CubaBrief: Two Cuban artists passed away these past weekend who came of age in a democratic Cuba. Celebrating the art of Carmen Herrera and Aurelio de la Vega

Two artists that emerged from the Cuban Republic (1902 – 1952) passed away this past week. Their history and their art work should be revisited to celebrate both their lives, and the free Cuba in which they were formed and out of which their love of the arts was nurtured.

Painter Carmen Herrera Nieto (1915 – 2022) and music composer Aurelio de la Vega (1925 – 2022) both died this past weekend on February 12, 2022. They were part of a generation that came of age during Cuba’s democratic age.

Between 1902 and 1952, the Cuban Republic developed a multiparty system, competitive elections, a free press, a modern public health system and a strong labor movement. This translated to social achievements placing pre-1959 Cuba at the top of Latin American indexes, outperforming Castro’s Cuba. The Cuban Republic even led in proposing, drafting and lobbying for the passage of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Language in the declaration was selected from Cuba’s 1940 constitution. Cuban diplomats presented nine proposals, five of which are in the UDHR.

Within this free society the arts flourished and progressed. Cuban artists Celia CruzOlga Guillot, Rolando Lecuona,  Israel Cachao López, Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría, Mario Bauza, Arsenio Rodríguez, and Aurelio de la Vega impacted music marking a before and after both in Cuba, and in the world at large.

The Castro brothers took power and imposed a totalitarian communist regime in Cuba that also heavily and negatively impacted the arts. All the artists listed above were banned in Cuba, together with their music.

For example, Aurelio de la Vega, one of the top Cuban composers, was blacklisted by the Castro regime after fleeing Cuba in 1959 and “was delisted by the music conservatory he founded and considered persona non grata by the press and orchestras of his native land.” 

L to R: pianist/conductor Leonard Stein, Aurelio de la Vega, violinist Endre Granat and conductor Lawrence Christianson, California State University Northridge, January 14, 1971

This practice would continue, and new generations of artists would be blacklisted by the Castro dictatorship.

Carmen Herrera Nieto moved to New York in 1954, and spent decades happily married, and working on her art. She was not among the banned, because she remained unknown into the 2000s. She sold her first painting in 2004.

Her work today is celebrated in the art world, and is featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 2017 Alison Klayman premiered the documentary short “The 100 years show” about the life and work of Carmen Herrera. It is available online here.

In the documentary she describes her early support of the 1959 revolution due to her opposition to the Batista dictatorship, but then expresses her dismay at the establishment of a new and terrible dictatorship under the Castro brothers.

“Yes, I did support the Cuban revolution of 1959. My family and my friends we were all against Batista. We were all very happy.because this was a great change for Cuba. We were going to have elections and so on. And then it turned into a terrible dictatorship. Our dream was betrayed. That was rough, very rough. My brother was in prison for five years. Those are revolutions. They make no sense.”

Carmen Herrera, “I waited for almost a century for the bus to come. And it came.” (Source: Arthive)

Granma, the daily of the Cuban Communist Party in their February 13, 2022 obituary of Aurelio de la Vega described him as “one of the most important Cuban composers of the 20th Century.” The official publication omitted the harm it had caused this iconic Cuban artist. Thankfully Mr. de la Vega spoke on the matter.

On March 26, 2021 the Youtube channel Piano, Purpose, Peace hosted by Judy Tran premiered a one hour seven minute conversation with Aurelio de la Vega in which he looked back over his life and career, and reflected on pre-Castro Cuba, and the hurt that it caused him.

“My childhood and my early years were very pleasant, very nice. Cuba in the 50s, for example, was a complete paradise. No more or less shall we say than if you were in New York or in Paris, you know there was a tremendous amount of activity and so forth. Unfortunately, it was caught by the revolution. The same thing that happened in Russia, the same thing that happened in France. All these major changes of history sometimes are very hurtful for some people, and it hurt me because it completely separated me from my family for many years.”

When Fidel Castro died in November 2016, Aurelio de la Vega was quoted in the November 26, 2016 article by The Press-Enterprise titled “Southland Cubans celebrate Fidel Castro’s death” on Cuban exiles celebrating the death of the dictator in California in the area of Los Angeles. In the article the Cuban composer rendered a succinct, but accurate judgement of Fidel Castro: “He was nothing good. He destroyed a country, divided a society, killed 20,000 people.”

On October 19, 2015 the documentary “Aurelio: Rebel With a Cause” about the life and work of the Cuban composer premiered in California. Below is the documentary now available online.

Cuban author and Yale Professor, Carlos Eire, wrote about the passing of the two in BabaluBlog, and its significance for Cubans on February 14, 2022:

“Her death, like that of Aurelio de la Vega on the same day, marks the passing of a generation of Cubans who still had living links to the colonial era, and were themselves children of the new independent republic. Her death and that of Aurelio set Castrogonia further adrift in the pitch-black ocean of time and also further and further away from its own past glory. May she rest in peace, and may she enjoy being reunited with her loved ones in the Great Beyond. And if there is a Cuban neighborhood or ghetto in the Great Beyond, maybe she’ll get to exchange stories with Aurelio.”

BabaluBlog, February 14, 2022

R.I.P. Carmen Herrera, Cuban-American artist, 1915-2022

February 14, 2022 by Carlos Eire

Carmen Herrera Nieto

Cuba has lost another talented giant — though no one in Castrogonia will notice or care.

Carmen Herrera Nieto was a talented artist who didn’t gain the recognition she deserved until she was in her 90’s. She can serve as an inspiration for all those who excel at their craft and continue to practice it because it is at the very core of their being.

In the art world there have always been artists like Carmen Herrera, who are so far ahead of their time that it takes too many years or decades for them to be appreciated and lauded.

She was born in Cuba. Her father Antonio Herrera y López de la Torre (1874–1917) fought for the independence of Cuba from Spain and became executive editor of Cuba’s first post-independence newspaper El Mundo. Her mother Carmela Nieto de Herrera (1875–1963) was one of Cuba’s first female journalists, a women’s rights activist, and a philanthropist who was deeply involved in supporting the hospital for lepers at El Rincón, outside Havana, as well as its San Lazaro chapel. She also often cared for the lepers herself.

Her mother Carmen Nieto de Herrera, who was known as “Carmela” in our family, was first-cousin to my paternal grandfather. Her Christmas presents were always among the very best that my brother and I would receive. We could count on her to deliver on Christmas day, for sure. And she was always very generous. But the giant San Lazaro statue at the back of her house always scared the living daylights out of me. (A sculpture, by the way, which was diametrically opposed to the art created by her daughter, the recently-deceased Carmen). I devote all of chapter 12 to that house and its eccentric members –including San Lazaro — in my memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana.

One of her brothers, Addison, worked in Hollywood for a while, vetting movies for anti-Hispanic prejudice, checking for derogatory stereotyping. He returned to Cuba later in life and died there. Not surprisingly, Addison is now loathed by the woke crowd and condemned as a “racist” because he insisted that Latin American characters should NOT be portrayed as dirty, uncouth, uneducated, shabby, or as exclusively swarthy or “negroid.”

Carmen — the artist who died Saturday at age 106 — was known as “Carmencita” in our family. “Carmencita, la artista que se fué a vivir en Niuyor y se casó con un Americano” (the artist who went to live in New York and married an American).

Her death, like that of Aurelio de la Vega on the same day, marks the passing of a generation of Cubans who still had living links to the colonial era, and were themselves children of the new independent republic. Her death and that of Aurelio set Castrogonia further adrift in the pitch-black ocean of time and also further and further away from its own past glory. May she rest in peace, and may she enjoy being reunited with her loved ones in the Great Beyond. And if there is a Cuban neighborhood or ghetto in the Great Beyond, maybe she’ll get to exchange stories with Aurelio.

I had a very weird — and very Cuban– dream on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Up until that night, I had only dreamt about my long-deceased father a single time, over thirty or forty years ago. But he showed up again two days ago, unexpectedly, in some dream that had absolutely nothing to do with him or with the past. He was suddenly there, looking young, as if no time had passed since 1958. In the dream, he was not returning from the realm of the dead, he had simply been “away”…. and in that dream, it seemed perfectly normal that he had simply gone somewhere for several years and was now returning to surprise me. Spooky, yes. But it made sense, within that dream. After all, everyone in my family had, in fact, left Cuba and gone somewhere else, basically disappearing from my life. I left too, and he stayed behind.

It’s part of our Cuban history. Family members disappear all the time. As do we. And sometimes someone just shows up, years later. Or we show up, wherever those relatives happen to be, unexpectedly.

Did this weird and very brief dream reunion have some message to convey? And why did it occur at almost exactly the same time that cousin Carmencita, “la que se fué a vivir en Niuyor”, died? I find this coincidence way too weird to be a mere coincidence. And I’m very happy that my father did not haul Carmencita’s mother’s giant statue of San Lazaro into the dream.

Carmen in the 1950’s (L) and with her six older siblings (R) circa 1918, center, with a huge bow in her hair.

From ARTnews:

Carmen Herrera, a Cuban American artist whose trailblazing hard-edge abstractions received mainstream recognition in the later years of her life, died on Saturday in her New York City apartment at 106. The news was confirmed by Lisson Gallery, which has represented her for a decade.

“Carmen made works that are alive and in constant flux, even when she seemed to have reached an apotheosis or a summit, she kept looking over the edge,” Lisson Gallery CEO Alex Logsdail said in a statement. The gallery will stage a solo exhibition at its New York space in May, to mark what would have been her 107th birthday. That exhibition will be followed by a related solo show to inaugurate Lisson Gallery’s forthcoming Los Angeles space this fall.

Herrera is best known for her dazzling abstractions in which crisp whites and blacks, eye-popping greens and oranges, and electric blues and yellows butt against each other in such a way that can only be described as a creation of pure beauty. She created these works in various patterns: vertical stripes, alternating cubes, askew zigzags, and more. All were defined by their sharp edges. Her most recognizable innovations are often her most minimal ones: a sliver of green on a brilliant white, for example, feels intimate and raw in her hands. She first worked on canvas, then began creating shaped canvases in wood.

Herrera first began making these works in the 1950s, at the height of pure abstraction’s prowess during the postwar era, particularly in New York, where she was long based. That era was dominated by white straight male artists, like Ellsworth Kelly and Barnett Newman, whose own abstractions share affinities with hers. Her work was long under-known during this period—and even for decades later. Still, Herrera persevered, continuing to make art well into her final years.

Continue reading HERE. For the Marti Noticias obituary go HERE. And for the obituary in the ever-fiendish Niuyortain, go HERE

The Washington Post, February 14, 2022


Carmen Herrera, minimalist artist who found fame late in life, dies at 106

“There is nothing I love more than to make a straight line,” said artist Carmen Herrera, shown here circa 1959. (Jesse Loewenthal)

By Emily Langer

Carmen Herrera was 106 when she died on Feb. 12 in the loft in Manhattan where she had worked for more than half a century, creating a lifetime’s worth of abstract art that went almost entirely overlooked until her life was nearly over.

Ms. Herrera, who was born in Cuba in 1915 and trained in Paris in the aftermath of World War II, anticipated the artistic movement known as minimalism with her use of straight lines and geometric shapes. She exhibited her works occasionally over the years but did not sell her first painting until 2004, when a show at the Latin Collector gallery in New York helped propel her to sudden renown.

“How can we have missed these brilliant compositions?” art critic Laura Cumming wrote in the London Observer in 2009, describing Ms. Herrera as “the discovery … of the decade.”

Critics and collectors, once made aware that Ms. Herrera existed, were rapt by the intensity of her work, which she achieved by juxtaposing geometric shapes in contrasting colors — black and white, red and blue, black and yellow and, in her noted sequence “Blanco y Verde,” white and green. Pairing green and white, she once remarked, is “like saying yes and no.”

With her “hard-edged style of pared-down geometric shapes” and “simplified palettes,” she established herself a leading abstract artist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, James Meyer, the curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, said in an interview.

Last month, the National Gallery acquired two works by Ms. Herrera — an untitled painting in green and white, executed in 2013, and an untitled aluminum relief conceived in 1966 and completed in 2016. Her works are also housed at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington and the Tate Modern in London.

Ms. Herrera, Meyer said, “is an example of an artist persisting in her work, unaffected by lack of recognition, a lack of sales, pursuing her vision with great rigor and self-confidence and happily receiving recognition late in life.”

Her death was confirmed by artist Tony Bechara, her friend of decades and legal representative. He did not cite a specific cause.

Carmen Consuelo Marta Herrera y Nieto was born in Havana in 1915 — on May 30, according to her Cuban passport, or on May 31, according to her U.S. one, Bechara said — one of seven children in a progressive and affluent family. Her father, who died when she was 3, was the editor of the Havana newspaper El Mundo. Her mother was a reporter for the publication and a committed feminist.

Ms. Herrera began painting as a girl, went to finishing school in Paris and returned to Cuba to study architecture at the University of Havana. She met a visiting American, Jesse Loewenthal, and returned with him to the United States. They were married in 1939.

The couple lived for a period in Paris, where Ms. Herrera, who had previously painted in a more traditional, representational style, began to explore abstract art in earnest after discovering the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, which cultivated abstract artists.

“That was an eye-opener,” she told the Observer in 2010. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I went to the studio, and I worked and worked and worked and worked. I was angry that I didn’t know about this before.”

In 1954, she and her husband returned to New York, where he worked as a high school English teacher while she devoted herself to her artwork, generating little if any notice.

Ms. Herrera faced obstacles as a woman painting during a time when, Meyer said, “what we call the art world tended to be sexist and tended to diminish women’s accomplishments.”

But also, he noted, “the style of her work … fell somewhat between the cracks.” Ms. Herrera was working in what would become known as the minimalist style in the 1950s, when the abstract expressionism of artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline was ascendant. Ms. Herrera, Meyer said, was “working in a much cooler, cleaner way,” without “manifest brushwork.”

“There is nothing I love more than to make a straight line,” Ms. Herrera told the London Sunday Telegraph in 2010. “How can I explain it? It’s the beginning of all structures, really.”

Asked where a line ends, she replied, “It doesn’t.”

Ms. Herrera recalled her indignation when, by her account, a gallerist in New York told her, “Carmen, you can paint circles around the men artists that I have, but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman.” Ms. Herrera did find, however, that obscurity had its benefits; she was free to pursue her art with no need to satisfy anyone but herself.

“I do it because I have to do it,” she told the Telegraph. “People keep saying, ‘How do you work all those years without any reward, no money, few exhibitions?’ Because it was a vocation. Why would anyone go to a hospital to take care of the lepers if they do not have the vocation of being nuns? It’s the same.”

After she made her first sale at age 89, Ms. Herrera’s work attracted ever greater notice — and fetched ever greater prices, into the tens of thousands of dollars per piece. In 2016 and 2017, she was the subject of an exhibit at the Whitney, “Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight.”

By the end of her life, Ms. Herrera, suffering from severe arthritis, relied on a wheelchair to move about her studio. She had no immediate survivors. She continued to paint, she told the New York Times in 2009, because “only my love of the straight line keeps me going.”

Slipped Disc, February 14, 2022

Americans mourn two doyen composers

By Norman Lebrecht

Aurelio De la Vega

This weekend has seen the deaths in California of William Kraft, 98, and Aurelio De la Vega 96.

Bill Kraft, a Chicagoan, was principal percussion of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 26 years until 1985, when he resigned to become a fulltime composer. He had also been assistant conductor of the orchestra for three years under Zubin Mehta.

He played in the US premieres of Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maitre and Stockhausen’s Zyklus.

The music he wrote is multifarious, colourful and melodic, with several commissions for single instrument and orchestra. He also composed film scores.

De La Vega, from Havana, settled in Los Angeles in 1959, spending his career until 1992 as Director of the Electronic Music Studio and Composer-in-residence at California State University, Northridge. He received two commissions from Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Intrata (1972) and Adiós (1977), the latter a farewell piece for the conductor who was leaving for New York. He was four times nominated for a Latin Grammy.

From the archives

CSUN Today, October 19, 2015

CSUN Screening “Aurelio: Rebel With a Cause” Story of Cuban Classical Musician, Faculty Emeritus

California State University, Northridge’s Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication will screen “Aurelio: Rebel With a Cause” — a documentary that takes a deeper, more complex look at the island’s culture, through the life of faculty emeritus and Cuban classical music composer Aurelio de la Vega.

The screening will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 23, in the Armer Theater, located in Manzanita Hall on the south side of campus at 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. The film will be followed by a Q & A period with de la Vega.

The composer, who taught music at CSUN from 1959 to 1993, said his story as a Cuban classical composer was a gift to share with his students. He said he looks forward to sharing it with the CSUN community.

“I hope there are some new faces and students [at the showing],” he said. “I want to show them that something else happened between the past and current Cuban music. It is not just maracas and drums and moving you know what!”

De la Vega said he is most interested in showing people how Cuban culture is diverse and complex in its art.

“Not only music exists. The culture is related to sociological ideas,” he explained. “All of these cultural constellations come to make a very rich picture of Cuban life. The film is a beautiful work of loving reality.’’