Carmen Herrera's rarely-seen arrangements of vivid color planes have the timelessness of abstraction's most successful experiments: They appear at once redolent of Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist work and effortlessly anchored in the now. Important artists (especially if female) often fall into the cracks of official art history. Sometimes, albeit rarely, their bodies of work finally emerge in time for them to enjoy a late-arriving reappraisal. Herrera, who was born in Havana in 1915 and has lived in New York City for the last six decades, is one of these lucky few. She was 89 when she sold her first painting and is now heralded as a precursor of geometric abstraction. Beyond the who-did-what-firsts, Herrera's production is a crucible for several tendencies that have come to define abstract painting in the 20th century. Her canvases resonate with memories of De Stilj, Robert and Sonia Delaunay's Orphism, and Rubem Ludolf's Neoconcretism. But the energy and quiet confidence at play in the paintings currently showing at Lisson Gallery are uniquely Herrera's — and she has continued to nurture them to this day.
Abstract paintings tend to kindle a Rorschach-test instinct, goading the viewer to spot recognizable shapes in their compositions. The two carmine vertical triangles of "Two Worlds" (2011) could be a threshold as inviting as it is daunting. The blue and orange "Ambos Mundos" (2011) is a duel of conflicting energies, a yin and yang of darkness and light, incompatible yet indispensable to one another. With its two emerald horizontal triangles, the 1962 "Bianco y Verde" suggests a threadbare, almost parodic perspective: two gently sloping hillsides disappearing over the horizon, or two shafts of northern light piercing the whiteness of an iceberg.
Ghosts of buildings occasionally appear, reminiscences, perhaps, of Herrera's studies in architecture in the 1930s. The sharp red triangle on white background ("Untitled Red and White," 2011) commands awe like a spire. Yet the true narrative of Herrera's work takes place within the relationships between the different zones of the picture plane — in the push-and-pulls, in the pigments as vibrant as they are in the can, and in touching masking tape accidents. Herrera's works have the no-frills efficiency of a sign combined with a palpable emotion, a trace of the sheer enjoyment of the painter's encounter with the material, even though the surface is as smooth as if applied with a roller.
In the upstairs gallery, a selection of Herrera's earlier works shows that the artist hasn't always been an adept of the perfectly flat. In these three-color compositions, brushstrokes visibly enact the fragmented shapes. The artist was clearly aiming at the same disembodied dynamism, but it is diluted by her gesture's presence and the multiplication of forms. Herrera progressively muzzled this impulse to let more of herself come forth, limiting instead her visual statements to a few decisive colors and lines. The key to her breathtaking visual language lies in this reduction.