This weekend I had a chance to watch The 100 Years show, a short documentary streaming on Netflix about the minimalist painter Carmen Herrera. I highly recommend it to anyone, and not just to those interested in abstract art. This was a woman who followed her passion every day for decades, despite being resigned to anonymity due to her gender and also, perhaps, her Cuban-American heritage.
There is something pure about the idea of her working all those years without recognition, despite her obvious talent and sophistication. It is an image in line with the absolutism of the mid-century arts environment and the dogmatism of abstract expressionism. Carmen is the picture of the lone individual struggling to articulate her ideas on canvas in solitude.
And yet she worked in those shadows not because she was tortured. It was because of her gender.
Carmen, at age 100 and still painting, tells a story about Rose Fried, a gallery owner in New York, who told her, “Look, you can paint circles around these men, but I’m not going to give you a show, because you’re a woman.” Sixty-some years later, Carmen still seems hurt by these words from another female.
The prevailing attitudes of the time did not stop her, though, and today she is shown still tut-tutting in frustration when she messes up a line in her perfect, geometric designs. The filmmakers speak to curators and artist friends who make a very convincing argument that Carmen’s work was not only on par with her contemporaries Ellsworth Kelly and others, she may have been ahead of the game in some ways. Her black and white abstractions, painted in the 1950s, for example, prefigured Op Art, which came ten years later.
She also treated the canvas as an art object and not just a surface, which preoccupied later artists (and continues to preoccupy artists today).
Carmen is reticent when trying to speak of her own work: “You can’t talk about art… you have to ‘art’ about art,” she says, laughing.
The only thing that disappointed me about this film, which was produced to coincide with Carmen Herrera’s retrospective this year at the Whitney Museum, was that it didn’t delve deeper into her life. Her relationship with her husband, who lived to be 100 himself, seems to have been of central importance. Without his love and support, it’s questionable she could have sustained her studio practice. This is so often the case for artists who are overlooked by the art establishment. I would like to know more about this romance and more about Carmen’s thoughts on children. She tried to have them but wasn’t able. “Now I don’t have any children or grandchildren. But I have paintings.” And that seems to make her very happy.
The Carmen who appears in this documentary is a sweet, content, but still driven woman with many wise words to offer, including advice for getting old and outliving your family, spouse, and friends. “I have new friends,” she says simply, “that’s what you have to do.”
Lately I’ve fallen for the work of a number of women artists from from Carmen’s generation, including Judith Godwin and Sonia Gechtoff, thanks to another long overdue show at the Denver Art Museum. It’s both exciting and very sad to find out about them. It’s exciting for the same reason it’s exciting to find that an author of a book you love has written a sequel. It’s sad because, when you see the quality of their work, you know it’s not a matter of being overlooked… they were actively denied their place alongside the men.
Yet, I also see hope in these stories. It is hard to see how history will judge us and our age, but you can get an idea in the righting of past wrongs currently underway. It doesn’t give me hope just for women, but for anyone who takes up art-making in middle age or anyone who toils away not knowing if they will ever get any recognition at all. It simply underscores the idea that art must be pursued for its own sake. It is a way of life, not a path toward guaranteed understanding and appreciation.
In the meantime, to be suddenly gifted with these amazing women as role models… well, it’s an inspiration.