Luchita Hurtado obituary

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Artist described as a ‘hot discovery’ at the age of 97 after a long, creative career conducted largely out of sight

Luchita Hurtado’s first institutional retrospective, I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn, opened at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2019.
Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth/Fredrik Nilsen

In 1969 Luchita Hurtado started her “I Am” series of paintings. Self-portraits of a kind, they offer the artist’s naked body from her own standing viewpoint, radically foreshortened. We see pyramid-like breasts, the hillock of a belly, a mountainous knee – a landscape, smooth and sandy yellow. The inclusion of feet, and hands lighting a cigarette or taking fruit from a bowl, orient them as pictures of a human body.
In the earliest I Am paintings, a shaft of light falls across patterned rugs beneath the artist’s feet. That light cut in through the door of a cupboard that served as Hurtado’s studio. In Chile for a year with her husband, the artist Lee Mullican, and their two children, Hurtado painted these works in private once the family had settled down for the night.
Limited though it was, that time and space was her own, and the paintings marked autonomous territory, even if it extended only to the borders of her own body: “This is a landscape, this is the world, this is all you have, this is your home, this is where you live,” she later explained. “You are what you feel, what you hear, what you know.”
Over the course of a long life, Hurtado, who has died aged 99, knew many artists – among them Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko, Leonora Carrington and Rufino Tamayo – yet spoke seldom of her own production. “I always felt shy of it. I didn’t feel comfortable with people looking at my work.” That cupboard door was totemic of a creative career conducted largely out of sight.

Untitled, 1969, by Luchita Hurtado, part of her ‘I Am’ series of paintings. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Family came first. In 1971, at the first meeting of what became the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists, The painter and printmaker June Wayne reprimanded her for introducing herself as Luchita Mullican. “Luchita What? Luchita What?” Wayne heckled. “Luchita Hurtado!” she proclaimed, at last.
As an artist, Hurtado did not so much step into the light, as find the cupboard door thrown open. In 2015, Ryan Good, the director of Lee Mullican’s estate, discovered an abundance of paintings and drawings in his papers evidently made by someone else. Many were signed “LH”. Good knew Hurtado by her married name, so was astonished, when he asked for help identifying the nameless artist, to learn the work was hers.
Good became Hurtado’s champion. Three years later, following exhibitions at commercial galleries in California, the I Am paintings were included in the Hammer Museum biennial Made in LA. Aged 97, Hurtado was, according to the Los Angeles Times, a “hot discovery”.
She was born in Maiquetía, near Caracas, Venezuela. Her mother, Teolinda (nee Rodriguez), went into labour while swimming in the Caribbean ocean, endowing Luchita, she said, with her oneness with the natural world and elemental forces. In 1923, Teolinda moved to New York to join her two sisters, taking her oldest daughter, Mary, and leaving Luchita and her brother, Peter, with their father, Pedro, and his aunts.

Luchita Hurtado at work in Mexico, 1945. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Hurtado retained intense sensory memories from early years in Caracas: “As a child, I had an extraordinary sense of smell. I remember being in the garden and this very pungent, extraordinary scent. I would follow it and see a butterfly breaking its cocoon.” She recalled, too, the fragrance of lilies in the church, connected in her infant mind with black, like the clothes of women in the congregation.
When Luchita was eight, her mother brought her to New York. She never saw her father again. She experienced snow for the first time, and taught herself English in a bustling matriarchal household in a Latin American neighbourhood of Inwood, Manhattan.
Already, she had skill and a passion for drawing: aged 14 she enrolled in Washington Irving, a girls’ school an hour’s subway ride away in Union Square. There, she studied fine art on the sly while her mother believed she was training as a seamstress. It was an early display of the strong will and fearlessness that would lead her through an adventuresome life.

Untitled 1971 by Luchita Hurtado. Photograph: Jeff McLane/Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Married at 19, in 1938, to the Chilean journalist Daniel del Solar, Hurtado plunged first into political turmoil in the Dominican Republic, and then the creative ferment of New York’s West Village. Her first son, Daniel, was born in 1940. For a while, Hurtado and del Solar lived the bohemian dream. They met the dancer Ailes Gilmour on the street, and thence her half-brother, Noguchi. The Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo stayed with them, and he and Hurtado competed in figuring how to precisely mix colours around them. She accompanied Noguchi to a party in Frida Kahlo’s hospital bedroom, which she likened to Surrealist theatre.
Del Solar left after their second son, Pablo, was born. Hurtado supported herself by providing illustrations for Condé Nast magazines, and window displays for the Lord & Taylor department store. She experimented in her own work, creating otherworldly figures and landscapes in wax crayon and black ink.
Her second husband, the Austrian surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen, whom she married in 1946, introduced her to bohemian circles in Mexico and California. Pablo died of bulbar polio in Mexico City in 1948, aged five, and, heartsick, Hurtado moved the family to Marin County, California. Out of sight of Paalen’s influential post-surrealist Dynaton group Hurtado worked at night, painting stylised figures and landscapes that hovered on the edge of abstraction.
The marriage did not survive the death of Pablo. Paalen moved to Paris, and Hurtado into a romance with Mullican. Their first son, Matthew, was born in 1951. Hurtado moved to Los Angeles, where she showed at the Paul Kantor gallery and flirted with a career in film.
She and Mullican married in 1957, and spent a captivating year in Europe with Matthew, visiting museums and prehistoric sites. John, their second son, was born in 1962. Hurtado’s work from this period suggests passionate physical awareness – bodies composed in saturated pools of ink, and simplified forms coupling and embracing.
After the downward gaze of I Am came Hurtado’s 1970s Sky Skins, looking up through surreal rock formations at the sheltering blue, sometimes patterned with tumbling feathers. Founded in 1971, the LA Council of Women Artists included Vija Celmins, Judy Chicago, Mako Idemitsu and Miriam Schapiro. Her involvement with the group resolved Hurtado to show her work. She composed patterned paintings from shattered and repeated words – Vertigo, Eve, Womb – presented at her first solo exhibition, at the Women’s Building in LA, in 1974.

Luchita Hurtado in Santa Monica, California 1973, photographed by her son Matt Mullican. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Hurtado never stopped drawing and experimenting, but the decades before Mullican’s death in 1998 were consumed by travel – to a summer home in Taos, New Mexico, and further afield, with friends, family and his art. Her work was shown, but only occasionally, and always in groups, always in California.
Then 2019 brought Hurtado’s first institutional retrospective – I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn – which opened at the Serpentine Gallery in London, before travelling to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This exhibition concluded with new paintings that echo the downward view of her I Am series; and show a body in repose and a birth, perhaps of a new world.
Hurtado would say that she had lived many lives. “At my age, my life behind me, are many different people. I’m very different from that child in Latin America, or that woman who found this house, or that person who had her first child,” she said, “In a sense they’re different people, but they all share the same roots and they’re all growing. And that’s what I’m about. I’m still growing.”
She is survived by Matt and John, and by two grandchildren, Cosmo and Lucy. Her son Daniel died in 2012.
• Luchita (Luisa Amelia Garcia Rodríguez) Hurtado, artist, born 28 October 1920; died 13 August 2020





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This post was originally posted on Venezuela | The Guardian – View Original Article

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