It may have taken almost a century for most curators and dealers to notice it, but artist Luchita Hurtado has made invaluable contributions to art history. Earlier this year, Hurtado had her first career retrospective at the Serpentine Sackler Galleries in London. She is now one of the world’s most celebrated artists, placing on the “TIME 100″ list this year, alongside Michelle Obama, Taylor Swift, and Nancy Pelosi, and signing with Hauser & Wirth, one of the biggest galleries in the world. All just in time for her birthday.
“She turns 99 next month, and in her own words she’s just getting started,” philanthropist Carolyn Clark Powers told a well-heeled New York crowd on Monday night at Americans for the Arts’ annual National Arts Awards ceremony at Cipriani, where Hurtado was getting a lifetime achievement award. “My kind of girl.”
The evening began with introductory remarks by actor Alec Baldwin, a longtime supporter of the organization, who stood in front of a 20-foot reproduction of Hurtado’s 1971 oil painting Encounter and commended Americans for the Arts for its dedication to “ensuring that the arts thrive in every community … and [are] accessible to everyone.”
Chairing the gala was Clark Powers, who earlier this year donated $10 million to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles for free admission to the museum and showed up in a red dress bearing the words “Are Clothes Modern?” “Luchita’s career has spanned many decades and cultures,” Clark Powers said. “She is an artist, ecologist, feminist, and poet. She has also made huge contributions to photography in fashion. What hasn’t this girl done?”
The night’s other honorees were singer-songwriter Ben Folds for outstanding contributions to the arts, the Country Music Association Foundation for arts education, former ambassador Earle L. Mack for philanthropy, and actor and singer Ben Platt for young artist. The awards statues were designed by artist Jeff Koons in the shape of one of his iconic golden balloon dogs.
Koons was on hand for the festivities, as were artists Jon Kessler, Peter McGough, and Walter Robinson.
Actress Zoe Saldana introduced Hurtado’s award, saying, “Luchita has one of those I-can-hardly-believe-it stories. She has worked as a painter for more than 80 years, and like most of the rest of the world I only discovered Luchita’s work recently. Her personal story is inspirational. She has lived the life of devoted wife and mother while secretly working away through the night on her singular artistic vision after everyone else has gone to bed.”
Saldana continued, “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.”
In a video that included words from artist Ed Ruscha and curators Anne Ellegood and Hans Ulrich Obrist, artist Andrea Bowers talked about how Hurtado had her first—and until 2016, only—solo show at the storied hotbed of feminist art, the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles in 1974. “At that time, it wasn’t considered that women could have art careers. People didn’t take most women seriously as artists.”
Hurtado herself did not make the trip to New York, but her son John Mullican accepted the award of her behalf and through tears said, “She would make her art in private, alone, in her own beautiful world full of color and warmth. Today, private no more, I am beyond thrilled that the world knows of my mother’s brilliance.” In a short video Hurtado made for the audience, she said, “You know, at my age you have to very kind … to me.”