Carmen Herrera, above, is a 99-year-old Cuban artist whose approach to painting presaged Minimalism before its time and, according to a new piece in the New York Times’ style magazine, T, did not sell her first work of art until 2004, at the age of 89.
After a move to New York in the ‘50s, Herrera became friends with then-popular painters like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning but was “plunged into obscurity.” Though she’d exhibited at the Salon dés Réalités Nouvelles in Paris in the 1940s, she did not show again until 1988 and is only now being fêted at the Whitney Museum in a show later this month, placing her alongside established icons and finally establishing her in a canon, of sorts, a place which always means more than we wish it would. “There’s a saying that you wait for the bus and it will come,” she told the T. “I waited almost a hundred years!”
The T spread, written by Basquiat and Alice Neel biographer Phoebe Hoban, is entitled “Works in Progress: A Very Small Sampling of the Female Artists Now in their 80s and 90s We Should Have Known About Decades Ago,” focusing on Herrera, Agnes Denes (83), Dorothea Rockburne (82), Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (91), and Judith Bernstein (72), all of whom are being recognized after years of toiling on the sidelines.
A persistent problem that keeps the vagaries of patriarchy in place is erasure—the removal of women from history as their male counterparts are elevated, deified, canonized. In the realm of the arts, this has been more pronounced, written about and, to a tiny degree, righted within visual arts than in music, film, writing, or other media, simply because of the scale of the erasure over centuries. But erasure is a nagging fear at the back of any number of women artists’ minds, particularly among women of color: we do the work now, but will anyone know or care? Will the men who were our peers or even trampled us be elevated, while we are forgotten, footnotes in academic history books at best, a theoretical unmarked grave in a field somewhere at worst? If I’m framing it dramatically, that’s because it is dramatic: the arts shape society’s fundamental concepts and perceptions of the past and present arguably more than even history books do, and if women are invisible in our rendering of the past, we are more at risk of being invisible in the future.
That’s why these women, finally getting their due, are my heroes right now, as is Phoebe Hoban for telling their important stories. She ends with a salient quote from Farmanfarmaian, who verbalizes the truth that women’s art is tantamount to women’s lives: “Your own picture, your own face, your own clothing. If you move, it is part of the art.
Read the full spread at the T here.
Image by Stefan Ruiz for the New York Times. Used with permission.
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