Venezuelan-born artist who found fame at the age of 97 and was listed in Time’s 100 Influential People of the Year 2019
By Jamie Colvin
Luchita Hurtado’s career spanned eight decades, but she did not find great acclaim until she was 97. In recognition, she was listed in Time’s 100 Influential People of the Year 2019 and was the subject of a retrospective at The Serpentine Gallery.
Until then, she raised a family and cherished the memories of a lost era in the surreal world of art: Marcel Duchamp massaging her feet, Leonora Carrington building her children a playhouse and Isamu Noguchi accompanying her around a sculpture exhibition. As she concluded towards the end of her long life: ‘We’re here to learn patience’.
The story of her discovery at such an age is almost as surreal as Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory. Hurtado’s third husband was Lee Millican, the American painter. When he died in 1998, the director of his estate, Ryan Good, noticed several pieces of art propped up against Millican’s work with the initials “LH” on them. Interested, he asked who “LH” was. Hurtado replied that it was her. And thus began her late, global recognition, with exhibitions hosted in cities as far apart as Los Angeles and London.
Luisa Amelia Garcia Rodríguez was born in Maiquetia in Venezuela in 1920 to Teolinda and Pedro. She migrated to New York City when she was eight with her mother and sister while her father remained in Venezuela. Believing that her surname was too common, she took her grandmother’s, Hurtado. When she was fifteen, she enrolled at Washington Irvine High School where she was supposed to be learning dressmaking – she actually studied fine art and did not tell her mother until she had graduated.
Hurtado saw painting as a chore, as mundane, as “brushing her teeth” and referred to it as her “diary”, as she was often the subject of her paintings
She met her first husband there, the Chilean journalist Daniel del Silar, when she was eighteen. They had two sons: Daniel, who died in 2012, and Pablo, who died of polio when he was four. She divorced del Silar in 1942. Del Silar had introduced her to several major figures in the Village: William de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Marc Chagall, some of the major artists in New York City at the time, all of whom played a central role in her development as an artist.
She worked as an illustrator for Condé Nast and as a muralist for Lord and Taylor. At the same time, she met Austrian painter, Wolffgang Paalen. They went to Mexico together and married a week later. Her introduction to Surrealism came about through Carrington and Frida Kahlo, but she then moved to the Bay Area in San Francisco, where Paalen established the post-Surrealist movement, Dynaton, with Lee Mullican and George Onslow-Ford.
She divorced Paalen in 1950 because he did not want to have children. Hurtado moved to Los Angeles with Mullican, whom she later married. They had two sons: Matt, an artist, and John, a film maker.
Throughout her life, she painted in the evenings when she had put her children to bed – in such a cramped house, she used her walk-in wardrobe as her studio. She saw painting as a chore as mundane as “brushing her teeth” and referred to it as her “diary”, as she was often the subject of her paintings.
Hurtado joins the ranks of female artists who have not been recognised until the twilight of their careers
Hurtado’s work undergoes many transitions from the Thirties to the present day. In an interview with The Serpentine Gallery she explains: “The themes in my work go way back: the pleasures of life, times of stress – it’s all together and you try to show what you’re feeling about it and communicate.”
Hurtado draws from Surrealism, Magical Realism and abstraction; some early drawings include cavemen-like figures and others, such as her Sixties’ work under the theme “I am”, showing the viewer looking down on her naked body. The yellow body is the “landscape” against a bright floor, which, in the case of Untitled, is a Navajo rug.
I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn, Hurtado’s first solo exhibition, references the human life cycle. The inclusion of her later works demonstrates her political engagement.
Hurtado said that she had a responsibility to the planet and a responsibility to the earth; she was concerned about environmental issues, feminism and politics. Hurtado’s opinions of her art underwent a transition over her eighty year career as well: from comparing it to brushing her teeth, she came to recognise its political power and the important role that it plays in the contemporary world.
Hurtado joins the ranks of female artists who have not been recognised until the twilight of their careers: Carmen Herrera, who is 105, and Ruth Asawa, who was 87 when she died in 2013, being two other notable women.
Luchita Hurtado 1920 – 2020. She died on 13 August of natural causes.
Jamie Colvin is Online Editor at Perspective magazine