Santa Monica, California
Summary of Luchita Hurtado
Luchita Hurtado stands as an advocate for living by intuition and allowing life to happen rather than trying to control it at every juncture. As such, when asked if recognition came too late having her first major retrospective at age 98, she replied that no, it came just at the right moment. Prior to widespread international visibility, Hurtado navigated three marriages and raised four sons alongside working tirelessly as a creative freelancer as well as an artist to support her family. She also moved in the same professional and friendship circles as some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. However, she did not show her paintings to anyone outside of her family until she became a member of "Los Angeles Council of Women Artists" well into middle age.
She had some exhibitions following the encouragement of this new network during the 1970s and 80s, but remained shy of the attention that came with being an artist. Recently discovered and reclaimed by art history, true to character and the essence of her long career, Hurtado continues to speak only sparsely about her reasons to paint fruit, feathers, and her memorable "I AM" portraits. She accepts "feelings" (all too often quashed or relegated by intellect) and furthermore, gives emotion power and legitimacy. In turn, she requests that the viewer also allows fluidity and mystery to prevail when looking at her pictures.
- A deep and penetrating sense of interconnectivity between Hurtado and the surrounding natural world lies at the heart of her practice. Indeed, it is her instance that everything is part of one inter-dependent whole that has over the years led to mounting environmental concern. She now writes protest slogans on her paintings such as "no place to hide", and endeavors to help sustain this planet.
- Hurtado is spectacularly and unapologetically driven by her senses. She speaks of her highly sensitive sense of smell and remembers her very first taste of mango and grapes experienced as a child. In the same way that the artist has attempted to accurately depict the illusive forces of fire and light, she also effectively makes visible the otherwise invisible memories of the senses in her work. Fruit is a helpful symbol in the artist's enticing sensual language.
- Hurtado was a central figure in the art world of New York in the latter half of the twentieth century. She was associated with many significant figures including Isamu Noguchi, Wolfgang Paalen, and Lee Mullican, but typically as a humble friend or an equal lover. She became a key figure in the "Los Angeles Council of Women Artists" alongside Judy Chicago but she refused an invitation to join the Guerrilla Girls, as even the name of the organization sounded too harsh to her. Hurtado has never needed nor wanted to force herself anywhere, her practice like her personality is un-invasive.
- Indeed the career of Hurtado sits well alongside the swathe of female artists - including Hilma af Klint - recently discovered and celebrated in part because they did not seek or push for recognition nor did they dedicate time to self-promotion. There is instead an acceptance and trust that the time for their art (and its appreciation) would come. This worldview aligns more harmoniously with nature, and like the slow growth of a tree Hurtado has enjoyed a quieter and longer journey towards "success".
- Stylistically, Hurtado's "Sky Skin" paintings recall the dreamy sky-scapes with unusually placed objects by René Magritte. Her abstracted and mesmerizing word pieces have much in common with the meditative visual poetry of Agnes Martin. Whilst, the aging artist's repeated drawings of birth recall similar crowning pictures by Louise Bourgeois. Bourgeois like Hurtado made birth paintings during her 90th decade and for both artists these series are revelatory of a profound respect for the birth to death cycle.
Progression of Art
This drawing shows a lit gas stove burner, as seen from directly above. The metal components are rendered in grey graphite pencil, with only the small central ring of flames in blue. Although the drawing has the appearance of being hastily sketched, due to the imprecise and uneven pencil strokes, the artist has also made an effort to shade the metal trivet on the right-hand side, to give it a more three-dimensional and curved appearance.
This drawing, executed by Hurtado at the age of just eighteen, is deceptively simple. In fact, looking back at this early work, we see the introduction of several central themes and interests that would go on to characterize the artist's oeuvre over the next eighty years. Firstly, the bird's-eye view perspective would go on to become a signature style for Hurtado. In later years she returned to this vantage point repeatedly and most notably in her "I am" paintings of the late 1960s and 1970s (in which she painted her own body and closet floor).
Secondly, the early drawing, shows that the artist is interested in her own distinctly personal experience, and more specifically in a domestic and female experience. Here we see a section of Hurtado's oven, the appliance that she was constantly using to prepare food for her children. In many interviews, Hurtado has remarked upon the challenges she faced in juggling her role as a wife and mother along with her role as an artist, and we see in this drawing, as well as in her "I am paintings", references to the dual aspects of her identity (domestic responsibility and artistic aspirations).
Thirdly, this drawing represents an early attempt at capturing light (the blue ring of flame) on paper, through the use of color. Hurtado recalls, "I was really interested in fire. I remember being very intrigued, and loving those gas stoves, the old black ones, you know, with the ring of fire? I did a whole series of paintings of them." She would return to the challenge of painting fire in her "I am" paintings when depicting the flames of matches held in her hands. Also, later in the 1970s she attempted to depict pure light, most notably in her colorful Moth Lights series. Here she attempted to "paint light" on canvas so convincingly that it might attract moths.
Graphite and coloured pencil on paper
This painting, which is Hurtado's first known work on canvas, depicts two tan-colored deer (represented as mere silhouettes) standing by a shimmering silver lake that occupies the bottom-right corner of the image. One deer is standing in profile, while the other, facing the viewer head-on, is bent downward with its front legs spread wide, drinking from the lake. The dark background contains the silhouette of reddish-black peaks, which appear to be desert sand dunes, under a black and turquoise night sky. Half of a white circle, presumably the moon, peeks out from behind the central peak of the landscape and mirrors the curvature and shimmer of the lake. Culture writer Tess Thackara asserts that this "soulful" work points toward Hurtado's connection with the Mexican Surrealists. The mystical image also references prehistoric cave paintings, like those discovered at Lascaux and Altamira, where Hurtado would later go camping in the late 1950s with her third husband Lee Mullican and their children. However, she painted this work in 1942, before having visited the caves. The composition was a sort of experiment for the artist, who thought that animals look quite funny when stooping down to drink. As is typical for Hurtado, there is often a very simple starting point for her work and always an appreciation staying lighthearted and keeping oneself amused. Later, looking back at the work, she felt so proud of the composition that she decided to recreate it in 1981.
Oil on canvas
This work is comprised of abstract geometric lines and shapes, using only five colors in flat, monochromatic sections: black, white, red, orange, and pink. A sense of texture is created by the way the ink puddles around the wax crayon.
Many of Hurtado's works from the 1940s through the early 1960s experimented with geometric abstraction in this way, and utilized bright colors. This particular piece, executed while she was living in Mexico, includes a fair amount of pink. Hurtado explains that she has generally avoided using pink in her art, as it reminds her of being forced to wear pink dresses in church when she was young, however she experimented with using the color while living in Mexico.
The influence of Dynaton artists (most notably, Hurtado's husband at the time, Wolfgang Paalen, and his friend Lee Mullican, who would soon become Hurtado's third husband) is apparent in Hurtado's works of this period. Much like in this work by Hurtado, Dynaton artists frequently produced boldly colored abstract patterns that appear to be woven together.
Hurtado recalls that she made a great deal of these crayon and ink pieces. It was a vast series that was all completed late at night once her children were sleeping, and as such the materials and scale (much smaller than her paintings on canvas) lend themselves to a slightly restricted practice. In this respect we are reminded of the career and words of Nancy Spero, who also worked late at night whilst her sons were sleeping. Spero produced very dark paintings during this time, and Hurtado's are angular. There is the sense that the combination of being a parent of young dependent children and being an artist brings struggle through which one must persevere to emerge stronger.
Wax, crayon, ink, and watercolor on board
At the bottom of this painting is a large yellow form, shaded to give the impression of softly rounded peaks, appearing like a desert landscape made up of sandy dunes. However, the addition of human toes peeking out beyond the form, and two partial human hands at the edges of the frame, reveal that we are in fact looking at a woman's radically foreshortened nude body as she would see it herself were she looking down at the floor. (In fact, many other paintings by Hurtado represent the foreshortened female form in exactly the same manner, placing it beneath an open sky, further blending the connection between body and landscape). Beyond (or rather, below) the human form in this painting is a red, black, and blue Navajo patterned carpet. In the centre of the rug sits a circular handcrafted object, a placemat.
This work is from Hurtado's series of "Yo soy" ("I am" in Spanish) paintings. In these works, Hurtado aligns the viewer's gaze with her own, and juxtaposes the soft lines of the body with the strong, hard lines of the geometric pattern on the rug. In many of these "I am" paintings, Hurtado includes objects from her own home, such as the placemat in this image, or children's toys in others. As well, in this painting, a thin beam of light falls across the floor. In fact, Hurtado painted these works in the small closet she used as a studio in her home in Chile, and the beam of light here comes from the slightly ajar door of the enclosed space. Art critic Skye Sherwin argues that this is "an extreme example of Virginia Woolf's 'a room of one's own', the space so often denied to female artists.
Around the time that she was creating these "I am" paintings, Hurtado was becoming involved in the women's liberation movement in Los Angeles, and connecting with like-minded female/feminist artists, like Judy Chicago, Joyce Kozloff, Vija Celmins, Mako Idemitsu, Alexis Smith, and Miriam Schapiro. A significant project undertaken by many of these feminist artists was that of challenging and subverting the male gaze. Curator Dextra Frankel writes that Hurtado "looks down and sees herself in a way men never see women." Likewise, Curator Anne Ellegood notes that "When you think of [Hurtado's 'I am' paintings] as works from the 1970s, you can imagine how meaningful they were at that time in terms of female artists taking back the ability to represent their own bodies and shifting the so-called male gaze," yet Ellegood also remarks that the works remain "fresh" and "in the moment".
Moreover, Hurtado considers these works to be an "affirmation of self". As curator Hans Ulrich Obrist explains, "Women artists have not had the visibility they should have and we need to protest, systematically, against forgetting - through books and exhibitions," and thus women/feminist artists active in the 1970s, like Hurtado, worked hard to assert their own presence and power. Perhaps though it is also important to remember that Hurtado's "affirmation of self" here is more basic. Art becomes a means for survival in as far as to acknowledge the existence of one's own individuality whilst nurturing and giving out so much energy to family. When entwined with children and a lover, it is easy to start experiencing identity only as a shared concept, whist these paintings regain ownership and assert that "I am" is still one, whole person.
Oil on canvas
This work, another from Hurtado's "I Am" series, shows a foreshortened nude, yellow, female body from the subject's perspective, whereby she looks downward toward the floor. In this particular work, the figure is holding a red strawberry close to her body with her left hand, and her right arm is outstretched, with the hand holding another strawberry, that appears to have been just picked up from a small plate in front of her, upon which sit more berries. As in her other "I am" paintings, Hurtado's predominantly red Navajo rug, with black, yellow, and purple geometric pattern, creates the background for this scene depicted with a bird's-eye perspective.
However, unlike the previous example, this particular work demonstrates Hurtado's experimentation with materials (being painted on paper instead of canvas) and style (here, being rendered much more loosely). A number of other works from Hurtado's "I Am" painting series also use this looser style, such as one painting that includes cherries instead of strawberries.
Although the objects included in each "I Am" painting vary, each carries a particular significance. For instance, the fruit (apples, pears, and berries) that Hurtado included in other "I Am" paintings, as well as other works throughout her lifetime, allude to fertility and sexuality. For Hurtado, the multiple connotations connected to fruit verge on tongue-in-cheek humor, as fruit (particularly apples) are common symbols in Catholicism, yet at the same time much fruit (particularly pears) elicit ideas of sexuality, and the sensuous curves of a woman's body.
Indeed, another important project of many feminist artists in the 1970s was that of reclaiming their sexuality. Hurtado explains, "I've always been a very sexy person, and I've accepted sex as part of life. The Catholic Church has made it a dark thing, as a way of controlling people. They've made it into something soiled." New York Times arts writer Anna Furman writes that Hurtado "incorporated womb imagery into her work before the feminist art movement made popular the same subject matter in the late '70s."
In a number of other "I Am" paintings, executed in the looser style shown here, Hurtado depicts the subject holding a cigarette in the left hand, and a lit match in the right. Hurtado recalls that people at that time "didn't know smoking was unhealthy". She says, "I started when I was living in New York and working, looking after two children and so much freelance work to do, and so I went to a pharmacy and said, 'I want to have something that will help me stay awake.' And the man was very upset with me. He said, 'You New Yorkers just want to work all day and play all night. No, I'm not giving you anything. 'Then a friend of mine said, 'Don't be silly. All you have to do is smoke cigarettes to stay awake.' And so I did, and it worked." Cigarettes at the time were marketed to female consumers as "torches of freedom", and promoted smoking as a way for women to challenge taboos and express their newfound strength.
Oil on paper
Untitled (Moth Lights)
This work consists of twenty-four rectangular panels (which Hurtado refers to as "light portal paintings"), arranged into a grid, each of which features a central pristine white rectangle (of varying dimensions and sizes) surrounded by washes of varying bright colors.
Hurtado explains that, with these panels, she was attempting to "paint light" so successfully that it would attract moths. These works were created around the same time as James Turrell was creating his "Skyspaces", architectural features comprised of chambers with a rectangular opening in the centre of the ceiling, revealing the sky. The similarity between the two series is striking.
The result here for Hurtado's is very ethereal and draws attention to the importance for the artist of trying to make visible that which we cannot touch. She has a longstanding interest in the depiction of fire, and furthermore, tries to encapsulate memory and feelings. Ultimately, Hurtado insightfully recognizes that what is worth preserving in this life cannot actually be held onto. She attempts to show traces of small joy, and to paint moments that people experience when they inexplicably, but most certainly, feel the force of life.
Oil on 24 canvas and canvasette panels
The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon
In this painting, which is stylistically reminiscent of Magritte, the viewer appears to be looking up toward a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, which is framed on three sides (left, top, and right) by rock faces. In the lower central portion of the work, a small white circle shines brightly (the title tells us that this is the moon). Seven grey feathers float against the sky, three in a triangular formation in the top half of the image, and four surrounding the moon in the bottom half of the work.
Arts writer Louis Wise writes, "Hurtado's dreamy, colourful canvases tend to resist definition. Whether you call them surrealist or magical realist or even tribal, they reflect her deep concern with nature and the indigenous cultures she has encountered in a life that has been action-packed." Art writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer explains that Hurtado "refers to this body of works as 'Sky Skins' because many present an opening onto the sky that extends to the four corners of the picture plane, surrounded on all sides - but not continuously - by land. The central shape resembles a calf skin or animal hide pulled taut like a sail or screen, laid flat on the floor like a rug, or strung up overhead from posts like a canopy, a Surrealist trompe l'oeil shade structure. Seeing the sky as a stretched skin entails a perceptual flip that inverts positive and negative space. Performing that subtle but enormous spatial shift exercises the slack eye-brain connection, training us to better interrogate received forms and assumed relationships between things." She continues, asserting that "Fusing body and environment, self and cosmos through that figure-ground transposition, the 'Sky Skins' tip us off to Hurtado's passionate environmentalism which has become increasingly central and explicit in her art of recent years as her concern, and ours, grows ever more urgent."
Feathers featured frequently in Hurtado's works from this period. She has explained, "The feather for me has always been a very mysterious symbol [...] It's almost a religious element." She became very interested in the image of the feather after witnessing an indigenous ritual in which feathers (seen as a symbol of good luck) were placed over a bonfire and left to float in the air. Feathers also bring up fond personal memories for Hurtado, who recalls one day when she was with her son Matt near the Museum of Natural history. The pair found several feathers on the ground, began collecting them, and wore the feathers in their hair. She says "we really enjoyed that time in our life". And once again this anecdote reminds the viewer that Hurtado's work comes first and foremost from an intuitive perspective. She is living her life and allowing art to be made of her experiences, rather than forcing any sort of rigid or didactic message.
Oil on canvas
This painting features the words AIR, WATER, EARTH, and FIRE painted in large capital letters, one above the other, filling the entire frame. AIR and WATER are painted in white, and EARTH and FIRE in orange-red. The word AIR sits against a sky-blue background, while the other three words are painted against a solid, bright, grass-green background.
Later in life, Hurtado has become increasingly concerned with environmental issues, and has taken to using her art as a way to highlight the environmental crisis that the global community is currently facing. She explains, "I'm very involved with what's happening in the world today, and it's the end of the world, and nobody wants to listen. That's how I came to 'air, water, fire ...' It's one way to make a statement without going full placards. I'm too old to hold placards anymore. I used to, but I don't do it anymore [...] Now it's air and water and fire, earth. The elements. It's the earth, and that's what I'm worried about. When I saw the first photographs of the world, where you saw this little planet in the darkness of space, it gave me the same feeling of tenderness that you have for family, for your own children. I feel very much that I'm part of this planet. That's been very strong and influential all my life. That's why I recognize that a tree is my cousin. I have a responsibility to the world, to my planet."
Hurtado's use of written text in her paintings dates back several decades. She explains that in 1974, "I was having a show at Grandview in six months and I began to paint word paintings toward it. I painted large paintings, all messages, some right side up, some on their side, some cut, set apart, as life does, and sewed together again. Some were in layers, one atop the other." In these works, Hurtado painted words like ME, KILL, ONLY, ALONE, LONELY, I AM, YO, DEATH, DIE, BIRTH, SKY, EARTH, AIR, WATER, FIRE, ABYSS, VENEZUELA, WOMB, LOVE, and YET, however in most of these paintings, the text is so heavily layered that it becomes almost entirely illegible, appearing as striped geometric patterns, rather than words. Interestingly, it was at the time of making these over-layered word paintings that Hurtado met Agnes Martin and felt deeply inspired by her work. So although the words that Hurtado chooses could be considered agitating and provocative, the end result (which seems like a mass of woven colored lines) is tranquil and meditative and much on a par with the work of Martin.
Acrylic on canvas
This work is one of many "birthing paintings" done by Hurtado, which represent the moment of birth as seen from the mother's viewpoint. The simple composition includes a rounded arch at the bottom (representing the pregnant woman's swollen belly in the foreground of her vision) with a darkened mark in the centre, representing her navel. Above this arch emerge two slightly curved lines, extending from the centre up and out to the top corners of the frame, representing the woman's legs spread open during childbirth. Between these, a small rounded shape appears at the point of the legs' convergence, representing the emerging head of the infant.
Many of Hurtado's works consider birth and motherhood, as she feels that these experiences are some of the moments in which we feel most strongly our connection to the natural world. She says "This one is about birth, a very painful process ... It's an amazing thing. There is a feeling about a child in your arms that is...you know, the smell of the head, the whole thing. You become nature. We are all related. And there is this absolute love that you have for your offspring that doesn't exist anywhere else. It's a very animal experience. Terrestrial." In all of Hurtado's "birthing paintings", two spots, representing eyes, are visible on the infant's head. She explains that this is a significant aspect of the works, having the baby looking back at the mother, as it represents reproduction as a cyclical process.
Hurtado first began depicting the female body from its own vantage point in the 1970s, most notably in her "I am" paintings when she was involved with the Feminist Art movement, and close friends with many feminist artists, such as Judy Chicago. Now, she picks up this strategy once again, often combining it with environmentalist ideas, for instance, replacing the crowning baby's head in some works with globes, and displays the birthing pictures directly alongside human figures that are also trees in forests, and reproductive organs that merge with flowers and fruits. The overarching message here - as was also the case with Louise Bourgeois' repeated late drawings of birth - is that towards the end of life we see the beginning and that birth and death are inextricably linked, as indeed is everything on this planet. Interestingly though, Hurtado takes a different viewpoint to Bourgeois. Whilst Bourgeois draws for her audience, and the viewer looks on upon the event that is birth, Hurtado offers her own perspective and the moment that she and her child first lay eyes upon one another. The result is that Hurtado's images are more intimate, revealing that the work is made first and foremost for the artist herself (and her loved ones) and that the audience is not really the focus.
Acrylic and ink on paper
Biography of Luchita Hurtado
Luisa Amelia Garcia Rodriguez (now simply "Luchita") Hurtado was born just outside of Caracas, in the seaside town of Maiquetía, Venezuela, to father Pedro Jose Garcia and mother Teolinda Rodriguez. Luchita was the middle child, with a sister, Maria Cecilia, two years her senior, and a brother, Pedro Jose, two years her junior. She has fond memories of her early years in Venezuela, saying "I remember sitting in this stream on a very hot day, eating a mango and thinking to myself, 'Life cannot get better than this.' I was maybe eight years old."
She also has an early memory of watching a butterfly emerging from a cocoon when she was a small child, and of being overwhelmed by the sense of witnessing something miraculous. She often caught butterflies and pinned them to a board, so that she could examine the extraordinary designs on their wings, although she now feels sad about having hurt the insects, and considers it "a great sin". At the age of 98, she remarked, "I'm still saying sorry to that butterfly, and hope it hears me."
When she was just a few years old, Hurtado's mother left the children's father, and took their oldest daughter, Maria, to live with her in New York, leaving Luchita to be raised by her father's aunt, Manana, and her grandmother Rosario, who taught her to sew, crochet, and embroider. By the time she was eight years old, Hurtado's mother had raised enough money to bring her to New York. Hurtado never saw her father again and her brother was left behind in Venezuela. Once in New York and reunited with her sister, the family lived in the Latino neighborhood of Inwood, along with several aunts and cousins. Hurtado recalls the excitement of seeing snow for the first time, but the transition to living in the United States was also a challenge, as Hurtado spoke no English at the time. Her mother worked as a seamstress, and had remarried a Cuban man who bought Luchita art supplies and encouraged her creativity.
Education and Early Training
In New York, Hurtado chose to attend Washington Irving all-girls high school near Gramercy Park, even though it meant a two-hour commute on the subway each day it was a good school and she felt committed to her education. Although her mother believed she was studying dress design at high school, she was actually studying fine art and theatre, as well as becoming interested in anti-fascist political movements. Hurtado recalls that "At graduation, [my mother] saw that it was an art school, and she was very upset. But I said that, you know, this was my passion, and she understood."
She also recalls "I learned about the opera. I learned about movies and actors. For instance, Orson Welles, who at that time was at his best, with that great voice of his - we would go to the Mercury Theater on 41st Street and wait outside the door to see him. I learned from my contemporaries, because in my world, my family was completely out of it."
One year, at high school, she was selected to complete a drawing of Gramercy Park for the cover of the school magazine. She was given the key to the park to be able to make frequent visits while working on the drawing, and felt encouraged by the trust placed in her.
After completing high school, Hurtado volunteered for La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper, and met a Chilean journalist twice her age, Daniel del Solar, with whom she shared a deep intellectual bond, and who would become her first husband when she was just eighteen. The couple moved together to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where Hurtado befriended Flor de Oro, niece of Héctor Trujillo (head of the Dominican army). In 1939, when Hurtado was already pregnant with her first child, Hurtado and del Solar were forced to cross the border into Haiti, as Trujillo's romantic advances toward Hurtado had become worrisome and even threatening. Less than a year later, the couple moved back to New York, settling in a second-floor apartment in the tallest building in the village, 95 Christopher Street.
While pregnant, Hurtado found that she didn't like the maternity clothing available in shops, so she began to sew her own clothing. She says, "I taught myself, mostly. I copied a lot too. Comfort was number one and number two was feeling good. All my life." On June 13, 1940, she gave birth to her first child, Daniel Del Solar Jr.
In 1941, Hurtado and del Solar befriended dancer Ailes Gilmour, who stayed with the couple for a while, as well as Gilmour's half-brother: Japanese-American artist, designer, and architect, Isamu Noguchi. Hurtado attended extravagant parties thrown by Isamu at his studio, and befriended artists Ruth Vollmer, Jeanne Reynal, Arshile Gorky, and Rufino Tamayo (who Hurtado says taught her to mix colors), as well as systems theorist Buckminster Fuller, and filmmaker Maya Deren. Hurtado also met Frida Kahlo in New York, and attended a party in her hospital room, which Hurtado later described as being not unlike Surrealist theatre.
Tamayo introduced Hurtado to Pierre Matisse, who later introduced her to artists such as Marc Chagall and Joan Miró. On one occasion, Hurtado recalls being on a bus heading to an opening at Matisse's gallery on East 57th Street, and "There was a man who wasn't sitting down and he kept staring and staring at me, and he looked tough, like a wrestler or some truck driver." When she hurried off the bus and arrived at the gallery, she says, "Pierre was standing at the door. I was going to say, 'This guy's been following me and I'm upset,' and he looked past me to this man and he spoke in French, 'Oh, I want you to meet.'" The man was Fernand Léger.
In 1942, Hurtado gave birth to her second son, Pablo Del Solar. In 1944, Hurtado's husband was hired as an editor at Time magazine in Washington D.C. and the family moved to a Latin community in Falls Church, Virginia, but only for a brief time, as Del Solar essentially abandoned Hurtado and their two young sons. After the divorce, Hurtado moved back into their old apartment on 95 Christopher Street. She started attending artist gatherings at the Automat in New York, where she met artists Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Josef Albers, André Breton, and Willem de Kooning.
In 1945, Hurtado's mother moved back to Venezuela, and Hurtado moved into her mother's New York apartment on 85th Street with her two infant sons, and her cousin Herminia. During this time, Hurtado relied heavily on her friendship with Ann Alpert Matta (Roberto Matta's first wife, who was raising infant twins at the time, one of whom was to become renowned artist Gordon Matta-Clark), and supported her family by working for the Lord and Taylor department store, creating window displays and murals, and by working as a freelance fashion illustrator for Condé Nast. She says, "I looked through the magazines to see what was being done. And did the opposite."
In 1946 Hurtado saw the first photographs of Earth taken from outer space, which had a profound effect on her. She recalls, "When I saw the first photographs of the world, where you saw this little planet in the darkness of space, it gave me the same feeling of tenderness that you have for family, for your own children. I feel very much that I'm part of this planet." This sense of interconnectivity between humans and nature has been a central theme in her work ever since.
Also in 1946, Isamu Noguchi invited Hurtado to visit a museum along with him and his friend Wolfgang Paalen, an Austrian artist based in Mexico, where he founded the Post-Surrealist publication DYN, which held a particular interest in Mesoamerivan culture. Hurtado and Paalen continued to see each other after this visit, discussing topics like anthropology and indigenous cultures. Soon after their initial meeting, Paalen invited Hurtado and her cousin Herminia to see the Olmec heads in La Venta and San Lorenzo in Mexico. Paalen bought a camera for Hurtado, and her photographs of the Olmec heads were later published in Cahiers d'Art, accompanied by a text by Paalen titled "Le Plus Ancient Visage du Nouveau Monde" ("The Oldest Face of the New World"). In the jungle of La Venta, Hurtado and Paalen met archaeologist Giles Healey and his wife Sheila (an artist).
During the trip, the group stayed on a small houseboat, rode horses in the jungle, and spent romantic evenings watching moths flutter over the water. Paalen and Hurtado fell madly in love during the trip, and at their final destination of San Lorenzo, he asked for her hand in marriage. Hurtado later said about Paalen, "This man spoke six languages. He was brilliant [...] It was immediate love, and he was my teacher also." Upon her return to New York, Hurtado wrote a letter to Paalen, in which she agreed to bring her two sons to come live with him in Mexico. Upon arriving in Mexico, Hurtado married Paalen in a small village ceremony. The new couple lived in a house in San Ángel, Mexico City, and the boys attended a Swiss-German boarding school just outside the city.
Hurtado and Paalen made several trips around Southern Mexico and Acapulco searching for pre-Columbian artifacts. Hurtado recalls, "Before I went to Mexico I heard it's all music, all song, it's gorgeous and people are beautiful and everything is wonderful, and it's a happy place [...] It's something in the earth that you know, there's something special here. You feel that it goes beyond just being beautiful. You see, it has power. It has something very strange. If you'd have touched the right stone or touched the right tree, you could possibly go into another dimension."
Paalen used a room of the family house as his studio, and Hurtado spent a great deal of time in a corner of the studio working on paintings and illustrations for magazines back in New York. While living in Mexico City, Hurtado continued her friendship with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, later describing their relationship as "quite wild". She recalls one particular occasion when the two couples were at a child's birthday party together. The children were struggling to break open a piñata, and eventually Rivera used his gun to shoot it down. Around this time, Hurtado also befriended Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington (who built a house out of cardboard boxes for Hurtado's children to play in), as well as painters Remedios Varo and Miguel Covarrubias, filmmaker Luis Buñuel, artist Gordon Onslow Ford, photographer Manuel Bravo, ethnologist Julius Carlebach, and anthropologist Joseph Spinden. Hurtado recalls fondly, "It was an entertaining life." Despite being close to so many Surrealists, Hurtado has never considered herself to be a Surrealist.
Having also lived with artist Jeanne Reynal for a short time back in New York, one evening Marcel Duchamp came to visit. Hurtado recalls, "I loved Marcel. He was quite wonderful. I remember I was going to bed and he arrived at Jeanne's house unexpectedly... I put on my dressing gown and went down. I didn't have any shoes on. So I sat on a couch and out my feet up, and he came and sat next to me and began to massage my feet. That was delightful." Apparently many people in their social circle found that to be quite scandalous gossip, but Hurtado says "There was nothing between us: He wanted to massage my feet and that's that. I enjoyed it! Who doesn't like their feet massaged?" Interestingly, Frida Kahlo also had a particular fondness for Marcel Duchamp, stating that he wasn't pompous and arrogant like many of the other inner circle members of the French Surrealist group.
In 1948, Hurtado and Paalen traveled to Los Angeles to visit artist Man Ray, where he photographed Hurtado in his Hollywood studio, and then they carried on to San Francisco to visit Gordon Onslow Ford and Jacqueline Johnson. After the trip, the couple returned to Mexico, where Hurtado's son Pablo was soon after diagnosed with bulbar polio. After the diagnosis, five-year-old Pablo spent just a few days in an iron lung, before passing away. This tragic event marred Hurtado's experience of Mexico, and she felt an immediate desire to leave. She later explained that following the death of her son, "My life changed. I became somebody else."
In 1949, the couple moved to Mill Valley, California, just outside of San Francisco. With the help of Gordon Onslow Ford, they purchased a three-story nineteenth-century house, which Hurtado believed to be haunted. Paalen used the attic as his studio, while Hurtado painted in the dining room late at night when everyone else was asleep. Later that year, Paalen, Ford, and painter Lee Mullican formed the "Dynaton" group, which had some influence on Hurtado, although she never officially considered herself a member of the group. Mullican moved into the top floor of Hurtado and Paalen's home for a time. The couple also threw large dinner parties, where they and their guests would play Surrealist games. Paalen introduced Hurtado to more of his friends, including artists Jean Varda and Robert Motherwell. Hurtado also befriended art historian Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, poet James Broughton, philosopher Alan Watts, and Grace Morley, who was the director of the San Francisco museum. Hurtado and Morley bonded over their shared interest in Native American art.
After losing her son Pablo, Hurtado longed to have more children. However, Paalen did not wish to have children, "because everyone in his family committed suicide, and he didn't want to pass that on". In 1951, the couple separated and Paalen returned to Paris permanently. Meanwhile, Hurtado and Mullican became romantically involved, and after a short while, she became pregnant. During the pregnancy, Mullican moved back to his home state of Oklahoma to focus on showing his art, and Hurtado made plans to travel with her son to Venezuela, where she intended to give birth. However, her sister warned her that her mother would be irate if she were to show up pregnant and without a man, so she decided instead to go to Los Angeles, where she had some friends.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Hurtado and son Daniel stayed in a motel while she looked for a place to live. Minutes after sending Daniel off to his first day of school, Hurtado was showering in the motel when she went into premature labor. She called Sheila Healey, who took her to the hospital where she gave birth to another son, Matthew. While still in hospital, Hurtado found an apartment rental notice in the newspaper, and made arrangements over the phone to rent it, sight unseen, as soon as she left the hospital. The furnished apartment was located at 922 14th St. in Santa Monica.
After just a few months in the 14th St. apartment, Hurtado moved once again to a bungalow with a garden near the ocean, at 370 Mesa Rd. in Santa Monica. In January of 1952, Mullican came to join Hurtado and sons. The couple became active in the Santa Monica Canyon social scene, along with designers Ray and Charles Eames, writer James Agee, artists Don Bachardy and Barbara Poe, writer Christopher Isherwood, actor Vincent Price, and director Albert Lewin. Hurtado also worked in Santa Monica for fashion designer Matilda Etches as a seamstress, assistant, and model, and for the Sadler's Wells performing arts theatre as a costume designer.
In 1955, Hurtado traveled with her youngest son Matthew to Caracas, Venezuela, to visit her mother, while Daniel Jr. (who was just starting high school) remained in California with Mullican. While back in her homeland, Hurtado mused, "Venezuela is an extraordinary country [...] I feel about this mountainous tropics much as I imagine Lee feels about the desert. Here is, for me, if not the answer, the clue." Hurtado and her son returned to the United States in the spring of 1956.
On February 27, 1957, Hurtado and Mullican finally married. In 1959, Hurtado, Lee, and son Matthew traveled by boat from New York to Morocco. In autumn, they arrived in Rome, where they met director Federico Fellini, and hosted visitors such as sculptor Louise Nevelson, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and artists Willem De Kooning and Isamu Noguchi. They tragically found out on their travels that Wolfgang Paalen had committed suicide.
Hurtado and Mullican spent their final months in Europe traveling around in a blue Opal station wagon, and camping in places like Altamira, Lascaux, Carnac, and Brittany. She recalls what it was like to be at the caves filled with prehistoric paintings, saying "you could go in and out and stand right in the place where the person must have stood who made the paintings so many thousands of years ago. It was an extraordinary experience to stand there and, in a way, to mentally touch the hand of your ancestors. We went back to the caves after years passed, and you had to make an appointment to go in, for 15 minutes only. Now you can't go in and see them at all. They've had to make a duplicate, a simulacrum, with digital means. I don't blame them. It's too many people. We've overpopulated everything."
In 1960, the family and their station wagon came back to the United States, where they rented a farmhouse for six months with old friend Ailes Gilmour in Croton Falls, in upstate New York. They then returned to California, as Mullican got a teaching job at UCLA, and purchased their former home at 370 Mesa Rd. Hurtado rented a formal studio for the first time in her life, for forty dollars a month, near Bergamot Station in the Santa Monica Canyon. In 1962, she gave birth to a fourth son, John.
In 1968, Mullican participated in a UCLA exchange program in conjunction with the University of Chile in Santiago. The entire family went along with him, making a short stop in Venezuela en route, to visit Hurtado's mother. In their apartment in Chile, Hurtado used a closet as a studio. In 1969, the family traveled through Peru and Ecuador on their way back to Santa Monica.
Hurtado and Mullican spent the next few summers in New Mexico, where they fell in love with the nature and landscape, and in 1970 they purchased land in Taos. In February and March of 1970, Hurtado was the artist-in-residence with the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in New Mexico. She later described how "When I used to go to my house in Taos, New Mexico, and go to watch tribal dances, they wouldn't ask me if I was Indian; they would say, 'What tribe are you?' I would say, 'Venezuelan.' And they'd say, 'I've never heard of that one!' [...] But also, within myself, I felt that I was Indian. I felt that very much when I went to the dances, because the tribes had a complete attitude towards the earth, that it was alive."
In Taos, Hurtado became good friends with minimalist painter Agnes Martin. Hurtado says about Martin, "I loved her paintings. I watched her paint. It was amazing to watch her work. She would get enough paint on and just do this so simply. I mean those colors. It was magic to watch it, all that light, light, light blue, light, light, light. Incredible. She painted, not on easel, on the wall. As I say, she would get just enough so that it would never run. I remember when she gave the children a park where they could skate. It was public land, but she fixed it up. They gave her a photograph of the whole group of children that she carried under her arm for weeks, she was so pleased with it. She was a very sweet poet." Martin clearly has great influence on the pale colored text works that Hurtado made throughout the 1970s.
Also during the 1970s, Hurtado got to know many more women artists working in the area. She organized a lunch at her own home for what she termed the "Los Angeles Council of Women Artists," inviting artists like Vija Celmins, Mako Idemitsu, Alexis Smith, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago. Hurtado says that "Up to the time I joined the group, I had faced my paintings to the wall whenever a visitor arrived unexpectedly at my studio. This secretiveness was perhaps the result of working alone or perhaps related back to the time in art school when I could show my mother still lives and landscapes but never work done in the life-class. The change came about imperceptibly, but after being in the group for a while I discovered that I was less inhibited. I have never again faced my paintings to the wall. Quite on the contrary, I am quick to show them." Many members of the "Los Angeles Council of Women Artists," went on to form the Women's Building, Women's Space, and WOMENSPACE gallery in Los Angeles. Hurtado held her first solo exhibition at the Women's Building in 1974. Around the same time, the West Coast chapter of the feminist consciousness-raising group Guerrilla Girls invited Hurtado to collaborate with them, however she opted to decline. She says "just the name was too much,.. I thought it was the wrong approach to art."
During the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Hurtado and Mullican continued to be based primarily in Santa Monica and Taos, but they traveled widely, around the United States, and to India, England, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Austria, and France. In 1994, Hurtado became a grandmother twice over. In 1998 Lee Mullican passed away. Since then, Hurtado has continued to spend her summers in Taos, her autumns in New York, and also continued to travel abroad to England and Spain. In 2012, her eldest son, Daniel Jr., also passed away. He had been working as a media activist, photographer, and poet.
For most of her life, Hurtado had not shown her work to anyone (with the exception of some exhibitions she participated in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged by other members of the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists). She recently explained that this was because "I always felt shy of it. I didn't feel comfortable with people looking at my work. There was a time when women really didn't show their work." Then, in 2015, Ryan Good (director of Mullican's estate) happened upon nearly 1,200 undated artworks, most of which were unsigned, and about one in twenty signed "LH", stacked near some of Mullican's art. When he asked who LH was, Hurtado said, "that's me". Good explains, "We didn't know the extent of it. I knew that Luchita had made some paintings, but it was a different thing to look at her entire career. 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."
Since the discovery of her oeuvre, many of her works have been exhibited in California, New York, and London. In 2018, she reflected back, stating "I have a dealer now [Park View/Paul Soto, in Los Angeles and Brussels]. I never had anybody who promoted my work, and I never promoted my work either [...] I earned a living [...] but never from my work." She also notes, "I'm glad I'm sharing now, because I never felt before that I needed to share. It was the other way around: I worked to please myself." In 2019, she was featured in Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the year.
Hurtado's son Matt is now also an artist, living and working alternately in New York and in Europe. She recently stated "There is nothing better than my son's work. As a child, he had that facility. I knew he would end up being an artist." Her son John is a film-writer and director, based in Los Angeles.
At the age of 98, Hurtado shared with an interviewer, "I don't have a daily routine. Every day is different. I wake up in the morning and I say, "I have another day; how marvelous. I didn't die in my sleep!" My life is very, very happy. I'm one of those people whose cup is half full always. Never empty. At my age, you're near the exit, eh? It's all a surprise. I don't think it's going to be the end either. I think there are just borders in this existence. I think it goes on - I expect to fly, at some point. Who knows? My next life is going to be a grain of sand!" At the age of 99 Hurtado died at her home in California.
The Legacy of Luchita Hurtado
Hurtado's art remained more-or-less unseen until 2015, when she was already 95 years old, and thus very few artists have had the opportunity to be directly influenced by her work. However, she has had a strong influence on an astounding number of artists and other intellectuals through her friendships and personal relationships. Most notable, perhaps, was her role in connecting women artists with one another throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles, and in the organization of the "Los Angeles Council of Women Artists". This group gave Hurtado the confidence to start showing rather than hiding her work and is thus testament to the enduring importance of women's circles. The "Los Angeles Council of Women Artists" is similar to 'The Five', the group that Hilma af Klint was part of and also, 'Die Damen', the small group of women artists associated with Birgit Jürgenssen. Hurtado joins other women to show that close female collaboration can be crucial in the formation of certain artist's careers.
Many have interestingly noted that Hurtado seems to have anticipated 1970s feminist artistic strategies. For instance, curator Anne Ellegood writes, "When you think of [Hurtado's 'I am' paintings] as works from the early 1970s, you can imagine how meaningful they were at that time in terms of female artists taking back the ability to represent their own bodies and shifting away from the so-called male gaze. Likewise, New York Times arts writer Anna Furman says, Hurtado "incorporated womb imagery into her work before the feminist art movement made popular the same subject matter in the late '70s." Although we will never know exactly how and to what extent she directly influenced the work of her artist friends, it seems likely that many important developments, particularly in regards to 1970s Feminist Art, would not have played out the same without her involvement.
Following the highly acclaimed Serpentine exhibition in London 2019, and now that Hurtardo's work is entirely exposed to public attention the artist's influence will spread dramatically over the coming years. Having said this however, because Hurtado is dealing with a collective unconscious and recurring symbolism there may well be work that appears to be directly influenced by the artist, when in fact it is simply created by a fellow inter-connected individual, and thus this is less of an influence and more of a shared worldview. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist states, "Luchita has always had this very fluid identity, which makes her art so 21st century. 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."