In 2009, art critic from British newspaper The Observer wrote about an exhibition at the Ikon Gallery, in Birmingham: “Carmen Herrera is the discovery of the year - of the decade… How can we have missed these brilliant compositions?” The journalist was referring to the extensive (and then unknown) work by the Cuban-American artist, who sold her first painting in 2004. At the time, she was 89 years-old. Now, at 104, and is unanimously considered one of the most brilliant voices of minimalism and abstractionism. Unfortunately, her story is not that rare.
When Carmen Herrera opened the doors of her downtown Manhattan house for a conversation with The Guardian, she was already an established name in the pantheon of art. Recognition came late in life (the reporter will point out that, had not she lived ‘so long’, she would never have been able to enjoy success), but for those days the woman, born in Havana, Cuba, spoke with an assurance that defied opinion of others. The experts argue, with a conviction that challenges the artist’s century-old life, that this her period of greatest artistic activity - at the time of the interview, she was 101 years-old. In May, and if fate continues to defy eternity, will make 105. She, for her part, quips the fact that her work now sells for thousands of dollars. “Good job”, she argues, “it’s not cheap getting old.” A fierce opponent of Picasso (“I don’t like Picasso, he is dangerous. Matisse is a nice person”), she guarantees that her path, which now is becoming a more-or-less-happy-ending, is not an inspiration (“I am not a teacher. An example, yes; a teacher, no”) and that men have always controlled “everything.” “They were better than me at knowing how to play the system, what to do and when. They figured out the gallery system, the collector system, the museum system, and I wasn’t that kind of personality.” History proved her right. In the press, the first reference to her work came in 1998, a small review of a collective exhibition dedicated to Latin American art. Whe she finally sold a painting, in 2004, she was entitled to a footnote in The New York Times. And then her career exploded.
Catharina van Hemessen. Lavinia Fontana. Artemisia Gentileschi. Anne Seymour Damer. Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Berthe Morisot. Lyubov Popova. Hannah Höch. Luchita Hurtado. Look for these names in a regular coffee conversation, and the reactions are more likely to be funny. After all, the world forgot that Catarina (1528-1587) was the first artist to make a self-portrait of a creative person in full swing - she ended up becoming one of the most famous names in her country, much to the support of Queen Regent of Holland - and that Lavinia (1552-1614) was the first Italian painter to work outside a religious context, that is, off the walls of a convent. And it was the world, too, who erased the fact that Artemisia (1593-1624), nicknamed “the female Caravaggio”, was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno, in Florence. And it was also the world who erased from headlines Anne (1747-1828), who succeeded as of the first names in sculpture (normally reneged to men due to the strength needed to manipulate materials and tools), Louise (1755-1842), official portraitist of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and Berthe (1841-1895), the first female to be accepted into the impressionist circuits. All of this was tragic enough, but the world also disdained Lyubov (1889-1924), for many the founder or Russian constructivism, and Hannah (1889-1978), a committed feminist and one of the minds behind the photomontage. And that’s how we arrive at Luchita, 99, the recipient of a retrospective at Lacma, in Los Angeles - the first exhibition that offers her the international dimension that she never achieved in a career of 80 years. In 2018, at the “Made in L.A.” exhibition held at the Hammer Museum, some visitors asked curators if Hurtado’s birth date was correct, given the contemporary nature of her work. “There is no way that a painter by the name of Luchita Hurtado could have possibly been born in 1920”. And yet, it is true.
“The problem lies not so much with some feminists' concept of what femininity is, but rather with their misconception--shared with the public at large--of what art is: with the naive idea that art is direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience, a translation of personal life into visual terms. Art is almost never that, great art never is. The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a long period of individual experimentation. The language of art is, more materially, embodied in paint and line on canvas or paper, in stone or clay or plastic or metal-it is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper.” These words belong to Linda Nochlin’s essay ““Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, published in 1971, where the American historian reflects on how institutional obstacles, as opposed to personal, have been preventing women from achieving excellence in the art world.“The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones, who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated. […] There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.” For this reason, the author states, it is necessary to reframe the question “why have there been no great women artists”, which is “simply the top tenth of an iceberg of misinterpretation and misconception; beneath lies a vast dark bulk of shaky idées reçues about the nature of art and its situational concomitants, about the nature of human abilities in general and of human excellence in particular, and the role that the social order plays in all of this.”
Nancy G. Heller is a professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at the School of Critical Studies, University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and author of the book Women Artists: An Illustrated Story. It is with her help that we try to understand the oblivion that women artists have been put up with. “I can mainly speak to the situation in the U.S. and Europe, where I would say the source of the problem is cultural--and also inevitably involves gender issues. During my own lifetime, I have certainly observed, and been affected by, the tendency of most (male-owned and run) institutions to steadfastly under-value the work done by women--as artists, scientists, politicians, parents, and in every other sphere, including the arts. An infamous U.S. example is the Mary Boone Gallery, a prestigious NYC place for high-priced contemporary art. During the 1980s when Boone was asked, repeatedly, why she represented no work by women artists, she replied "Because work by women doesn't sell." Clearly, she couldn't sell work by women artists if she didn't handle or display it, and her attitude (as one of the few powerful and influential women in the field) did terrible damage, for a long time.” We mention Nochlin’s essay. We want to know if it remains relevant. “Nochlin's now-classic 1971 essay suggested that, while there had been many excellent women artists none qualified as "great'---precisely because the definition of a "great" artist required the individual to have done things most females could not do (e.g., enter and be trained in a national academy of fine arts; spend years working from the live nude model). And, of course, since many women choose to marry and have/raise children, the demands on their creativity and time has historically been considerably greater than it would've been on most men, or single/childless females. In other words, the problem lies in that word, ‘great’, not in women artists.
Does it make sense, then, to say that women’s artistic work is necessarily different from men’s? “Personally, I have never believed that an artist's gender is necessarily reflected by his/her/their work. There was a time, in the U.S. during the 1970s, when some feminists believed that all work made by women was easily identifiable-because it tended to be pastel in color, with "open" (e.g., vaginal) centers, and an emphasis on delicacy. But, in fact, there have always been pastel/open/delicate artworks made by artists of all genders, and there are excellent examples of work with none of those characteristics, made by women from the 16th century onward.” We just need to remember the work of Georgia O’Keeffe or Bridget Riley to destroy the delicacy argument. Still, the art world seems to be increasingly receptive to female artists. “Based on what I have read, and observed, I would say the art world (again, in Europe and the U.S.) is, indeed, considerably more female-friendly than it was in previous eras…but the playing field is still nowhere near equal. The best index of just how much better things are, and how far they still have to go, can be found on the web site of The Guerrilla Girls, a NYC-based group of anonymous female artists who, since 1985, have been collecting data on precisely this point and disseminating it through their posters, political demonstrations, books, films, and in-person lectures.”
Figures are not encouraging. “Salvador Mundi”, by Leonardo da Vinci, is the most expensive painting ever sold. In November 2017, someone paid around 450 million dollars for it. The top of the most highly rated artists includes old acquaintances (Van Gogh, Picasso and Andy Warhol appear more than once) but pushes women to the bottom of the list - those who can afford to belong to this gentlemen’s club. Here, Georgia O’Keeffe clearly wins. Her work “Jimson Weed / White Flower Nº1” was acquired in 2014 by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for something like 48 million dollars. An abysmal difference to the 133 millions paid for “The Scream”, by Edward Munch or to the 80 million received by “La Belle Romaine”, by Amadeo Mondigliani, in 2010. Is money the best barometer when it comes to decide someone’s genius and quality? Carmen Herrera’s case is paradigmatic: how can we ignore such talented people, regardless of their gender? “As you say, Carmen Herrera is an excellent example of a wonderful, pioneering woman artist who only received significant recognition very late in life. But I don't think we can really say that her gender was the only reason for this unfortunate delay. It seems to me that there are many different, often illogical and possibly unknowable reasons why a given artist's work achieves widespread fame and financial success. Among U.S. Pop artists, for example, Marisol Escobar was quite successful and well-known beginning in the 1960s (perhaps partly because she was sophisticated and glamorous, not solely because she was also an intelligent creator of original satire), whereas Dorothy Grebenak had some success in the 60s but vanished from most people's memories soon after--probably because she worked in the medium of hooked rugs (not considered as "important" as painting or sculpture) and because, after her husband died in 1971, she moved from NYC to London. Also, we must remember that the vast majority of artists, male, female, or non-binary, never achieve success with their work, no matter how marvelous it may be. Fashion, finance, geography, and sheer luck always figure into the equation. At the end of the conversation mentioned at the beginning of this text, which took place when the artist was ‘still’ 101 years-old, the journalist took the opportunity to ask Carmen Herrera who was her favorite artist ever. “Carmen Herrera”, she replied. “Yes, Carmen Herrera is my favorite.” Respect.
*Men. But, hopefully, it won’t be for long.
This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Art issue, from March 2020.
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Arte da Vogue Portugal.