I recently fell in love with an artist without ever seeing her work.
While listening to NPR on a Saturday morning back in early July, I heard Scott Simon say, “…innovative abstract paintings…”
“ …didn’t make her first sale until she was 89…”
Then came a soft, slightly cracked, frail — yet not so frail — voice with a Latin accent: “Not bad,” she laughed, “Not bad at all,” as Carmen Herrera surveyed her work on display at the Lisson Gallery in Manhattan.
I thought: Who is this woman?
I’ve since learned that Carmen Herrera is a Cuban-American minimalist with a quiet, compelling power. Her work, and the work of other abstract artists from the mid-20th century, had — and continues to have — a tremendous impact on graphic design.
Herrera has been painting since the late 1930s. She’s hung work next to art legends like Piet Mondrian. Her work has its roots in the modern, abstract art of the late 1940s and ’50s, yet in a timeless way that doesn’t look dated or anachronistic. Despite her long history, she’s only started getting commercial recognition in the past decade and a half.
At first glance her pieces look deceptively simple. Her work features big canvasses (and some sculpture) with strong geometric shapes. She typically uses just two bold colors. What seem at first like limitations, set the stage for something more profound. If you simply glance at one and walk on you may not notice anything remarkable — though you might recall it later without knowing exactly why. Look closer, and something disarming happens. Each piece has a unique way of drawing you in and taking you on a kind of journey.
The shapes interact with each other creating movement, tension and drama. Your mind keeps flipping positive and negative space, changing the direction or degree of movement as the piece draws you in deeper, down into a rabbit hole of fracture, union, collision, drift.
Stick with me…
In a recent post I talked about the power of contrast, and Herrera is a master. Sometimes she uses combinations that might have come off the page of an art textbook: color plus white…color plus black…black and white. Sometimes she’s more subtle. Red and blue. Blue and Orange. Contrast of hot and cold, but using shades with similar values that vibrate against each other, creating a tension amplified by the piercing geometry.
The work of Herrera and artists like her opened up new possibilities for designers. They showed us new ways to play with visual elements — to tilt, to twist, to play with motion, to use type and photos in unconventional ways.
Since Herrera’s work is fine art, she doesn’t need you to look at it in any particular way. But a graphic designer can gain valuable insights by paying attention to how the eye and the brain move around in her pieces. By observing the movement and tension in this abstract art, a good designer can craft his or her own elements to direct attention and reinforce messages more effectively.