The painter Luchita Hurtado is an American national treasure. Her smile alone deserves a monument. When it comes over her, it draws her mouth open, as if in awe. It makes me think of the Greco-Christian term agapē, the divine love that is coterminous with God, whose closeness to our own word, ‘agape’ William Gaddis exploited for the title of his final, raging novel, Agapē Agape (2002). But unlike Gaddis, who sought to throw the terms into tension (love rent asunder, wholeness shattered), when Luchita holds her mouth agape in a grin, she radiates atomic joy. It often comes out when she is in the middle of saying something like ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’, a sentiment that she might be directing at some fantastic thing, or simply scattering into the wind until it reaches the four corners of the earth. In these moments, you know why she has lived to be 97, and you would give anything for a piece of whatever it is that she has. When I first met her, I wished she would adopt me.
Of course, Hurtado does more than just smile. She is also a mother, a widow, a clothing designer, an adventurer, a social dynamo, and a keeper of a seemingly inexhaustible trove of fascinating and glamorous stories. But first and foremost, at least for the purposes of this article, she is a painter.
It was just over a year and a half ago that Hurtado mounted her first solo show in many decades (she can’t remember exactly how many) at the hip Los Angeles apartment gallery Park View, to breathless critical acclaim. This past summer you could find her works in ‘Painting Now and Forever, Part III’ at Greene Naftali and Matthew Marks in New York and in the Hammer Museum’s biennial ‘Made in LA’ in Los Angeles. Both shows, but particularly ‘Made in LA’, heralded her induction into a growing club of previously under-recognized female artists that the world has finally shone its spotlight on, including Phyllida Barlow and Carmen Herrera.
Life, she will freely admit, took precedence over any careerist drive towards recognition. When her work was finally fished out of obscurity, thanks in a large part to the artist Ryan Good, who had been working on organizing her late husband, the painter Lee Mullican’s archives, Hurtado apparently didn’t know much of it was still extant. In fact, they had been hidden in storage at the back of Mullican’s old studio in Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar. But this lack of concern for legacy or personal advancement turned out to be a something of a gift, allowing her to reconnoitre whatever hidden ridges of her psyche she saw fit.
I saw the first of Hurtado’s paintings on a visit to the newly relocated site of the Mullican family archives, in a rather rundown area of South Central. It seemed impossible that it could have been misplaced: it was enormous, perhaps the largest of her works that survives. The two panels Earth & Sky (diptych) (1973) measure almost 2.5 metres square, and each are constructed of strips of canvas painted with brushy arcs and angles of black and blue oil paint, which appear to have been painted, cut up, and then patchwork back together. Its stuttering geometries call to mind a more expressive Sol Lewitt, but it sprang from Hurtado’s abiding love of Indian fabrics and South American rugs. It struck me as significant contribution to the history of midcentury abstraction, and other similar canvases from the period that were scattered around the storage space bore this feeling out. Little did I know that I was only scratching the surface.
Sifting through decades of Hurtado’s work, you can unearth biomorphic abstractions rendered in watercolour and crayon wax, Magritte-like paintings scatters of feathers against blue skies, word paintings, moody charcoals, erotica, plants studies and on and on and on. Her body, in a suite of fantastic POV paintings from the 1970s and 1980s that appear at both the Hammer and Matthew Marks, is sometimes made to resemble a voluptuous desert landscape, or play counterpoint to jazzy, geometric textiles. You sense the gravitational pull of surrealism, or its earthier, South American equivalent, magical realism, as in her paintings of her looming shadow, which seems to take on an independent life of its own. Other times, you can detect hints of her rowdy, freewheeling friends in the New York School. Dynaton, an obscure but influential group of San Francisco-based artists interested in shamanism, indigenous art, particle physics and extra-terrestrial life that consisted of Paalen, Mullican, and the painter Gordon Onslow Ford, also looms large, particularly in her contemporaneous works from the 1950s – funky, biomorphic abstractions that resemble clusters of pullulating cellular life. That Hurtado was not brought under the group’s umbrella is a shame, but she never seemed to have much of an interest in groups anyway – she declined membership in the West Coast branch of the Guerrilla Girls, voicing her disapproval when they start painting each other’s ‘private parts’. This, in her estimation, was undignified.
Born in Venezuela in 1920, Hurtado emigrated to New York when she was nine and proceeded to range gracefully across the middle of the 20th century – from New York, to Mexico City, to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Taos, New Mexico – gathering a gobsmacking bouquet of famous friends as she went, painting and sketching as time allowed. Often, when I visit her in her modest apartment in Santa Monica, I feel like I am playing a game: Who Didn’t Luchita Know? The list is vanishingly small. Her social orbit included surrealists and soothsayers, dictators and diplomats, journalists, mystics, poets, gadabouts, movie stars, bohemians, and icons of all stripes.
She tells of martini lunches and drunken desert car rides with Agnes Martin, a children’s birthday party she organized with Frida Kahlo that Diego Rivera brought to a halt – but not a close – when he shot the piñata with his trusty pistol, and a scandalous foot rub she once received from Marcel Duchamp. Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi? Such a lovely man. So handsome. He introduced her to everyone. Architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller? One of the most brilliant men she ever met. British-Mexican novelist and painter Leonora Carrington? Apparently could separate her consciousness from her body at will, and travel, ghost-like, through the night. Would I like to see the portrait that Man Ray took of her? Of course, I would. He had wanted her to pose nude, but her second husband, the swashbuckling painter, magazine publisher, and sporadic archeologist Wolfgang Paalen, disapproved. She always made sure to leave the parties on British philosopher Alan Watts’ houseboat right as they broke out the LSD. She never did touch the stuff.
Her family itself is illustrious: with Mullican (her third husband), she had two sons, one of whom is the far-out Pictures Generation artist Matt Mullican. They all lived in Santa Monica Canyon, right near Ry Cooder and Christopher Isherwood. Mention of their second home, in the redoubtable artist enclave of Taos invariably sends her into rhapsodies about the nonpareil quality of the Southwestern sky.
It’s hard not to use words like ‘regal’ to describe her. No one would have faulted her, then, if she had responded to her newfound fame by simply reclining on her laurels, like a queen on her divan. But after a long hiatus, Hurtado is painting again. It seems now that she’ll be painting until the end. ‘Maybe I’ll live to be the oldest woman in the world,’ she mused in a recent interview. And maybe she will. No doubt she’ll be smiling while she does it.
Main image: Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1970, oil on canvas, 0.8 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Park View/Paul Soto, Los Angeles and Brussels; photograph: Cole Root