A string of solo exhibitions will shine new light on the work of the Venezuelan-born artist Luchita Hurtado.
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.”
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.”
In preparation for her upcoming shows, Hurtado’s studio registrar, Cole Root, has been sifting through photographs — self-portraits, family travel shots, abstract shadow studies — looking for clues about paintings that might have been sold or given to friends. “When I started there was no archive whatsoever,” says Root. “We’ve gone from a casual pace to moving at the speed of light.”
Part of the challenge in organizing Hurtado's archive is that she moved frequently throughout her life — early works from New York City and Mexico City, for instance, are mostly lost — and she doesn’t remember many of the pieces herself. “Some things survived, some things didn’t,” says Hurtado, “I’ve gotten use to loss.” Also, few of her works have ever been publicly exhibited. “Women artists have not had the visibility they should have and we need to protest, systematically, against forgetting — through books and exhibitions,” Obrist says. The exhibition at the Serpentine will be animated by what he calls “decisive moments or epiphanies” throughout Hurtado’s life.
“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 wecross. 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.
Anna Furman is a freelance journalist who writes about art, culture and travel.