. She left Havana to go to finishing school in Paris and returned to study architecture at university. But, she says, the political climate was not conducive to a good education. “There were always revolutions going on, and fighting in the streets. The university was closed most of the time, so it affected my studies.”

Was it unusual for a woman to study architecture in the 30s? “We were breaking down that business of staying home for women. We were breaking through.” So, despite the dictatorship, Cuba was enlightened when it came to gender? “Oh yes! Machismo was not such an issue there.”

Bechara cannot believe what he is hearing. “Oh come on, Carmen! Machismo was not an issue in Cuba?”

“No! The men I knew were not like that.” Herrera regards Bechara as a son, though they bicker like a long-married couple.

Her degree in architecture was disrupted by the two most important discoveries of her life: love and art. In the late 30s, she met Jesse Loewenthal, an English teacher visiting from America, and in 1939 they married. She abandoned her studies and moved to New York. Did she leave Cuba for politics or love? “I’m not telling you,” she cackles. By the time she reached America, she had realised that she had a calling; she was destined to be an artist. Herrera says this as if it is a curse. Why? “Because I knew it was going to be a hard life.” She smiles and sips her scotch.

Perhaps her most formative years were spent in postwar Paris, between 1948 and 1953. Here, Jesse, an urbane multilinguist, taught English, and she refined her style. She limited herself to two or three colours, painting interlocking abstractions where ovals met rectangles and triangles and semicircles, often set within a circular whole. Her art seemed architectural from the start, influenced by painters such as Kazimir Malevich and the early Russian suprematists whose work she saw in Paris at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. Herrera herself exhibited at the salon, though she never came close to selling a piece.

France was more progressive than 1940s America. In Paris, she and Jesse lived on the Left Bank in Montparnasse, and befriended many artists and writers. Herrera was close to the scandal-loving writer Jean Genet. “He was a good friend, a good person, a sweet gentleman.” She pauses. “But he could be very unsweet, too. A bitch. There was an American woman who came over to him in a cafe and said she admired him so much and felt such a connection with him, and he replied, ‘Madame, if you are so much like me, then you must be a pederast yourself.’ She didn’t even know what that meant.” Herrera bursts out laughing. “He was actually a sweet person. I had a pearl necklace and the pearls all fell on the floor. He was there until he had picked up the last one.”

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