“Will you still need me … When I’m 64?” OR: Why Gender is relevant

Er, make that 94.

From the New York Times:

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. [Carmen] Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off…

Shocking Pink #20 (1949)

… her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retrospective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”

Indeed. How did it happen?  She was private, but she wasn’t invisible. She had shown in a number of shows, but never sold anything. 

Black and White (1952)

“Ms. Herrera said that she also accepted, “as a handicap,” the barriers she faced as a Hispanic female artist. Beyond that, though, “her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.””


Who knew that in the art world it is bad to be ahead of your time? 

Of course, art that is outside the conventions can be neglected and perhaps discovered only decades after the artist’s death.  But this work is certainly not so unfamiliar.  And she did have promoters.  She did have friends in the art world during all those decades.  But she remained in effect in an outsider’s position.

There’s a wonderful research project here.

Added:  Since newcomers to this blog might not have the context for this post, let me say explicitly what  its point here is:  Many people think that calls for more women’s presence among lists of  invited speakers, etc., make gender  relevant where only excellence should matter.  But the case of someone like Carmen Herrera makes a clear that excellence is not always clearly perceived by those making the relevant choices. 

Unfortunately, gender does matter, in ways that are often hidden from us.

9 thoughts on ““Will you still need me … When I’m 64?” OR: Why Gender is relevant

  1. Amazing story– can’t wait to read more. (And, yes, in another way also not amazing. Though still a lovely happy ending.)

  2. Thanks, Jender. I saw that I hadn’t put up the link, but it is there now.

    One has to wonder how much not being included in the art discourse harmed her. I think we do think that those following their own vision do not need much input, but there are also good reasons for thinking our ideas here are clouded with individualistic myths.

  3. The problem with women who go against the grain, including being “ahead of the time”, is that we are easily dismissed, according to conventional patriarchal mores, as being either crazy, or not understanding the conventions of our times and therefore working outside of them, or dealing with reality in a particularly ‘feminine’ manner. So the work that we produce that should be considered difficult or challenging is considered to be precisely the exact opposite to that, because patriarchal thinking gives people superficial reasons not to make an effort.

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