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Carmen Herrera

Carmen Herrera is the discovery of the year - of the decade. It would be hard to overstate the surprise of seeing her radiant paintings for the first time. And unless you happen to have caught a glimpse of them in New York, which is rare enough, this may well be the first time, for she has never had a solo show in Europe.

How can we have missed these brilliant compositions? Two, occasionally three colours in geometric juxtapositions, they balance intensely beautiful hues with austerity of form. Scarlet squares are held aloft on black oblongs, a balletic green triangle stands tiptoe in ultra-white space. It is what used to be called hard-edged abstraction, but in Herrera's case would be more aptly described as euphoria kept in perfect order.

Born in Havana in 1915, and undoubtedly the supreme Cuban artist at work today, Herrera has lived in Paris, Cuba and New York where she eventually settled in 1954. Perhaps her absence from our galleries has something to do with this fact; like so many women artists in postwar America - Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois - she seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, 50s Manhattan being a citadel for abstract expressionist men.

Two early paintings in the first room of this show (not just curated but effectively unearthed, in some instances, by Nigel Prince) have some resemblance to the work of Arshile Gorky. But they are much more open and lyrical, addressing you with direct warmth from the walls.

Precisely opposite, though, and also from the late 40s, is a suite of small abstract paintings in which Herrera puts certain colours and shapes into vivid relationships. Yellow triangles rise, narrow as spires, and fall like beams of light against city darkness. Venetian red, white and black come together in planes, cones and discs, conflating hints of a tabletop with what I can only describe as conversational intimacy. Herrera is on her way.

And an unwavering path it is, abstract ever since. She does black and white stripes in configurations that precede op-art, making the image appear to buckle and bow. She flashes lightning strikes of lime against orange. The slenderest spearmint triangle recedes long and low into a white space that seems to overflow the canvas, spreading out into the walls around it.

Two yellow polyhedrons pivot upon each other in a delicate balancing act against a screen of transparent Perspex, not so much a painting as colour materialising in thin air. Amarillo, the work is called, evoking both hue and place.

One colour, a deep and peaceful blue, has taken on form to such an extent as to have become a solid, picture-shaped block, waist height and freestanding on the gallery floor. You would call it a sculpture were it not self-evidently still a painting. The top third stands ajar, as it were, opening up like a stable door, inviting you to enter the pure colour of the painting.

Now this may sound conceptual, even theoretical, this object-cum-image. But that is by no means the effect of Herrera's art. It is true that she lays out the discrete elements of painting so that you are aware of each separately - surface, colour, form, composition - but only to unite them with real verve, imagination and spirit.

So even when she uses nothing but black and white, the picture transports you, especially in the case of some paintings made in Spain. The narrow alleys and vast squares of Avila are evoked with perspectival geometries. The sepulchral gloom of the Escorial palace is achieved with nothing more than an array of four black rectangles piled on top of each other, a heavy load, tingeing the white walls between them silver by illusion.

Perhaps the simplest yet most romantic work in the whole show is composed entirely of two long, thin, black rectangles, one projecting upwards, the other hanging down next to it, which appear to meet, mouth to mouth, in a kiss. The frisson ought to be purely graphic - the top left corner of one just grazing the bottom right corner of the other. But the relationship feels upliftingly human.

Herrera was good friends with Barnett Newman, a near neighbour in New York, and they share a love of the split-screen diptych. But the differences between them are more revealing. Where Newman's tremulous canvases, with their white "zips", aspire to be transcendent in their glowing colour, Herrera is all about life as it is lived. Crisp, exhilarating, flawlessly made, ringing with images, ideas and emotions, her paintings send you back into the world revived.

This is not something that can be imitated or faked. A room of drawings at the Ikon Gallery shows how each composition is worked out by trial and error. A millimetre here, the wrong shade there and the entire proposition collapses.

In the past couple of years, Britain has seen retrospectives of three tremendous nonagenarian women artists: Maria Lassnig, Louise Bourgeois, Carmen Herrera; and Herrera, at 94, is at last represented in Moma and Tate Modern. Better late than never. Whatever has sustained her through all these decades is surely present in the vivacity of these paintings. May she go on forever.

Laura Cumming
The Observer, Sunday 2 August 2009

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