Last weekend, I went to a wedding reception at a local art gallery. It’s a venue where I’ve enjoyed viewing the work of other artists and been delighted to have mine exhibited as well. The latest show at Spindrift is “Celebrating Women Painters.”
As I walked around and talked with people, I noticed some books stacked on a side table, books about women artists. Maybe it was rude, but I couldn’t keep myself from perusing them and then sitting down with one in particular. I mention this because, after a long history of women artists being ignored, this seems to be a good year for their getting acknowledged--those who are alive and those who are gone. For example, earlier this year, the Palm Springs Art Museum hosted “Women of Abstract Expressionism”--12 American artists who worked in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City during the late 1920s to the early 1960s.
Another major show--“Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction”--is on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until August 13. While I’ve not been able to visit either of these exhibits (and there are probably others I’m not aware of), I was struck by the fact that, at least in some cases, recognition of many women artists often does not come until later in life, if it comes at all.
At the reception, the book that captured my attention and made me sit down is about Carmen Herrera, a Cuban abstract, minimalist painter who has resided in New York since the mid-1950s. Before that, she also lived in Paris. In an interview last year, she is seen still creating new work at 101! In January, a retrospective, “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight,” ended its run at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The book I examined is a catalogue by the same title.
In 2016, Herrera quipped that when she was younger, no one knew she was a painter, but now they're starting to. "I've waited so long," she commented, and then referred to a saying: "If you persevere, you will triumph." She laughed heartily when she added, "Yes, I persevered almost a century, and I made it."
The media call such artists “late bloomers.” But is it the artists who bloomed late, or did the art world simply take its sweet time? Herrera didn’t sell her first painting until 2004, when she was 89. Then, suddenly, the Museum of Modern Art acquired a handful of her work. Five years later, at 94, she was profiled in The New York Times as “… the hot new thing in painting.” Now, Lisson Gallery in London represents her and has mounted several shows.
Herrera is truly an inspiration for those who doggedly refuse to give up what they love to do, despite the lack of acclaim and sales. She has commented that being female was definitely a barrier. Gender issues were not a figment of her imagination. When she tried to enter her art for an exhibition at a gallery in New York, the curator (who also was female) told her she could not include the paintings because they were created by a woman. Yet, Herrera persisted.
She remains ever enthusiastic about her geometric abstract art, in love with the beauty of the line, a result of her studies in architecture at the University of Havana. She recalls, “There, an extraordinary world opened up to me that never closed: the world of straight lines, which has interested me until this very day."
In a 2012 Phaidon interview, she was asked: "What's next?" Her response: What a question to ask a 97 year old!...I want to make larger works, but then there is the problem of getting them in and out of this studio—the lift is tiny, the staircase crooked, and I never go out. So…I have choices to make—how to make them larger, or seem larger, or maybe make the world smaller?
Herrera is not the only woman artist for whom recognition was a long time in coming. Whether you care for her folk art or not, Anna Mary Robertson Moses (“Grandma Moses”), born in 1860, is another example of “you’re never too old; it's never too late.” Though she loved to draw as a child, farm life demanded all of her time and energy. Once she raised five children in upstate New York, she took up painting rural scenes because arthritis made it too painful to hold a needle for embroidery. Moses displayed her paintings in a drug store window, where an engineer and collector noticed them in 1938 and bought the whole lot. The Museum of Modern Art included three of her paintings in an exhibition, “Contemporary Unknown American Painters,” when Moses was 79. Originally, she sold her work to people she knew, charging only $3 to $5 each. Fast forward to 2006, when one of her winter scenes commanded $1.2 million at Christie’s. She died in 1961, a year after LIFE magazine put her on its cover for her 100th birthday. Yet another woman who waited a century.
There are many other artists--in the musical, visual, and literary arts -- who “bloomed” after they turned 70. It’s heartening to know that "wilting" doesn’t have to be an option. The difference is in what we decide to do. When I lived on Maui, I met a woman who told the story of how she got into the work she was engaged in, at an age when others wouldn't have considered going back to graduate school. She'd already raised her children and wondered whether she might be too old by the time she got her advanced degree. One of her sons said, “Mom, so what? You’re going to be __ [pick a year] anyway. You might as well do what you want.”
A final comment on how age doesn't have to matter; in fact, it can provide a valuable edge. Writer Annie Proulx, in an interview with Luck Rock for The Guardian (5 June 2016), remarked that she doesn't regret how long it took for success to arrive:
You have time to have a life, to see change, to understand a bit how people work, how the world works, how society works, how things shift around, how slippery things can be, everything from politics to personal relationships. It's a great advantage to have that stuff under your belt when you start to write [or engage in other arts].
Questions & Comments:
What would you do next if you didn't think you're too old and it's too late?
What other artists"bloomed" during later stages in life? Why did they not let age get in the way?