Havana-born American artist Carmen Herrera, a pioneer of 20th-century abstract painting, has died aged 106. She passed away peacefully in her sleep on Sunday 13 February 2022 at her apartment and studio in New York, where she had lived and worked since 1967. Her death was announced by Lisson Gallery, which has represented her since 2010.

Herrera developed a keen interest in painting while studying architecture at Universidad de La Habana, Cuba, in 1938. During this time, she met the love of her life, the American professor Jesse Loewenthal, and together they moved to New York in 1939 where Herrera enrolled at the Arts Students League and further developed her painting practice. The artist frequently travelled to Paris, and became an active member of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles; she took part in a series of exhibitions alongside Max Bill and Piet Mondrian, among other key figures of the Suprematism movement. 

Carmen Herrera and Jesse Loewenthal in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, c.1948-53.
armen Herrera painting, 1941.
Top: Carmen Herrera and Jesse Loewenthal in front of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, c.1948-53. Above: Carmen Herrera painting, 1941. © Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Herrera’s earlier work was refined and abstract, characterised by a restrained approach: ‘I began a life-long process of purification, a process of taking away what isn’t essential’, she would later say, reminiscing on work created in her post-war years in Paris. There, she would produce some of her most iconic works, including Green Garden (1950), a striking piece evocative of tropical vegetation and landscapes. Later on, many stylistic comparisons were drawn between Herrera and Ellsworth Kelly, who was also developing his practice in post-war Paris. 

In 1954, Herrera relocated permanently to New York. While undoubtedly an icon of abstraction, Herrera was overlooked for much of her career, particularly in relation to her male contemporaries. Her friends Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith were fervent advocates of her work, but the art critics at the time were not; Herrera would have to wait decades before her due recognition. 

Despite this, Herrera persevered. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, she explored the gravity of shapes and colours and worked towards the production of Blanco y Verde (1959–1971), a series of 15 paintings that would go on to form one of her most significant bodies of work. This 12-year project was characterised by sharp, emerald-hued triangles painted on white canvases, with edges coated in the same colour – an innovative approach that allowed viewers to perceive the work as both a painting and a three-dimensional structure. This early experimentation with sculpture would eventually lead to the Estructura series comprising monochrome paintings on heavy chunks of wood. 

Carmen Herrera visiting ’Estructuras Monumentales’, an exhibition by Public Art Fund in City Hall Park, NY on September 25, 2019. © Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
Carmen Herrera visiting ’Estructuras Monumentales’, an exhibition by Public Art Fund in City Hall Park, NY on September 25, 2019. © Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

While minimal, Herrera’s work is layered in complex, often deeply personal associations. But her work also harbours a universality, inviting viewers to use their imagination, and establish their own opinions and perspectives. 

Closely aligned with Latin American conceptual painting, the oeuvre of Carmen Herrera has initiated, quietly but steadily, a dialogue within the global history of modernist abstraction. 

In 2017, Herrera’s work was the subject of a substantial solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show, ‘Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight’, curated by Dana Miller consisted of a series of paintings and installations putting the spotlight on 1948–1978, a seminal period in the artist’s career. Herrera also had important retrospectives at the Alternative Museum (1984) and El Museo del Barrio (1998) in New York, as well as at Ikon in Birmingham, UK (2009), curated by Nigel Prince. Herrera also inaugurated Lisson’s first New York gallery in May 2016, with an exhibition of works all made in her 100th year. §

Carmen Herrera in her Studio, 2015. Photography by Jason Schmidt. © Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery obituary
Carmen Herrera in her Studio, 2015. Photography by Jason Schmidt. © Carmen Herrera, Courtesy Lisson Gallery