Collected by major museums worldwide—including MoMA, the Walker, and the Whitney, which opens an exhibition of her early paintings next month—Carmen Herrera is the subject of Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The 100 Years Show. But such acclaim wasn’t quick in coming: it was nearly seven decades into her career when the Havana-born, New York–based painter, then 89 years old, sold her first painting. Klayman, best known for her acclaimed 2012 documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, says the film emerged from her interest in both Herrera’s signature minimalist style and in “how she stayed committed to her artistic practice without external validation or acclaim for so many decades.”
Filmed in the two years prior to Herrera’s 100th birthday in 2015, the film features an interview with Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director and a friend of the artist, as well as footage of a Herrera sculpture in the center’s permanent collection. In advance of the Walker’s September 8 screening of The 100 Years Show, Viso connected with Klayman to discuss the film’s aim of capturing “Carmen Herrera right now, looking back at 100 years of life and art.”
How did you first get interested in telling Carmen Herrera’s story?
I met Carmen for the first time and began filming her in the fall of 2013, when she was 98 years old. I was introduced to her through some folks at her gallery, who also work with Ai Weiwei. Even though you might not think of documentary film as having a “casting process,” it’s actually so crucial. Meeting Carmen left me convinced that it would be an enriching experience to make this documentary, and that she was compelling enough to “star” in a film.
What compelled you to make the film following the success of your previous documentary about Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei? Are there any parallels to observe between these two artists as subjects?
In my mind it made sense to go from Ai Weiwei to Carmen Herrera because I wanted to take on new and different storytelling challenges, and also to focus on a woman artist next. Carmen Herrera’s story stood in contrast to Ai Weiwei in many ways. She found her breakthrough style before Ai Weiwei was even born and was creating art in this vein for decades outside of the public eye. She was never seeking to make a political statement and in the present doesn’t leave her house. What inspired her minimalist style, and how she stayed committed to her artistic practice without external validation or acclaim for so many decades, were questions I wanted to explore because I found them personally very challenging. (I still do.)
But I think there are parallels between their stories as well. Both artists were impacted greatly by periods of artistic development while traveling abroad from their home countries. Both clearly rejected the validity of one-party Communist rule. Both were inspired by New York, yet continue to express something unique about their Chinese or Cuban identity in their work. Both also have an excellent sense of humor and like to joke around a lot.
To make the Ai Weiwei documentary, you followed Weiwei for several years in advance of his controversial arrest and detainment by Chinese authorities. You similarly followed Carmen during the course of a year and a half leading up to her milestone 100th birthday. Yet in Carmen’s case, the film revolves fully around one location—the artist’s New York apartment/studio. Did the reality of the single set shape the structure of the film or your approach to the story?
It seemed achievable to give a strong sense of place for The 100 Years Show, not just in tracking Carmen’s biography through Cuba, then Paris and finally New York City, but specifically grounding it in that studio/apartment where she has lived since the late 1950s. Truthfully, I was nervous about it at first, and it was part of the reason I didn’t put pressure on the project to be a feature-length documentary. I wanted it to be as long as it felt it should be in the edit, even though distributing short documentaries I learned is much harder than feature-length ones. It was liberating to have this approach, though, and I think it served the film well. In the edit, my editor and I found it moved really nicely at a 30-minute running time without ever becoming too claustrophobic for the viewer. Carmen does not chafe or feel confined by her situation. She loves being in her home right now, day in and day out. So it is fitting that the film is rooted but never feels stuck.
Music is an important element in the film. You employ it to mark critical evolutions in Carmen’s life and artistic practice, as well as emphasize the interplay of her Cuban heritage with her American and European experiences. Would you discuss the musical choices you made and their orchestration if relevant?
I love this question, and I’m so glad the music felt notable while watching the film. From the beginning, my plan for the score was to work with two composers: Ilan Isakov, who scored Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and Edgar Gonzalez, a Cuban hip-hop artist and music producer. I thought the music for the film needed to demonstrate a mixture of Latin and classical influences—like a Cuban Woody Allen film soundtrack. I wanted the most Cuban-influenced tracks to come at exuberant moments, so the percussion could really drive those cues. By employing cumbia rhythm, tres guitar, heavy percussion, and other instrumentation choices, I think Edgar achieved a really energetic yet elegant sound. He did the recording and mixing in Havana. Ilan’s cues, recorded with musicians in Philadelphia, were influenced by Latin rhythms but also had a strong classical, sometimes jazzy feel. I kept an eye and ear out for the score’s overall cohesion and chose a few licensed tracks including the 1931 “Cuban Love Song” by Ruth Etting to round out the sound, and I think the music really serves the story.
It’s a funny story how I met Edgar—another example of how one project leads you to your next one. I worked with the NGO Roots of Hope to make Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry available with Spanish subtitles in Cuba via underground USB distribution. They introduced me to Edgar and his friend Yrak in Miami a few years ago, and Edgar told me how Never Sorry was popular among the artistic and musical communities in Havana. We connected and always hoped to collaborate on something together.
I think you beautifully captured the sharp edge of Carmen’s wit—as well as her deep optimism. Was this a priority?
100%. She is funny and optimistic, so it was a priority for me that the film embodies those attributes as well.
What other principles were important to you in approaching Carmen as a subject? Or in conveying her personality and spirit?
I spent so many mornings with Carmen and my camera, all in an effort to let her words and her daily routine populate the film. After a while I widened the focus by interviewing curators (including you), gallerists, and longtime friends who could help put her work in context. Like in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, I think the audience’s connection to the personal is enhanced through greater understanding of the wider historical context.
At 101, Carmen’s long life provides such rich threads of content to develop. You could have spent 30 minutes alone examining the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and its impact on Carmen’s life, or explored the exclusion of women in the art world in the 1950s and ’60s, but you address these topics quickly and succinctly without belaboring these subjects. Is this purposeful? Why only make a 30-minute film?
This isn’t a film about the Cuban Revolution or women’s role in the art world. It’s a film about Carmen Herrera right now, looking back at 100 years of life and art. I wanted it to be engaging, emotional, and enlightening for audiences, bringing them along every minute.
Carmen’s late husband Jesse Loewenthal, who was a passionate champion of her work, features prominently in The 100 Years Show. Was this a difficult balance to strike in a film that asserts Carmen’s individuality and a more of a revisionist feminist viewpoint?
I thought about this often, but ultimately never saw a real contradiction in portraying Carmen as a strong artist while also depicting her love story with Jesse and acknowledging his support of her work. Artists of all ages and levels of fame struggle to build and sustain their careers, and narratives that emphasize individual genius alone don’t tell the full story. In reality, everyone has to find a way to pay for food and shelter and needs sources of emotional support and inspiration—whether their work hangs in museums or they create in obscurity.
What is next on the horizon for you? Are you continuing to focus your documentary work on artist subjects?
My plate is very full at the moment. I am in production on several documentary projects, including a feature called Empty Orchestra about the invention of karaoke in Japan. I’m also developing a few scripted projects, a film and a series. None of these are artist stories, but I know I will always return to this subject. It is a precious opportunity to examine an artist’s practice and life story and find meaning in it that informs my own work.