Last spring I did my first translation for a major U.S. museum. I translated an essay by Gerardo Mosquera for the Whitney Musem’s exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight. Incidentally, this is Herrera’s first solo exhibition by a major museum, so I felt even more passionate about getting it right.
To prepare, I read everything I could about Carmen Herrera, abstract expressionism, and minimalism in Spanish and English. My initial aim was to familiarize myself with terminology, but even after I got a good sense of the lexicon and determined translations for concepts that were new to me, I kept reading. I was fascinated by the 101-year-old Cuban, American, immigrant artist who received very little recognition before her hundredth birthday but kept painting anyway. I love her. I love everything she symbolizes. Here are some of the coolest things I learned.
Carmen Herrera started painting as a child and dedicated her life to making art, despite not selling a single painting until she was 89.
Despite being arthritic and wheelchair-bound, she continues to paint every day.
She explains that her art is driven by the quest for simple geometric abstractions and refutes interpretations of her paintings that contradict her.
Her interviews are incredibly fun to read because she seems to have a witty retort to everything, including art criticism: “‘People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles’” (quoted by Deborah Sontag).
Gallery owners admitted that she was producing better, more innovative work than her male peers and explicitly refused to represent her because she was a woman; the only museums who showed her art were museums dedicated to showing art by marginalized, Latin@ artists; and still, she persevered.
Her success began a few years after her husband died, and people around her asked if maybe her husband––who had been a staunch supporter of her work––was helping her from heaven. In a 2009 interview, she refuted that interpretation: “‘Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud. I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.’”
Her favorite artist is herself.
The Whitney retrospective closes this Monday, but I hope it is the first of many. That may well be the case because, after it closes in New York, the show is headed to Ohio.