On a cloudless afternoon in October, I meet the artist Luchita Hurtado, 98, in her Santa Monica home studio — a sand-coloured three-story building a 20-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean. Inside, her riotously colourful paintings — in which genderless figures transform into trees — animate the walls of her compact 145-square-foot studio, interspersed with dried leaves and a framed rare butterfly. She offers me a bowl of wrinkled red jujubes, then settles into a padded armchair in the middle of her tchotchke-filled living room and regales me with stories. She recounts searching for Olmec colossal heads from a two-seater plane above San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán; camping at the Lascaux Cave in southern France before the site closed permanently to the public in 1963; posing for Man Ray, and forging friendships with Frida Kahlo, Isamu Noguchi and Leonora Carrington.
Last summer, Hurtado’s lush paintings, rich with cosmic motifs and geometric abstractions, captivated visitors of the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2018” show. Exhibited sporadically over the course of her life, and almost exclusively in group shows, Hurtado has recently experienced a rise to fame that has been thrilling to witness — albeit maddening in its lateness. Later this month, Hauser & Wirth will dedicate three floors of its gallery on New York’s Upper East Side to her charged figurative drawings from the ’40s and ’50s; in May, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London will mount a solo exhibition that spans seven decades of her work; and in 2020, the year she turns 100, Hurtado’s first international retrospective will debut at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City and then travel to a series of art institutions in the United States.
The work of the Venezuelan-born artist Luchita Hurtado, 98, will go on show at a pair of solo exhibitions this year and, in 2020, at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City. The latter show, which will open the year she turns 100, will be her first international retrospective. Pictured here, at the warehouse in Los Angeles where she stores much of her work, is a series of 24 oil paintings that Hurtado made in 1975. The radiant compositions were intended to attract moths to their centers. Hurtado often made her own paints and sponge-based brushes, “to get the fastness” in each stroke, she says. While nursing each of her four sons, she sketched plans for future paintings.
Left: In the living room of Hurtado’s home in Santa Monica, abstract paintings by her son Matt Mullican and her long-time friend Leonora Carrington frame a black-and-white portrait of the artist taken by Man Ray in 1948. Right: Hurtado’s coffee table is arranged with organic objects: gargantuan pine cones, a tarantula preserved in lucite, ginkgo leaves, animals’ pelvic bones and a chip of chalk from the white cliffs at Dover.
In her expansive oil paintings, ink-based drawings, fabric collages and patterned garments, Hurtado explores what she sees as the interconnectedness of all beings. Her paintings from the ’70s — sinuous bodies that morph into mountains, bare nipples that juxtapose spiky leaves, bulbous fruits that echo curving belly shapes — represent women as sacred beings, powerful subjects of their own lives. Hurtado also incorporated womb imagery into her work before the feminist art movement made popular the same subject matter in the late ’70s.
Born in the seaside town of Maiquetía, Venezuela, in 1920, Hurtado migrated to New York at age 8. At the then-all-girls high school Washington Irving, she studied fine art and developed a keen interest in anti-fascist political movements. After graduating, she volunteered at the Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa and met her first husband, a Chilean journalist twice her age. When he abandoned her and their infant son, she supported herself by creating imaginative installations for Lord & Taylor and fashion illustrations for Vogue — at night, she created totemic figure drawings with watercolor and crayon.(In 1946, at age 26, she met and married the Austrian-Mexican painter Wolfgang Paalen, moving with her two sons to join him in Mexico City.)
“Luchita has always had this very fluid identity, which makes her art so 21st century,” says the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is organizing her retrospective in London. “We have to contextualize her clearly with the historic avant-garde, because she is a contemporary of Frida Kahlo, she knew Diego Rivera and was married to Wolfgang Paalen, a key figure of surrealism — and she is a key figure of spiritual surrealism, with a connection to pre-Columbian art, but we cannot lock her in that.” Hurtado’s work blurs the lines between micro- and macroscopic worlds; she was at the forefront of not just spiritual surrealism, but also the environmental and feminist art movements. As Obrist puts it, “she navigated a century of different contexts and played an important role in all of those.”
“Life changes you,” says Hurtado, shown here in a photograph taken by her son Matt Mullican in 1973. “I’ve been many persons, but each day, I’m completely different.” During this period, Hurtado and her husband Lee Mullican used the Barker Hangar at the Santa Monica airport as their studio. The following year, the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles hosted her first solo exhibition, including paintings that melded English and Spanish words.
Hurtado possesses the grace of someone who has not spent her life promoting her art, but quietly and diligently producing it — at her kitchen table, in backyards and closets and, at one point, in a stand-alone studio in the Santa Monica Canyon (by 1951, she had relocated to Los Angeles). “I never stopped drawing, looking, living,” she tells me. “It’s all the same thing, all solving your own life.” Yet in the ’70s — when she was producing pioneering fabric collages punctuated with words including “you” and “womb” — she wrote to Noguchi to request professional favors for her third husband, the artist Lee Mullican, but rarely, if ever, did she tell him about her own practice. When asked why she didn’t openly share her paintings with artist friends, she says, “I always felt shy of it. I didn’t feel comfortable with people looking at my work.” She adds, too, that “there was a time when women really didn’t show their work.”
Later in the afternoon, we zip across town to a nondescript brick warehouse in Los Angeles’s West Adams neighborhood — the same building where, nearly four years ago, her studio director, Ryan Good,stumbled on nearly 1,200 works that were undated, many signed with the initials “LH.” While family and close friends were aware that Hurtado painted, her cross-disciplinary practice, distinct visual vernacular and prolific output remained largely unknown. “We didn’t know the extent of it,” says Good, while leafing through a photo album. “I knew that Luchita had made some paintings, but it was a different thing to look at her entire career.” He continues, “we know Isamu Noguchi and Sam Francis have jewelry she made, that Agnes Martin has clothes Luchita made and Gordon Onslow-Ford has some things, but it doesn’t seem like she gave other work away to the prominent artists she knew.”
Jeff McLane. Image courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
In the early ’60s, Hurtado drew enigmatic, muscular figures in vibrant ink washes. This untitled work from 1960 will be exhibited in May at the Serpentine alongside other anatomical drawings.
“I remember my childhood more and more,” Hurtado tells me, tucking a tortoiseshell comb into her hair, which she had cut short herself the day before. She shares memories from Venezuela — hiding under fan-shaped leaves, watching crabs scuttle across the beach, devouring mangoes in a cool stream. Lately, when she wakes, she sees a vision of a pink ceiling floating above her. I imagine the series of paintings she created in 1975 in which bright-white squares are framed by mesmerizing planes of blue, goldenrod and fiery red — intended to draw moths to an illusory light, they give off a sense of ascension and expansion. “I’ve concluded that I’m going somewhere,” she tells me. “It’s not death; it’s a border that we cross. I don’t think I’ll be able to come back and tell you, but if I can, I’ll find a way. If you suddenly see a pink ceiling, that’s me.”
“Luchita Hurtado. Dark Years” is on view from Jan. 31–April 6, 2019, at Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York, hauserwirth.com.
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