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LONDON — The Venezuelan-born American artist Luchita Hurtado is among a group of women artists finally getting their due as nonagenarians. At 98, her exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn, is her first solo show in a public institution. Earlier this year she had a solo show at Hauser & Wirth, New York, and in 2020 she will have an exhibition at the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City.
In her youth, Hurtado moved in elite circles, counting among her friends Frida Kahlo, Isamu Noguchi, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Man Ray, and Luis Buñuel. She also participated in a number of noteworthy projects: In 1971, she was part of Joyce Kozloff’s Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (others included June Wayne, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago), and in 1986 Hurtado says she was even invited to be one of the Guerrilla Girls. Still, Hurtado worked quietly, even if prolifically, often turning her artwork face down after it was complete. She had been in a few group exhibitions, but it wasn’t until after the death of her third husband, the artist Lee Mullican, in 1998, that her work became more widely known. In 2015, Ryan Good, the director of Mullican’s estate, made a discovery that would precipitate Hurtado’s more recent, large-scale shows: While sifting through Lee Mullican’s flat files, he stumbled across 1,200 undated works signed “LH.” Good had not then known Hurtado’s maiden name, until she acknowledged the works as her own.
Moving to the United States at age eight, the young Luchita bucked the wishes of her seamstress mother, who wanted her to pursue dressmaking, and studied fine arts at the all-girls Washington Irving High School in New York City. After marrying a Chilean journalist who left her with a young son, Hurtado supported her family by working as a fashion illustrator for Conde Nast and designing department store windows and stage sets. She sewed clothing, often for herself but also for others, such as the artist Agnes Martin, and made jewelry. She moved to Mexico City with her second husband, the painter Wolfgang Paalen, whom she’d met through Noguchi, in 1946.
In an interview with the Serpentine exhibition’s curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Hurtado describes Paalen as a teacher. They had a fruitful time in Mexico City, where they befriended the artist Leonora Carrington who would make a house for Hurtado’s children out of cardboard boxes. Then Hurtado’s second son died from polio at age five. In her grief, she moved back to California. Shortly thereafter, Paalen took his life. Practically none of the work Hurtado created in Mexico remains.
The Serpentine exhibition begins with the work Hurtado made in the 1930s, showing how she experimented with form, material, and subject matter, exploring the space between figuration and abstraction, in media that included graphite, watercolor, oil, acrylic, and crayon. By the 1970s she had developed a technique that involved physically cutting up her canvases and sewing them back together, using the machine she used to sew her clothes.
As a mother in the mid-20th century, Hurtado worked in the wee hours, often on the dining room table. When her third husband, the artist Lee Mullican, accepted a teaching position in Chile in 1968, the only space she had for a studio was in a closet. Instead of being stymied, she created perhaps one of her most intriguing series, the “I Am” self-portraits. These were not painted from a mirror, but by looking down at her own body, so that her contours become the contour of a landscape. Using herself as a model was part of her self-sufficiency. We can see shafts of light coming into the closet, as well as private acts, such as smoking a cigarette. She said of these landscapes: “this is the world, this is all you have, this is your home.”
Did she feel closeted as an artist? Or perhaps she enjoyed the freedom to experiment, without the input of critics, free to be alone with her work. In an undated artist statement, she wrote: “I still have a built-in resistance to success in the large arena of the commercial world. The thought of dealing with more than a few dozen people seems unreasonable to me.”
After the ’70s, Hurtado’s gaze turned skyward. Viewing her “Sky Skin” works, we look through portals of landscapes into the sky, with feathers and clouds and celestial bodies, almost like an escape into the cosmos, into freedom.
Her most recent works demonstrate her commitment to environmental activism, in which standing figures become trees in the forest, with text such as “Earth Air Water Fire” and “No Place to Hide.” “I feel that I’m cousin to a tree,” Hurtado told Obrist, describing herself as a “planetarian.”
But the work that gives the exhibition its title, I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn, is Hurtado’s birthing 2019 series. These medium-size canvases again take the viewpoint of looking down at the body, the breasts and the belly, and the divided legs as new life makes its way into the world. “There is a feeling about a child in your arms that is … you know, the smell of the head, the whole thing,” she has said. “You become nature. We are all related.”
Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn continues at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, London) through October 20. The exhibition was curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist.