Even those of us born with amazing self-confidence have had those moments of self-doubt that keep us from taking that painting class we’ve been thinking about forever. But next time you’re feeling “too old” to give drawing (or any kind of craft) a go, just hold a thought about abstract artist Carmen Herrera. The Cuban-born Herrera didn’t sell her first painting till she was 89; now her fierce, unfussy geometric works go for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and museums vie to exhibit her art. How ’bout them apples?
Originally trained as an architect in Havana, Herrera switched to painting in the 1930s and moved to New York, then Paris. She ran around with all the cool kids, including writers Jean Genet and Simone de Beauvoir. As to the baddest boy painter of the era? “I saw Picasso many times, but never made friends with him,” she has said. “I don’t like Picasso.”
Eventually, she and her husband, Jesse Loewenthal, returned to Manhattan, where Herrera continued to hone her chops. Yet while male abstract artists — notably Ellsworth Kelly, whose style was similar — enjoyed success, Herrera’s striking canvases decked with strong lines and bold colors went ignored. “Everything was controlled by men,” she has shared of her struggles. In fact, one gallery owner told her outright: “‘You can paint rings around the men artists I have, but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.’ I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing.”
But Herrera — yes! — persisted, and in 1998 was included in a group show of Latin American artists. A review in The New York Times touted “an abstract art of quietly jazzy linear patterns” and five years later she made her first sale. In 2016, a retrospective of her work wowed crowds at NYC’s Whitney Museum; she’s also the subject of the documentary The 100 Years Show — and today, at 103, Carmen Herrera is still wielding her brush and wow-ing us.