Luchita Hurtado - Biography and Legacy
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.
Recently, 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!"
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."