Few art exhibits are five decades in the making, but the pieces seen in Carmen Herrera: Estructuras Monumentales, an outdoor exhibition of oversized aluminum structures currently on display at Buffalo Bayou Park through April 23, 2021, are just that.
While the designs, first conceived by Cuban American artist Carmen Herrera in the 1960s, initially took shape on paper, their 105-year-old creator always envisioned them coming to life in three dimensions. But moving from drawings to physical structures was always too costly for Herrera to manage on her own.
You see, the painter, who has been living and working in New York since the 1950s, flew under the radar for most of her career, only rising to prominence when she was almost 90 (she sold her first painting at age 89), with major exhibitions of her boldly colored geometric explorations of balance and asymmetry at Whitney Museum and the Lisson Gallery soon following.
"The brilliance and beauty of her work is actually the consistency of it," says Daniel Palmer, curator of New York-based nonprofit the Public Art Fund. "The fact that she really has had a very clear intention, meaning, and purpose to her work not only day in and day out, but regardless of the world around her in some ways—that’s been part of what has given her such a truly singular course for her work."
Still, being overlooked for most of her career—a mistake Palmer describes as "one of neglect from the art world"—made it nearly impossible to turn her sculptural dream into a reality. That’s where the Public Art Fund, which has been curating exhibitions by some of the globe's most important artists for more than four decades, came in. Two years ago, Palmer approached Herrera and asked if there was a project she’d always dreamed about but had never been able to achieve. She brought out her Estructuras drawings, and soon the manufacturing process began.
It was during the early planning stages that Judy Nyquist, Buffalo Bayou Partnership board member and co-chair of the group’s Public Art Committee, became aware of the Herrera sculpture project and began inquiring about bringing it to Houston following its New York premiere. Herrera, whose groundbreaking work is also being shown in Structuring Surfaces at the MFAH, enthusiastically agreed.
Now, Estructuras Monumentales, which was presented in Manhattan’s City Hall Park last year, is the first Public Art Found exhibit the nonprofit has put on tour, with its stop in the Bayou City being just the second location in the world to host Herrera’s dynamic sculptures. “It’s important to note that she knew about Houston as a city that appreciates art,” Nyquist told us during the exhibition’s opening ceremonies last week, “and that this is the first time the Public Art Fund has sent an exhibit on tour. They’ve never done that before.”
With the Houston skyline as a backdrop and the Buffalo Bayou’s Fondren Foundation Meadow as a setting, Herrera’s four enormous monochrome sculptures cut a striking figure beside Large Spindle Piece, the permanent Henry Moore bronze that has called the park home since the late ’60s. Enormous might be an understatement when it comes to Herrera’s abstract shapes. The pieces range from 7 feet tall to more than 12 feet wide, making them easy to spot as you drive along Allen Parkway, though we suggest a visit to fully appreciate the impact of Herrera’s geometric creations.
Angulo Blanco, a single chevron shape resting on two points, is the first Estructura designed by Herrera in more than 30 years. Despite its large size, the upside-down v seems almost buoyant, especially in comparison to the seemingly monolithic Pavanne, designed in 1967 as a memorial to Herrera's brother who died of cancer, next to it. Interlocking pieces of Pavanne come together to form a solid cube, befitting the weightiness of her inspiration. Its deep blue color also reflects the slow, melancholic, and metered dance (think of a bridal procession, with a step-hesitation-step rhythm) from which its name is derived.
Reflecting the gently sloping lawn of Fondren Foundation Meadow in the thin diamond shaped cutout at its center, Gemini highlight’s Herrera’s use of negative space while also creating a window through which elements of the natural landscape can be viewed and admired. Made up of two pieces, the forest green sculpture, which makes its world debut in the Houston exhibition, was the most difficult to set properly since the top piece had to balance perfectly on its bottom twin.
Somehow despite its size and rectangular shapes, there’s no heaviness to the exhibition’s final sculpture, Untitled Estructura. Made up of two large interlocking pieces in vivid red that arc upward and downward at right angles to form a kind of c-shape, the sculpture is among the works Herrera designed in the early 1960s. Exceedingly approachable, a vibrant work conveys a sense of movement and motion worthy of an artist still producing great works after more than a century. Thank goodness the art world finally caught on.
"Carmen’s voice is really singular," says Palmer. "She’s creating work that can hold its own and is impressive and really speaks with a confident voice."
Thru Apr 23, 2021. Free. Buffalo Bayou Park’s Fondren Foundation Meadow, Allen Pkwy and Gillette St. More info at buffalobayou.org.