Would you keep on making your art if no-one gave you any money or recognition for it? For how long?
This is a question I sometimes have to ask my clients.
For more creators than we care to imagine, recognition can take a lifetime to achieve - if it comes at all.
Unfair though it may seem, to be an artist often means you have to love making your art enough to want to keep doing it regardless of the world’s response.
Carmen Herrera, a victim of discrimination?
Carmen Herrera is a woman and she’s Cuban. Neither of these were in her favour when it came to making a success of her art career. As an immigrant into the USA, Herrera faced significant discrimination in the art world.
Yet despite being passed over by galleries as her male peers were being offered shows, Carmen continued to paint regularly and rigorously for her whole life, only rarely exhibiting her work in public.
Her story is just one example of the many great and undiscovered artists whose accomplishments are passed over because of gender, ethnicity, nationality or age.
Carmen Herrera, art spanning continents and movements
Born May 30, 1915 in Havana, Cuba, Carmen Herrera was educated in Havana and Paris where she studied art, art history, and architecture.
Whilst in Paris from 1948 to 1953, Herrera became associated with an international group of artists, the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and exhibited her work with them regularly.
During this period she developed and refined her style of geometric abstraction, gradually reducing her palette to three colors and then, ultimately, to two.
Ellsworth Kelly, whose time in France overlapped with Herrera’s, began producing his own abstractions in the same period. Frank Stella began producing his famous black paintings around the same time.
Herrera’s disappointing reception in the US
But when financial difficulties forced Herrera and her husband to return to New York in 1954, her hard-edged canvases did not receive a warm reception.
Abstract Expressionism was still the flavour of the moment and it would be almost a decade before the popularity of Minimalism took hold.
But Carmen Herrera was singularly dedicated to her work and she never veered from her particular disciplined, minimalist style.
Throughout the succeeding decades, she continued to produce her radiant, deceptively simple, bi-coloured canvases with their straight lines and geometric shapes.
Undoubtedly it made a big difference that her partner, Jesse Lowenthal, believed in her and always looked for ways to encourage her.
Meanwhile the art world continued to ignore her.
Perhaps, ultimately it was for the good. Carmen admits that the lack of recognition, allowed her to pursue her work in her own way without interference.
The ‘discovery’ of Carmen Herrera
Finally Carmen Herrera found ‘overnight success’ in her 90’s after seven decades as an artist.
And even then it happened by accident. Her neighbour, close friend and fellow painter, Tony Bechara, recommended her to replace a no-show artist in a group show of Cuban artists at the Frederico Sève Gallery in New York city.
Frederico Sève admits that most galleries want to work with artists under 35. He was as surprised as anyone when, after falling in love with her paintings, he discovered Carmen’s age.
Carmen’s first solo show in Europe was held at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England, in 2009.
The UK’s Observer newspaper called Carmen the “discovery of the decade.”
Since then, major institutions from MoMA to Tate Modern have acquired her paintings. and her work is now acknowledged as a precursor to many modernist styles - minimalism, geometric and modernist abstraction, and concrete painting.
In 2016, when Carmen was 101, the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City mounted a solo exhibit of her works from 1948-1978, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight.
Watch an unofficial video of the Lines of Sight exhibition or get access to the award-winning film about Carmen’s life and work via Netflix or Vimeo, or download detailed information about Carmen Herrera in the Lisson Gallery press pack.
Do you love your art that much?
So on the days when the going is tough and you wonder if you made a mistake deciding on the life of an artist, ask yourself,
“Do I really love doing this? Would I carry on doing it regardless of whether anyone ever recognises me or rewards me for it?”
If the answer is yes, (as it is for me!) then please keep on keeping on. Who knows, one day you may be offered a solo show at the Whitney.
If you need help and support in your creative career, why not try a free week’s coaching with me via the chat message service of your choice?