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Carmen Herrera’s Days of the Week paintings were not, as their titles may suggest, painted on their corresponding days of the week.1 Herrera created the seven works, currently included in the inaugural exhibition at Lisson Gallery’s Los Angeles outpost, over the course of six years, beginning with Blue Monday in 1972, Thursday in 1975, and the remaining five days in 1978. Evenly spaced in titular order along the walls of one expansive gallery, the paintings’ clean, cyclical logic masks the underlying futility—and complexity—of implementing geometric abstraction as a cipher for capturing the aesthetic tenor of our weekly calendar. In fact, Herrera’s simple, poetic exercise gets at the heart of the project of abstraction, posing and intuitively responding to the elemental question of how concrete lines, shapes, spaces, and colors can be used to invoke the metaphysical contours of something as ungraspable as time.
The Havana-born artist, who died in 2022 at the impressive age of 106, nursed a deep fidelity to the straight line, a visual motif she scrutinized over the course of several decades through her precise method of hard-edge painting. An early progenitor of minimalism when abstract expressionism was still painting’s mode de rigueur, Hererra worked in relative obscurity until the age of 89, when she began selling her work. This hermetic dedication to painting, independent from the machinations of the art market, catalyzed the formation of her highly sophisticated, introspective style, rooted in the language of the line. Herrera spoke of the line—genuinely understood as a signifier of empirical order antithetical to emotion—with adoration, referring to it as a source of both awe and beauty.2 While seemingly simple, a line can be quite complex. It is infinite, yet can denote the distance between two finite points; one-dimensional, yet extendable into multiple dimensions. The line represents geometric purity, functioning as a kernel for the creation of all angular forms.
Channeling this formal clarity, Herrera’s paintings feature simple polygonal shapes (generally no more than three per painting) that extend to the edges of the canvas. The frame doubles as the sides of the polygons, a gesture that positions the work as both image and object. The resulting compositions exude a rhythmic cadence as if these geometries were in perpetual motion. Complicating their formal qualities, the titles of the Days of the Week paintings create linguistic associations between color (always black, plus one other electric hue), line, shape, and time, which in turn sparks beguiling thought experiments: How do verdant triangles embody the essence of Wednesday? Why does a canary yellow lighting bolt signify Saturday?
In Thursday—which, surprisingly, contains the most pictorial tension (as opposed to, say, Monday)—a black pentagon abuts a complex marigold shape that funnels into a tight vertical corridor along one edge of the canvas. Blue Monday, on the other hand, is the exhibition’s anomaly. As the sole horizontal work, it features a gently sloping black shape resting under an angular indigo “sky, ” a simple compositional strategy that dually invokes tranquil and melancholic states. Viewed holistically, the paintings’ minimalist forms recall drifting tectonic plates or the liminal spaces between clock hands, both of which unequivocally connect abstraction and time. Here, Herrera posits that perhaps the essence of time—as infinite and complex as the line—is best captured by elusive geometries. Although polygons, lines, and colors technically exist outside the bounds of temporal associations, she employs language as an anchor for tethering these forms to our contextual reality, thereby activating abstraction as a poetic device for interpreting our surrounding world.
Carmen Herrera, The 1970s: Part 2 runs from April 15–June 10, 2023 at Lisson Gallery (1037 N. Sycamore Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90038).