Ole and Hallelujah

/ 25 November, 2016

Triumphant cries dominated the reception of the Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The critical and publicity worlds in New York are abuzz with congratulations and self-praise for recognizing a career that has been happening, hopefully, but out of their purview for over seven decades. It’s not that Herrera wasn’t exhibiting. She was—in group shows, often in galleries that appealed to Hispanic artists and clientele, never the center of the New York art world—and the reviewers ignored her. What is the public seeing now on display on the eighth floor of the museum’s barely one year open Renzo Piano home?

(…) The works arrive to public awareness at a significant moment. A return to reductive, classically spare work is very much a part of the art scene, and the tight theoretical controls that determined who is in and who out of Minimalism are loosening to allow for more individualistic, sensibility oriented work. Feminism as a politics has also become more embracing of a range of expressions, and there is the constant flirtation of late-in-life discoveries (Grandma Moses—Mary Anne Robertson—who only began painting at 78; Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois, whose authority increased over decades of neglect until overwhelming late life success). Herrera ‘s work is quieter and—at least in this selection and a few samples from her premiere at Lisson Gallery— more youthful than either Neel’s or Bourgeois’s.

Herrera’s work emphasizes sensibility more than the Platonic classicism of New York echt Minimalism—affinities to Jack Youngerman (although much more reserved) more than Ellsworth Kelly, perhaps. The comparison of Herrera’s and Kelly’s careers is both deceptive and instructive. Like him, her forms abandon complexity in favor of the simplest geometries rather early.

The deceptiveness comes from a basic confusion of size/scale relationships: the former’s works never attain the expansive dimensions of the late male artist’s. Mechanical reproduction— books, digital or photographic isolation of the image from scaling figures and environments—create perceptual confusion, a false equivalence, that is duplicated in an erasure of difference in their media—acrylic for Herrera, primarily oil painting for Kelly. And, the smooth plasticity of acrylic, as will be discussed, results in a loss of complexity in viewing the forms.

Herrera’s exhibition at the Whitney marked the first major showing of a Cuban associated artist in a U.S. institution since the relaxation in political relations between the two countries. (…)

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