APRIL 13, 2021
BEFORE SHE COULD wander through her light-dappled studio in Santa Monica, preside at her blockbuster 2019 show at the Serpentine Gallery, bask in the acclaim of breathless art critics, or submit to exhaustive interviews with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist — interviews now gathered in this splendid volume edited by Karen Marta and published by Hauser & Wirth — Luchita Hurtado squeezed her painting practice into her kitchen, her dining room, and a small closet.
Other great female artists had worked in minimal settings before. Lee Krasner created her game-changing Little Image series at a tiny table in the bedroom of her East Hampton house; the Impressionist Berthe Morisot painted in her bedroom and drawing rooms. That we know of these white female artists’ constraints and travails is due in part to the fame they achieved later in their lives. We may never learn of the thousands (or more) unsung female artists of color who have struggled to make their work in the corners and basements of their homes, cadging free moments between childcare and day jobs. Learning about the life and career of Venezuelan American artist Hurtado throws into relief the unwritten histories of Black and Brown creators who struggled amid scarce economic and social resources.
We learn about Hurtado’s journey from the conversations between her and Obrist, which they began to conduct during their initial meeting in 2017 and ceased only upon her death in 2020. Hurtado regales Obrist with tales of New York in the 1940s, when she and her first husband, the journalist Daniel del Solar, resided at 95 Christopher Street. There, while also caring for her sons Daniel and Pablo, Hurtado managed a heavy schedule that included creating window displays for Lord & Taylor and drawing fashion illustrations for Condé Nast. Meanwhile, when possible, she began crafting crayon-and-ink abstract drawings that revealed her skill at composition and talent as a colorist:
I always worked — I couldn’t help myself. I never really felt that I had the time to show people my work, or that there was any interest in it, but I worked when I could, usually at night in my kitchen. I had to enjoy my painting. I was just as interested in the making of the pieces as in the end results, and I felt the pieces would happen as they happened. […] It was exciting for me. I felt very good about the medium of [ink and crayon], and it opened up to me. And that’s what I did. I began.
She began and endured. During the long decades of her life (she died last year at 99), Hurtado presaged and participated in many critical developments in contemporary art. She did so by remaining faithful to her own narrative, even while faced with the devastating death of Pablo and increasingly thorny household arrangements.
In the early 1950s, when Hurtado moved to Mill Valley, California, with her second husband, the artist/philosopher Wolfgang Paalen, her life became “complicated.” Hurtado describes how the painter Lee Mullican introduced her to his circle, and how Mullican soon took the place of Paalen in her life. The emotional stress attendant on these developments can perhaps be discerned in her suspicion, at the time, that disobliging spirits had imbued her rooms with the scent of mimosa and were teasing her cat. (“I would get up and say, ‘Show yourself, drop something,’ but nothing ever happened.”) Yet, as she waged war with an array of domestic poltergeists, her work became more pared down and focused. Hurtado strayed from a wholly abstract style and embarked on brightly colored figurative tableaux. One of these is Untitled (ca. 1951), a pink, orange, yellow and purple-brown drawing of a female torso with crossed arms that looks to have been inspired by Cycladic sculpture. As before, Hurtado had to secure a spot in her home to do this work. This could not have been easy during this period, when she found herself transformed into “Luchita Mullican,” wife of a leader of the Dynaton Group, an artists’ collective with utopian ideals. “Did you consider yourself part of [that association?]” Obrist asks Hurtado. “No, not really,” she replies. “We spent so much time together, playing these Surrealist games and such, but I was working separately. In Mill Valley I painted at night in the dining room.”
In the early 1950s, Mullican, Hurtado, and their children (including Mullican’s son, Matt) moved to Chile for a year. This period was also marked by hardship, as well as the further development of Hurtado’s style. Hurtado soon learned that Mullican was “having an affair with another woman, and I was very hurt.” Hurtado retreated to a closet in their rented home, as she still did not have sufficient privacy or access to a studio. In this narrow space, she embarked, during the 1960s, upon her indispensable I Am series, in which she painted her nude body from her own perspective looking down upon herself. She tells Obrist of the constrained conditions under which she created these artworks:
I was beginning to paint my own body, but I felt — in Spanish the word is pudor, being ashamed of your nakedness. […] That was me. I had to go in the closet because I didn’t want to see myself naked. In such a small space the only way to see and paint my body was by looking down. Those self-portraits were a real surprise to me. I felt that all I had was myself. […] At the time I felt that my skin was on loan to me rather than being some essential part of myself. […] I began to think about the words “I am.” I am who? I am what? I am the moon? Who am I?
The I Am paintings present this viewer with a shock of recognition of living in a Latina body. In the oil-on-paper Untitled (from 1968), for example, we see the breasts, rounded belly, thigh, and toes of a woman standing on a red carpet. Shadows cast by shuttered windows bar both the carpet and the subject’s flesh, lending the piece an ambience of captivity and solitude. In the oil-on-canvas Untitled (also 1968), we see this same figure repeated on all four sides of the painting, all looking down upon a child’s red toy car. The recurrence of this protagonist staring at household clutter infuse the works with a mood of chaos and exhaustion.
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that, during this period, Hurtado embarked upon her collaborations with the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (a group that included Vija Celmins, Alexis Smith, Judy Chicago, Mako Idemitsu, and Barbara Haskell), whose members encouraged Hurtado to retain her maiden name and assert herself. “It wasn’t until I had joined this women’s consciousness movement that I started to show people my work and not turn my paintings toward the wall,” Hurtado remembers. This awakening would lead to her decision to take up more space, so that, by the mid-’70s, she had managed finally to obtain her own studio. Luchita Hurtado provides a color photograph of this generous, bright domain. Having left her cubbyholes behind, Hurtado loaded the studio’s white walls with her extraordinary Moth Lights (ca. 1975–’76) paintings, a series of rectangular panels with the telling motif of dark, enclosing borders that give way, in some renderings, to a central incandescent aperture.
At mid-career, Hurtado launched herself through that shining escape hatch, and in her newfound liberation came to embrace eco-feminism, or what she called “planetarianism.” This ethos, which can be traced back to some of her earliest experiments, acknowledges that “[t]rees are our cousins. We’re related to the tree directly because it breathes out and we breathe in. […] We are a species, you know, just like the dinosaurs. And just like the dinosaurs we are not in charge of the world like we want to be.”
Hurtado celebrated these ideals for the rest of her life, and they gained traction and scope as her own practice developed. Her 2018 work Untitled is an epiphanic blue, green, white, and red acrylic on canvas painting that chants the words AIR WATER EARTH FIRE. Another Untitled from 2018, this time crayon and watercolor on paper, declares SKY WATER EARTH in the colors blue, pink, black, and yellow. These both connect to the elemental Birthing (2019), an acrylic on linen work that shows a mountainous and golden pregnant woman spreading her legs against a misty backdrop, while a tiny head presses out from her body.
In 2020, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a Hurtado retrospective titled I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn, which exhibited many ecstatic paintings that are not included in this book. It is a shame that readers of this beautifully produced tome do not have access to the full span of the I Am paintings, as well as Hurtado’s additional birth and pregnancy paintings (such as the nearly Kubrickian Eve, from the 1970s, which depicts a fetus floating in pink amniotic fluid, among ankhs) or her cosmic planetarian paintings (such as Untitled, from 2019, which shows another Cycladic figure standing in front of a huge green oak). But we must thank Obrist (and editor Marta) for the gift of these interviews, which chronicle the journey of a complex, suffering, and resilient Latinx artist. At the end of their conversation cycle, Hurtado tells Obrist:
Today I feel air, water, and that’s what’s important. Survival. Surviving. Time is involved. But I must have help from beyond. Someone is looking after me. […] I am here. I am here. Survival is an energy. I am trying to paint energy and the sky. I just made a painting called The Last Human Alive.