The Mystery of Luchita Hurtado

‘Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn’ is on view at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London until October 20.

An amalgam of the celestial and the earthly, dancing totemic figures, the seductive raw female form, the art of Luchita Hurtado is much like herself—rebellious, experimentative and zesty. On the 23rd of May 2019, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery situated in London’s picturesque Hyde Park opened its doors to reveal the first major retrospective of the Venezuelan-born artist and pioneer, Luchita Hurtado. Covering seven decades of her work, the retrospective titled: Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn, is available until the 20th of October 2019. It is the first solo exhibition for Hurtado and follows not only the artistic but spiritual evolution of a woman longing to connect with the earth, the elements and everything around her.

Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I will Be Reborn (Installation view, 23 May – 20 October 2019, Serpentine Galleries) © 2019 Luchita Hurtado Photo: Hugo Glendinning

The multifaceted, expansive and until recently relatively obscure career of the Santa Monica-based artist, committed environmentalist and fashion designer stunned viewers this summer and catapulted Hurtado into the limelight. Curated by Rebecca Lewin, the retrospective features drawings and paintings made on paper, board and canvas using a variety of media—graphite, crayon, oil and ink. Organised chronologically, the exhibition follows the trajectory of Hurtado’s artistic career beginning with her earliest works depicting flora and fauna from the 1930s. Then moving on to her vibrant experiments in abstraction made in the 1940s and 50s to her highly representational works that center on unity between the earth and the self. When walking around the space, one concurrently observes the alchemical transformation of the female form as she starts off as an intimation and slowly begins to materialize in the works from the 1960s, later exposing herself and laying it all bare in the 70s, to finally melding with the natural elements. 

“When I was a child, I had a great sense of smell. I could smell a butterfly when it was breaking the cocoon. I watched the whole procedure, and I think that was a great influence, to see this magic.”

Luchita Hurtado interview: 'Life and death is just a matter of a border' |  Financial Times
Luchita Hurtado, The Umbilical Cord of the Earth is the Moon, 1977, Oil on canvas, Unique, 101.6 x 58.4 cm, © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Jeff McLane

Upon entering the galleries, viewers’ eyes can revel in the dream-like images containing abstract biomorphic forms, psychedelic colours, geometric patterns, and a lexicon of earthly and spiritual symbols. One series stuck out—the psychologically complex self-portraits where one is confronted with the body of a woman looking at herself, either capturing a moment of introspection or of self-affirmation. The viewer straddles the line between spectator and participant as they view the body of the woman from her perspective; the foreshortened view which creates depth was further enhanced by the harsh geometric patterning on the native American rugs whose effect was then softened by the ambrosial corporeal form. These oeuvres were made at a time when Hurtado was in contact with artists and thinkers such as Joyce Kozloff and Agnes Martin Taos and even joined many women’s groups. Though purposefully never adopting any labels, the 1970s marked a turning point in Hurtado’s explorative journey in which she began to acknowledge not just the body, but her body and herself as subject matters in their own right.

The retrospective ends with mural-style display of Hurtado’s most recent earth-centric works. These works assume a political role, as they harbour silent and unsuspecting symbols that reference and respond to the current and pressing issue of climate change and global warming. Hurtado’s oeuvre broach this polemic topic artistically and remind us of our responsibility to this world that we cohabit with other species.

What it Means to be a Planetarian

Having emigrated to New York at the age of nine and later spending time in Mexico City, San Francisco, Taos New Mexico and finally Los Angeles, her works were likely informed by these unique geographical experiences. In a way, these relocations also gave rise to feelings of dispossession, Hurtado believing that she never quite belonged to any one country or culture became instead a planetarian and terrestrial. The term planetarian, coined by Hurtado herself, describes the invigorating feeling of being alive and a part of something bigger. It was a result of the enamour she felt at seeing the vast and incomprehensible greatness of the solar system from photographs taken of the earth from space. We can now understand her corporeal experimentations, foreshortened perspectives and earthly explorations to form part of a quest to find a sense of identity and of acquiring an organic, almost animalistic interconnectedness with the rest of the world and the cosmos.

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, c. 1951, Crayon and ink on paper, Unique, 61 x 45.9 cm
© Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Janet Dreisen Rappaport through the 2019 Collectors Committee, Photo: Genevieve Hanson

From Associations to Delayed Recognition

Despite her fierce, stimulating and poignant body of works, Hurtado was often defined by her relationships with some of the most well-known and beloved artists—Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo—or by her associations with popular artistic movements. These include Surrealism, the Dynaton Group, who championed shamanistic and indigenous art and believed in extraterrestrial forces, and Magical Realism. However, this retrospective uniquely showcases Hurtado’s rich artistic language and personality as being independent and self-defining.

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Being an artist and a woman however also left Hurtado susceptible to one of the most common offenses—namely exclusion and neglect. The fortunate discovery of Hurtado’s works happened by chance when in 2015, the director of the estate of Hurtado’s late husband and artist, Lee Mullican, discovered works bearing her initials among his. Since then it has been touch and go, with exhibitions held at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in New York and now at one of London’s most cherished spaces, the Serpentine Sackler Galleries. The works of Hurtado were only brought to the attention of Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artistic director of the Serpentine, two years ago because of an exhibition organized by the Paul Soto Gallery in Los Angeles. Attributing her delayed recognition to issues concerning gender, Obrist sought to give her the attention she deserves.   

Luchita Hurtado’s works will subsequently form part of an international retrospective that will take place in the Museo Tamayo, Mexico City in 2020, and travel to select art institutions in the United States. At 98 years old, Hurtado shows no signs of slowing down as she self-assuredly states: ‘The older I get, the more I want to tell you how old I am.’ A force to be reckoned with, Hurtado’s journey and works can finally be appreciated.

Featured Image: Luchita Hurtado, 2019 © Luchita Hurtado, Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos.

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