Sunday, January 08, 2017

Film Forum Double Bill: Carmen Herrera & Elizabeth Murray

The fine art world has a reputation for being about as receptive to middle-aged women as Hollywood producers. Yet, somehow both Carmen Herrera and Elizabeth Murray made their marks and had their greatest career highlights late in life. In the case of Herrera, it truly was a case perseverance winning out in the end. Their lives and bodies of work are surveyed in Alison Klayman’s half-hour The 100 Years Show (trailer here) and Kristi Zea’s hour-long Everybody Knows . . . Elizabeth Murray (trailer here), which screen together as a double bill opening this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Carmen Herrera is represented by the Lisson Gallery, which also handles the work of Ai Weiwei, the subject of Klayman’s outstanding prior documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Herrera’s work has been collected by MoMA, the Hirschhorn, and the Tate Modern. Her first solo show at the Whitney closes tomorrow. That all sounds quite prestigious, but what makes it truly impressive is it all started to finally happen for Herrera during her late nineties. Although she was very much a part of the Paris art scene in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she was always overlooked in favor of her male colleagues. However, she had one important supporter: her beloved late husband Jesse Loewenthal, who never stopped supporting her artistic ambitions.

Herrera lived long enough to enjoy her belated recognition, notably outlasting Fidel Castro in her native Cuba. Although neither Klayman or Herrera belabor politics in 100 Years, she briefly discusses her family’s early support for the revolution against Battista and their change of heart when her brother was arrested by Castro’s secret police. She really has led an epic life, so it is nice to see the final chapters provide some pay-off.

In contrast, the narrative that unfolds in Zea’s Everybody Knows is more conventional. Murray initially struggled to gain traction in the male-dominated gallery world, but when Paula Cooper started showing her, it gave Murray a level of prominence and stability that allowed her to be a full-time professional artist. To her credit, Murray also seems to have been a reasonable conscientious parent during that time as well. Nonetheless, honors like Murray’s solo MoMA retrospective came late in life—really, just in the nick of time.

Everybody Knows is a perfectly respectable film that makes a credible case for Murray’s place in the critical canon. However, 100 Years is the more dramatic, preconception-upending film. Herrera’s persistence and late-life productivity is quite amazing. One is tempted to compare her to Portuguese centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, but Oliveira’s career really caught fire during the 1970s (when he was in his 60s) and he just maintained the momentum over the next four decades. Recommended for admirers of abstract art, The 100 Years Show and Everybody Knows . . . Elizabeth Murray open together this Wednesday (1/11) at Film Forum.