Sometime in the mid-1940s, the artist Luchita Hurtado, then in her 20s, boarded a Madison Avenue bus in Manhattan to go to an opening at Pierre Matisse’s gallery on East 57th Street. “There was a man who wasn’t sitting down and he kept staring and staring at me,” Hurtado recalled recently, “and he looked tough, like a wrestler or some truck driver.” She got off at 57th and the man followed her. She rushed toward the gallery. “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.’ ” It was the painter Fernand Léger. “I never forgot that,” Hurtado said, laughing. “You know, a truck driver can be anyone.”
Hurtado, now 96, just had an exhibition at Park View, a two-year-old apartment gallery a few blocks from MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. The show featured work she made between 1942 and 1958, when she lived, at various points, in Mexico, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and immersed herself in art worlds of Cage and Cunningham, Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, and many others. The show came about thanks in part to Ryan Good, who worked with Hurtado’s son, artist Matt Mullican, in New York before moving to L.A. to direct the estate of her late husband, painter Lee Mullican. Good found works he didn’t recognize in a flat file among Lee Mullican’s work and saw the initials “LH” on them. He showed them to writer Chris Wiley, then working on Mullican’s catalogue raisonné, who showed them to Paul Soto, the founder of Park View.
It’s unusual to see work like Hurtado’s—lithe, fierce, Surrealist-informed abstractions, clearly of an earlier era—at such a small, young space. It is also gratifying. Hurtado’s paintings, most made with ink, watercolor, and crayon, invite intimate, up-close viewing. Happily, distance isn’t really an option in a one-bedroom apartment in the city.
“I didn’t know where this work was,” Hurtado told me, sitting in an armchair in her intimate, art-filled Santa Monica living room, across from Good and me. “So it was a great surprise to me that it came out.” But while she lost track of the whereabouts of the work, she remembers the details of making it. “I think art, it has a lot to do with your life,” she said. “It’s kind of a diary.”
Hurtado was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1920 and moved to New York City as a nine-year-old. She studied at Washington Irving High School, where her mother thought she was learning to sew, not paint, and married Daniel de Solar, a Spanish journalist twice her age, when she was just 18. He introduced her to a community of Latin writers and artists, including Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, who occasionally lived with them when in New York to teach at the Dalton School. “We would talk about color, we would mix colors,” she told me. “It was a game.”
By 1942, the couple had two young children and was in the midst of a divorce. “This man [de Solar] apparently went on doing this: wait till the wife has two sons and then leave her for someone else,” she said with no bitterness. “It forced me into doing my work.” Around the time he left, she made the earliest painting in the Park View show, an ethereal semi-abstraction of two flattened deer drinking under moonlight. She also began freelancing as an illustrator, doing magazine work and painting a temporary mural at Lord & Taylor of elongated figures with light bulbs for heads. She and her sons lived in a modest apartment on East 85th Street.
Her community of artists continued to expand, though when asked about their influence on her, she spoke less of their work than of their lives and personal idiosyncrasies. A friend of hers, Ailes Gilmour, had roomed with her and her first husband and also happened to be the half-sister of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, so by the mid-1940s, Noguchi and Hurtado frequently saw art together. “We went to a gallery—I don’t remember the name but it was an important gallery at the time—and it was having a sculpture show that wasn’t all that great. I remember Isamu taking off his hat and putting it over one of the pieces, and saying to the gallerist, ‘Why don’t you give a real sculptor a chance?’ ” Hurtado said. “Can you imagine the gall?”
Noguchi introduced Hurtado to her second husband, Austrian-born, Mexico-based painter Wolfgang Paalen. “When I married Paalen, then I knew everybody,” she said. “I think of John Cage now as a mushroom,” because of his preoccupation with mycology. She recalled how Cage and Merce Cunningham would leave tickets for their cat whenever they did performances: “Their friends knew, and whoever got there first would get the ticket.”
After she moved with Paalen to Mexico, she befriended the Surrealist Leonora Carrington, who would tell dream-like stories. “She would say, ‘My spirit went above my body and I could see myself lying in bed.’ I mean, she’d say these weird things that sounded like they came straight out of one of her paintings, except it would be her normal life.” British poet and arts patron Edward James, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of King Edward VII, used to follow Carrington around, always wearing rouge.
Much of the work in the Park View show that dated from the years in which Hurtado lived in Mexico has a flatter, more intuitively organic quality than that of her peers. There are no fantastical scenes, and few identifiable figures. The dimension and texture come mostly from the way ink puddles around wax crayon. In these paintings, she linked shapes together in dense, biomorphic configurations. She told me she hates pink because it reminds her of being forced to wear the color in church as a child, since it supposedly lightened her too-dark skin, but pink features prominently in this work, often alongside fiery oranges and reds.
“I always worked,” Hurtado said. “But I never showed my work.”
“I think you were overlooked,” suggested Good. “You also said the same about Frida Kahlo.”
“Yes,” said Hurtado. “When they were alive, it was Diego Rivera who was the famous one.”
Hurtado and Paalen moved to the San Francisco Bay in 1948. Hurtado’s son, Pablo, had died of polio in Mexico, and she needed to escape to a new environment. There, they were again surrounded by a community of artists—Giles and Sheila Healey, architect Sybil Moholy-Nagy, poet Jimmy Broughton. She also met Lee Mullican, whom she would marry soon after she left Paalen.
Paalen did not want children, and, as Hurtado explained quite matter-of-factly, she realized she needed to have another son. She left him in 1950, and moved south to the Santa Monica Canyon near Los Angeles. At first, she lived alone, and then Mullican joined her. He belonged to the Dynaton group of artists that Paalen spearheaded, who were informed by Eastern philosophy, and made meditative, intricate paintings.
“He was six foot six and he looked like Mutt from Mutt and Jeff,” Hurtado said of Mullican, referring to the long-running comic strip. They would have two sons together. “He really was an interesting artist,” she said, and gestured to a blue and beige ceramic vessel above her bookshelf. “He made that and his ashes are under it in a can, so I talk to him.”
She and Mullican kept separate studios throughout their 48 years together, until his death in 1998. “We didn’t talk about the art,” she said. “I don’t like to work with anyone. I would turn a painting to the wall and wouldn’t let anyone see it. Maybe it was because I do belong to a certain generation.”
Around 1970, just after Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro started the Feminist Art Program at CalArts, Hurtado broke from her private comfort zone and joined a feminist consciousness-raising group. Vija Celmins, Alexis Smith, Susan Titelman, and she met routinely and, at one point, artist Joyce Kozloff asked her if she’d like to help start a West Coast Guerrilla Girls chapter. “Just the name was too much,” Hurtado said. She distanced herself from the consciousness-raising group after they began doing drawings “of each others’ privates,” she said. “I thought it was the wrong approach to art. It was demeaning.”
Her own approach to sexuality is not at all prudish, but it is stoic and self-contained. Last November, Soto and Good organized a viewing at the Lee Mullican studio, pulling out decades of Hurtado’s drawings and paintings—a preview of sorts for solo shows of her work slated for New York and San Francisco (the venues are not yet public) and Park View’s solo project with her at arteBA in Buenos Aires in May. One series of drawings, probably made in the 1970s, depicts nude figures tussling—copulation as a poetic wrestling match.
“I’ve always been a very sexy person, and I’ve accepted sex as part of life,” Hurtado said. “The Catholic Church has made it a dark thing, as a way of controlling people. They’ve made it into something soiled.” She continued, “We have all these religions, but I imagine you close your eyes for the last time and it’s really so simple. I have this vision that it’s almost like a carpet, and you’re a piece of dust on that carpet, and the whole thing makes you laugh.”