Americans for the Arts mourns the loss of artist Luchita Hurtado, who died at her home in Santa Monica, California, on August 13, at age 99.
Hurtado was awarded the Carolyn Clark Powers Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 National Arts Awards, presented to her by actress Zoe Saldana and received on her behalf by her youngest son, writer and filmmaker John Mullican. Saldana remarked about how she discovered Hurtado’s work: “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 a couple of years ago, and my husband and I immediately fell in love with what we saw. 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 had gone to bed.”
Born in 1920 in Maiquetía, Venezuela, Hurtado dedicated over 80 years of her painting and drawing practice to the investigation of universality and transcendence. The breadth of her experimentation with unconventional techniques, materials, and styles spoke to the multicultural and experiential contexts that shaped her life and career. Hurtado emigrated to the United States in 1928, settling in New York where she attended classes at the Art Students League. She relocated to Mexico City in the late 1940s and, in the following decade, moved to San Francisco Bay, making frequent visits to Taos, New Mexico, and ultimately settling in Los Angeles.
Asserting her presence through a personal perspective of the body—rendered from above at skewed angles—Hurtado’s ‘I am’ paintings aimed to coalesce our gaze with hers, creating a depth of field activated by the unexpected position of the geometric patterns of a Southwestern rug as a backdrop. This series was followed by a group of surrealist Body Landscapes which recognized the urgency of the current ecological crisis. In these works, the human figure assumed the form of mountains and desert sand dunes to underscore the interconnection between corporeality and the natural world. In more recent years her paintings incorporated statements like “Water Air Earth,” “We Are Just a Species,” and “Mother Nature,” as urgent pleas to recognize the issue of climate change.
“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 it became a movement, and is a staunch advocate for taking better care of our planet,” said Saldana about Hurtado’s work at the 2019 National Arts Awards.
Although she associated with a vast network of internationally renowned artists and intellectuals, including members of Dynaton, Mexican muralists, and Surrealists, Hurtado’s practice always remained an independent pursuit. She briefly exhibited work in the 1970s in small venues and group exhibitions with a feminist angle such as “Invisible/Visible,” at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1972. However, Hurtado did not rise to artistic fame until 2015 when her archive of paintings and drawings was discovered by the studio manager of her late husband Lee Mullican. Public recognition came in the form of a sold-out exhibition at the Park View Gallery in 2016, her work joining the 2018 edition of the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial, a solo show of her works from the 1940s and 1950s at Hauser & Wirth, NY, and her first international retrospective in 2019 at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, “I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn.” A second retrospective slated for the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Upon learning of her passing, Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch said, “Luchita was a remarkable artist and advocate for the environment and other important causes. It was an honor to be able to recognize her lifetime of achievement last year at our National Arts Awards. While an influential member of the international artists’ community for more than half a century, through her marriage to painter Lee Mullican, her own publicly recognized success as a visual artist only came to be in the last few years of her life. She was an inspiration and an example of an artist truly dedicated to the daily practice of making work.”
Americans for the Arts is fortunate to have been associated with Hurtado and is deeply saddened by her passing.
Below is a video about her that was shown at the 2019 National Arts Awards.