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Green and White

Lines of Sight, the first solo museum show for Carmen Herrera, closed at The Whitney this week. At 101 years old, it was the Cuban-American artist's first museum show, and the culmination of a roughly ten-year string of successes that began in the final weeks of her eighties. Though her work will now likely inflect future conversations about post-war art in America, Herrera's career-long marginalization as a Cuban immigrant and as a woman working in the mostly-boys clubs of abstract expressionism and minimalism means that there's a lot of catching up to do.

From a biographical standpoint, Herrera's story demonstrates staggering persistence, disciplined daily work, and unwavering pursuit of aesthetic principles. It reminds us of the ways that the stubborn discrimination within critical establishments can reinforce the most maddening kinds of myopia. And, in a story that seems custom-molded for a straight-to-Netflix movie, it's a case of making good with time to spare: an example of a centenarian artist living long enough to experience the swell of recognition that most obscure(d) artists don't. And all this after Herrera spent six decades living and working a short walk from the Whitney.

The biographical details alone deal a blow to the diaphragm (imagining Herrera working in a circle of increasingly famous friends, all the while patiently plying, exploring, crafting, waiting). But it also offers the chance to wonder where we might identify something fortuitous about the delay.

Instead of being washed into sameifying conversations about art after 1945, I found myself thinking about Herrera in the fresh and antiseptic light of the contemporary. Her series Blanco y Verde (White and Green) felt fresh and bright, offering alternatives to musty narratives about heroic concepts and to the genealogy of the Great White Males involved in the whole Abstract Expressionist thing.

Here's an example of that alternative, from White and Green: two neon-kelly green triangles, thin at their bases, stretch toward one another from the left and right of a white canvas. As they approach each other, they thin, and thin some more, and more, until they narrow to what seems like a single atom of paint. At the same time, the two atomically small points of paint get tantalizingly close to each other, but there remains a micron of white between them.

How close can two objects get to one another before contacting each other? How narrowly can they intersect? At one single point in space? What does it mean to come into contact? What would it mean if contact remains elusive?

Read as a series of questions about the possibilities and impossibilities of intersections, Herrera's work might be encouraging us to consider what it could mean for concepts to overlap -- or to fail to overlap. How much space can exist between two ideas before they begin to bleed into one another? What does it mean for two notions to overlap with one another, to complement one another, to be saying the same thing?

At what distance from the work does a viewer have to be to believe that the shapes touch -- and how close does she have to be to the work to realize that, factually, they never touch? A number of critics reading Herrera's work have focused on their structural, architectural compositions. But the geometry of Herrera's abstraction -- no matter how careful -- should not overwhelm the viewer's impulse to try to understand the works symbolically.

This is especially the case in which motivations for understanding (a) the possibilities of ideas to overlap (to find places of agreement and concordance) and (b) the difference between fictions and factual observations (specifically in cases where the senses/feelings can convince us that a falsehood is true) could not be more urgent.

If there's a virtue to Herrera being left out of established stories about the theoretical usefulness of Abstract Expressionism, it might be precisely that these alternatives can provide an account that has applications in a moment of conceptual confusion.