Luchita Hurtado, a key figurative painter whose perspective-shifting images of female bodies and mysterious landscapes have only recently become known to a larger public, died at 99 at her home in Santa Monica, California, on Thursday. The news was confirmed by a representative for her gallery Hauser & Wirth.
“Over the course of 80 years, Hurtado resolutely committed to documenting the interconnectedness of human beings, nature, and terrestrial life,” the gallery said in a statement. “Her profound engagement with and deep compassion for Earth and humanity is evidenced by her extensive oeuvre of paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints.”
Over the past eight decades, Hurtado built up a pioneering oeuvre that includes semi-figurative paintings in a variety of modes. Her best-known works, first created in the 1960s, feature her own nude body pictured as if seen from above, with her hands outstretched as she walks across carpets strewn with surreal arrays of objects. Painted with a feminist spirit, the works are enigmatic, drawing out piquant comparisons between the body and its surrounding environment.
Though Hurtado’s work was not as well-known as it should have been—even as her vivacious character brought her into contact with many of the mid-20th century’s most important artists—she persisted in building up a vast oeuvre over time. “What drove me to paint?” Hurtado asked in a recent video interview with the Serpentine Galleries in London. “It was like breathing—you know, it’s hard not to.”
Feminism has long been key to Hurtado’s art. During the early 1970s, California was becoming a hotbed for feminist activity, with artists Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago having started an art program specifically devoted to the movement at the California Institute of Arts in Valencia. Hurtado, who was based in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, witnessed what was taking place there but chose a tack that was less bold. She was committed to the movement, however, and in 1974, she had her first solo show at the Woman’s Building, a trailblazing exhibition space intended for female artists who at that time struggled to gain any kind of recognition in a male-dominated art world.
Around that time, Hurtado began meeting with artists like Alexis Smith and Vija Celmins, who shared her views. But she drew a line when Joyce Kozloff asked her to launch a West Coast chapter of the Guerrilla Girls. Feeling distanced by some of the more aggressive strategies being taken up by feminists of the time, Hurtado went in a different direction. “I thought it was the wrong approach to art,” she told ARTnews in 2017. “It was demeaning.”
Hurtado’s work has largely tended toward gentle surrealism that shows how people and the bodies they inhabit are inextricably linked to the landscapes that surround them. Her figurations have bordered on abstraction, allowing breasts, vaginas, legs, and arms to seem like the boulders strewn around canyons. Her works are intended to have a sensuality to impart. “I’ve always been a very sexy person, and I’ve accepted sex as part of life,” Hurtado said.
Luisa Amelia García Rodriguez Hurtado—she quickly changed her name, finding it too plain—was born in 1920 in Maiquetía, Venezuela. Her family emigrated to the United States in 1928, eventually settling in New York. There, she began taking classes at the Art Students League, the famed art school.
Hurtado’s first marriage came while she was still young. She was volunteering at the Spanish-lanuage newspaper La Prensa, where she met Chilean journalist Daniel del Solar. They married in 1938 and the couple spent time in the Dominican Republic and Washington, D.C. They had two sons, Daniel del Solar Jr. and Pablo del Solar, who both preceded Hurtado in death.
Hurtado and del Solar returned with their sons to New York and divorced in the mid-1940s. During this time she worked as an illustrator for magazine publisher Condé Nast and as a muralist for the department store Lord & Taylor. A close friend, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, introduced Hurtado to Austrian artist Wolfgang Paalen, who was living in Mexico City at the time. She visited him and they maintained written correspondence. Ultimately, she moved with her children to Mexico City in 1946 in order to marry Paalen.
During her time in Mexico City, she became well acquainted with some of the country’s leading artists, including Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Leonora Carrington, Miguel Covarrubias, and Remedios Varo. To an extent, her relationships with Varo and Carrington, two Surrealists known for their odd tableaux featuring mythological creatures and animals in domestic settings, would prove influential. Hurtado absorbed these attitudes and became fascinated by the way Varo and Carrington drew no division between their dreamlike visions and their everyday lives.
Hurtado’s work began reflecting Surrealism through largely abstract images in which one can see the vague contours of biomorphic forms. Exuberantly colored and mostly small in scale, the paintings prefigure some of the directions her art would take later on. Over the past couple years, work of the sort has been considered an important forerunner to a more recent strain of figuration intended to test sexual mores.
Among the most famous works made in that vein are her “Sky Skin” paintings, which she produced while in Santa Monica and Taos, New Mexico, during the 1970s. Taos had formed a nexus of the postwar art scene, with Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin (whom Hurtado knew) having established a presence there, and like those artists, Hurtado began to see how the New Mexico landscape—its cool skies and arid deserts—could lend itself to abstraction. With the “Sky Skins,” she pictured upward views of the sky so as to envision how earthly bodies could be allied with the celestial realm.
Coursing through her artwork throughout her career was an interest in nature. In viewing bodies as being a part of the landscape, she staked a claim for the importance of the environment. In one untitled work on paper from 2019, she even underlined this comparison by insetting the word “MUNDO”—“world,” in Spanish—inside a long-limbed nude figure, as if to suggest that this person is one with the green landscape surrounding them. “We live in a very limited world, and we’re doing away with it,” she said in a 2019 interview for Art21. “In a very systematic way, we should all be concerned.”
In “Painting: Now and Forever, Part III,” a 2018 exhibition split between New York’s Matthew Marks and Greene Naftali galleries, Hurtado’s work was shown alongside paintings by artists who were six or more decades younger than her, including Jill Mulleady, Avery Singer, and Janiva Ellis.
Hurtado’s son Pablo died young, and she and Paalen moved to the Bay Area city of Mill Valley, California. Other friends joined them in Mill Valley, including a young artist named Lee Mullican, who became involved in a post-Surrealist-bent artistic movement that was beginning to take shape called Dynaton.
Hurtado wound up marrying Mullican, and they had two children, Matt Mullican (who is now regarded as an important contemporary artist) and John Mullican. Hurtado moved to Santa Monica in 1951 and gave birth to her third son Matt, and Lee soon followed. She told ARTnews that she and Lee Mullican, who died in 1998, never spoke about art together and maintained separate studios. “I don’t like to work with anyone,” she said. “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.”
In interviews, Hurtado also spoke about the difficulty of splitting her time between her children and her art. “It takes a great deal of energy, having the life of a parent and the life of an artist, working and trying to make ends meet,” she said in the Art21 documentary. “My painting I would do at night, after everyone was asleep.”
All the while, she developed close ties with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, including Marcel Duchamp, Isamu Noguchi, Frida Kahlo, Rufino Tamayo, Josef Albers, Leonora Carrington, Man Ray, and postwar American artists Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Agnes Martin, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. (Hurtado’s energetic persona often figured in her interactions with these artists—she once joked that she caused a scandal in New York after Duchamp gave her a foot rub.)
Hurtado’s work might have never been exhibited or received its overdue recognition had it not been for Ryan Good, whom she hired to organize and manage the archive of her late husband, Lee Mullican. While combing through the archives, Good found works in a flat file that were signed “LH” in a style he didn’t recognize. When he asked Hurtado who made them, as the story goes, she replied, “Well, me.”
Hurtado had been creating work all along, while also supporting Mullican’s career and raising two children. After everyone had gone to bed, she would get to work, sitting at the kitchen table to create the drawings that Good had found. In an interview accompanying her participation in the 2018 iteration of the Hammer Museum’s biennial Made in L.A., Hurtado said, “Artwork is a diary. It’s really notes on your living, on your life, and you can’t help but put it down.”
Good soon showed those drawings and other works to Paul Soto, who displayed them at his Los Angeles gallery in 2016—her first show in over 40 years since she showed at the Woman’s Building. In her 2017 interview with ARTnews, Hurtado said, “I always worked. But I never showed my work.”
In the past two years alone, Hurtado has garnered major recognition. Her inclusion in Made in L.A. helped bring her wider attention, and a few months later, in January of last year, Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s biggest galleries, mounted a solo show of her work in New York. After that she was named to the “Time 100” list and received the Lifetime Achievement award from Americans for the Arts, and the Serpentine Galleries in London staged a widely acclaimed survey of her work, in the first-ever major museum show devoted entirely to Hurtado. That show later traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Actress Zoe Saldana presented Hurtado’s Americans for the Arts award, saying, “Luchita’s life and work comes from a place of humility and a desire to be at one with nature, her body, and her place in the world. She was an environmental artist before that even became a movement and is a staunch advocate for taking better care of our planet. In short, Luchita is indomitable; she is still making work every day.”
Hurtado, ever the jokester, didn’t travel to New York to receive the award but sent a video, in which she said, “You know, at my age you have to be very kind … to me.”