Strike when I was a little girl. I was never a little girl. I was a tall-for-my-age, large-boned athletic tomboy. I was an excellent golfer. I scored in the low 80s before my 13th birthday. My dad and I won a Parent-Child Golf Tournament at Bayshore Golf Club in Miami Beach. We beat all the fathers and their sons. Sixty plus years later, I still stare at our trophy all pitted and rusty with Dad’s arm broken off at the elbow and I smile and I think if only I had the guts to run away from home and travel the country, playing beside Babe Zaharius or one of the Bauer sisters, walking down those sweet smelling damp fairways early in the morning in my beloved red and white Foot Joys, proudly twirling my Patty Berg driver after just smashing a 250 yard drive off the first tee in front of an applauding crowd.
Of course it was never to be. Becoming a member of the LPGA was just one of the things a Jewish girl didn’t do. A silly cultural norm so specific in my upbringing. Traditionally Jews also didn’t name their children after themselves. Or eat breakfast at McDonalds.
However, this post is not about me. It’s about Carmen Herrera who sold her first painting when she was 89 years old.
Her story is an example of the many great female artists whose accomplishments were overlooked because of gender biases, ethnicity or nationality. Carmen Herrera has been painting since her youth in Cuba and only in the last few years has she found recognition. In the last decade, major institutions from MOMA to Tate Modern have acquired her paintings. She is the pioneer of Geometric Abstract and Latin America Modernism illustrating the Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that ‘less is more’.
‘Since I am famous, my life is hell,’ she grumbles. ‘I used to have a quiet life and do what I like to do…which is painting.’
Now her canvases fetch up to $50,000.
Herrera was born in Cuba in 1915, and left after the Second World War. She spent time in Paris and New York during a period of time when her male artist friends were forging their own reputation. She failed to achieve a similar level of success for herself which she attributes to her marginalized status as a Hispanic woman producing minimalist work.
She wanted to be an architect but in Havana in those days the university was always closed due to some revolution or another. So she became a painter and moved to New York in 1939.
Painting in relative solitude since the 1930s, with only an occasional exhibition, Carmen Herrera was sustained, she said, by the unflinching support of her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal, an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He was portrayed by the memoirist Frank McCourt, a colleague, as an old-world scholar in an elegant, 3-piece suit, a gold watch chain looping across his waistcoat front. Carmen’s regret is that her husband didn’t live to see her success. They had no children.
‘Jesse was a saint and I’m thinking that I never really thanked him for all he did for me. I made him move to neighborhoods that were cheap and sometimes dangerous so I could have room to paint. He understood what I was doing and he was always supportive. Everyone says that Jesse must have orchestrated this success from above,’ she says. ‘But I’ve worked really hard,’ she added, ‘so maybe it was me.’
Carmen Herrera will be 100 years old in May, 2015.
Her sharp biting wit and positive spirit is what drives her. ‘When death happens it will happen. It can’t be that bad when everyone is doing it.’
Wheelchair bound and arthritic, Herrera sits at a long desk strewn with industrial –sized rulers and piles of graphic paper covered in geometric calculations and lines.
She still paints prolifically and scoffs at people who say her work looks easy. ‘Perhaps they should try it,’ she says.