Exhibit celebrates art of 101-year-old painter Carmen Herrera

At 101 years old, Carmen Herrera is receiving recognition many believe is long overdue – a solo exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

For seven decades she has flown under the radar in the art world, reports CBS News correspondent Vladimir Duthiers. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t sell her first painting until age 89. Herrera’s critically-acclaimed exhibit at the Whitney defies the straight lines that got her here.

“When I heard that she was going to be given a retrospective at the Whitney, I thought ‘This is perfect poetic justice,’” said Edward Sullivan, art history professor at New York University’s The Institute of Fine Arts.

“A little late but she’s been hiding in plain sight,” he added.

“When I was younger, nobody knew I was a painter, now they’re beginning to know I’m a painter,” Herrera said in “The 100 Years Show,” a documentary directed by Alison Klayman. “I waited a long time. There is a saying, if you wait for the bus, the bus will come. I say, yeah, I wait almost a century for the bus to come and it came,” she added, laughing.

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Carmen Herrera at the Whitney Museum

Matthew Carasella

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, Herrera came to the U.S. with her late husband Jesse Loewenthal in 1939. About a decade later they moved to Paris, and it was there that Herrera found her artistic voice.

“Paris was a … very important, wonderful period of her life, and I think that is probably where she really blossomed,” Whitney curator Dana Miller said.

“She was doing things in the early ‘50s and the late ‘40s which were… way before they really became popular,” fellow artist Tony Bechara said. He has been Herrera’s neighbor for over 35 years.

“If I had learned anything from my friend Carmen, is that whether it’s in daily life or my own painting, I always remember her and keep it simple,” Bechara said.

Simplicity became the focus of her painting and sculpting, as seen in the documentary “The 100 Years Show.”

“Straight lines, I like angles, I like order,” Herrera said in 1994. “In the chaos that we live in, I like to put some order. So that I guess is why I’m a hard-edge painter.”

During the 2015 Whitney Museum inaugural ceremony, first lady Michelle Obama paid tribute to the 75-year career of Herrera.

“Maybe you could discover the next Carmen Herrera or Archibald Motley or Edward Hopper – or yeah, maybe even the next Barack Obama,” Mrs. Obama said. 

“Little girls can come to the Whitney and they can dream about being the next Carmen Herrera. And it just, you know, it really got to me,” Miller said.

This exhibition helped spark great interest from art critics, collectors and inspired a fashion line based on her work.

“By staying loyal to her vision … despite the fact that she was not getting recognition, she sets an example,” Bechara said. “And I think that a lot of positive reaction that she’s getting now at the age of 101 has a lot to do with that.”

The recent fame hasn’t changed Herrera. She still wakes up every morning and draws in the New York studio she’s lived in for 50 years.

“There’s a feeding frenzy. I mean, it’s not like you can just buy a Carmen Herrera painting. At this point now you have to get on a wait list,” Miller said.

“You know for years and years I didn’t sell anything. Then suddenly I began selling. Prices are going up. What?!” Herrera said in “The 100 Years Show.”

“I would call her the star of Manhattan at the moment because she has really burst onto the scene for many people in a very unexpected way,” Sullivan said. “A lot … of audiences who visit the Whitney probably have never heard of her.”

“She says her bus has come, and I think she kind of knew it always would,” Miller said.

Last month, Herrera’s Cerulean painting sold at an auction for $970,000 to a telephone bidder. The “Lines of Sight” exhibit will be at the Whitney Museum until January 9.