Luchita Hurtado: Times of London obituary

An obituary from The Times of London.

Venezuelan artist who was hailed as a ‘hot discovery’ at the age of 97 for her colourful depictions of nature and the female body

Success when it came for Luchita Hurtado was instant, but she had to wait nearly a century for it. So it was that at the age of 97, the Venezuelan painter was touted as the next big thing in the art world.

A strong but gentle spirit, Hurtado was pleased, but not overwhelmed, by the acclaim, which included her being listed as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine last year.

Decades of obscurity had not been without its fun. In Mexico she had partied with Frida Kahlo and hung out with Leonora Carrington, who built her children a playhouse. She had her feet massaged by the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp and held paintmixing competitions with the painter Rufino Tamayo. She was the muse of the American artist Lee Mullican before becoming his wife and the mother of their two children.

As the trope goes, two artists in one domestic setting is a hard equation to square. However, Hurtado eked out a space for creativity in her busy life. After her children had gone to sleep, she would paint on the kitchen table into the small hours.

The contours of her body were her world, turning the female form into a surrealist landscape. A typical painting of her body from a vertical viewpoint features a protruding breast, knee and toes in bright yellow against a blue floor. The effect is akin to sculptural sand dunes underneath an azure sky.

She would add other objects to the composition, such as the patterned surface of the Navajo rug that she was standing on or pieces of fruit. “You’ll notice there are no shadows,” she said of these paintings she started in the late Sixties under the theme “I Am”. “Everything is floating. We are all individuals but we are all related, living in this great garden that is the world. That’s why there are no shadows.”

She was discovered by accident. In 2015 Ryan Good, director of Lee Mullican’s estate, was working through a stack of his paintings and picked out a series of works marked LH. With no notion that it might be the wife of the artist whom he knew as Luchita Mullican, he asked her who she thought LH might be. Luchita smiled: “It’s me”.

“I didn’t know where this work was so it was a great surprise to me that it came out,” Hurtado told Art News. Gallery owners initially treated Hurtado’s works with circumspection, but slowly the buzz grew. The Los Angeles Times described her as “a hot discovery” and she was featured in the Made in LA exhibition at the Hammer Museum in 2018, a showcase of 32 of the hippest artists in the city. A bemused visitor contacted the gallery to say that there was a mistake in the text under Hurtado’s paintings because she could not possibly have been born in 1920.

The following year the radiantly smiling 98-year-old made a triumphant entrance to the Serpentine Gallery in London, with the aid of a walking frame, to open the first significant solo retrospective of her work, I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn.

The purring appreciation of the British art world rebounded to Los Angeles, where an ecstatically received show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art followed, six months before her death. Hurtado was fêted by LA’s #MeToo generation as a female artist curating the representation of her body in an entirely different paradigm than a heterosexual male might view it.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, who curated the Serpentine exhibition, said: “Her vision of the human body as part of the world, not separate from nature, is more urgent today than ever.”

Hurtado lived and worked in California for more than 70 yearss

Hurtado lived and worked in California for more than 70 yearss

Luisa Amelia Garcia Rodríguez was born in the city of Maiquetia in Venezuela in 1920. Her mother Teolinda, a seamstress, went into labour while swimming in the Caribbean Sea. Luchita would attribute her affinity with nature to the circumstances of her birth. She had a sunny disposition that never left her. “I was told by an aunt, ‘If you ended up in jail, you’d have a great time, too,’ ” she laughed. “I never tried it, though.” Wilful from an early age, she dispensed with her surname because she considered it too common and took her grandmother’s name Hurtado.

Her first artworks were based on the patterns of a butterfly that she caught and pinned to the wall. She continued to feel impelled to make art after emigrating to New York City with her mother. Her father, Pedro, remained behind; she never saw him again. The family settled in a largely Latino district in uptown Manhattan. At 15 Luchita enrolled to study fine art at Washington Irvine High School. “I never told my mother that I was taking art,” she recalled. “She thought I was taking dress-making. I loved to sew, but I thought that was a waste of time. She only knew when I graduated and she was very distressed.”

At the college she met Daniel del Solar, a Chilean journalist who worked for Time and was more than twice her age. They married when she was 18 and had two children, Daniel, who died in 2012, and Pablo, who died of polio aged four. She described Del Solar as an “extraordinary spirit” but they divorced in 1942 after he left her for another woman. She took this turn of events philosophically: she had at least gained an entrée to a rarefied world of artists in the “village”, such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Marc Chagall.

She recalled one excursion to a gallery with Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American sculptor. “It was an important gallery at the time — and it was having a sculpture show that wasn’t all that great. I remember Isamu taking off his hat and putting it over one of the pieces, and saying to the gallerist, ‘Why don’t you give a real sculptor a chance?’ ”

While working as an illustrator for Condé Nast and as a muralist for the department store Lord & Taylor she met Wolfgang Paalen, the Austrian painter who was obsessed with the imagery of Aztec and other pre-Columbian mysticism. He immediately invited her to Mexico to look at newly discovered Olmec heads at La Venta. “That was my first date with Paalen. We married a week after we met. It was very impulsive.”

Hurtado was sucked into a bohemian whirl of surrealist artists; none was more free-spirited than Carrington, the British-Mexican whom Hurtado recalled would be devotedly followed around by her patron, Edward James, the poet who claimed to be the illegitimate son of King Edward VII and always wore rouge. “She [Carrington] would say, ‘My spirit went above my body and I could see myself lying in bed.’ I mean, she’d say these weird things that sounded like they came straight out of one of her paintings, except it would be her normal life.”

A 1971 painting from Hurtado’s “I Am” series of self-portraits

A 1971 painting from Hurtado’s “I Am” series of self-portraits

Mexico offered Hurtado surrealist landscapes, tribal figures and reliefs along with cave paintings. Using graphite, watercolour, ink and acrylic, she created fiercely primal works in a geometric style.

“She was multicultural before the term multicultural became fashionable,” Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times art critic, said. A brilliant colourist, she would even give in to the idea of using pink, a colour she hated because she had been forced to wear it in church as a child.

The couple moved to California in 1949, but she separated from Paalen in 1950 because of his unwillingness to have a child with her. Hurtado took up with Mullican, who like Paalen was a member of the Dynaton movement of artists and writers inspired by ancient philosophies and mysticism. He would become her third husband. They moved to Los Angeles in 1951, but would make artistic forays to the desert in New Mexico. He predeceased her in 1998. She is survived by their two children: Matt, an artist, and John, a film director. She encouraged her children to draw on the walls of the family home in between the pre-Columbian artefacts that hung on them. “Then I would trace them and keep the drawings. When Matt grew up, I gave him all his drawings.” She also delighted in “stealing” her grandchildren’s drawings.

She admitted that she never talked to her husband about art and did not display her work at home. She compared making art to “brushing my teeth” and called it a diary of her life.

Hurtado had an awakening of sorts in 1970, when she joined the CalArts Feminist Art Program and started sharing her work. However, she distanced herself from the group when they began a project involving female artists drawing each other’s private parts, which she felt was demeaning and “the wrong approach to art”.

She continued to work until her death. Her final paintings recreated the birth of her four sons. “In my dreams my children are small again and I’m reliving the past,” she said.

Hurtado still felt connected to the butterfly whose life had been sacrificed for her art. “It was so beautiful and now I consider it a great sin to have done that. I’m still saying sorry to that butterfly all these years later and I hope it hears me.”

Luchita Hurtado, artist, was born on November 28, 1920. She died of natural causes on August 13, 2020, aged 99

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