Luchita Hurtado was a Venezuelan-born painter, artist, poet, ecologist, and feminist whose work was rooted in Surrealism. Her expansive oil paintings, ink-based drawings, and fabric collages showed totemic figures, pulsating abstract patterns, and sensuous renderings of plants, trees, and fruit. Her works explored the interconnectedness of all beings. Her riotously colorful paintings transformed genderless figures into trees and bodies into landscapes.
Hurtado moved to New York City in 1928 when she was eight years old. She studied art in high school and later at the Art Students League. In the 1940s, she was a fashion illustrator for Conde Nast.
In 1947, she met the artist Wolfgang Paalen at a gallery show of his work in New York. He invited her to travel with him to Mexico to see the big Olmec heads that had just been discovered. They were married a week later and lived in his home together with her two young sons from her first marriage and his ex-wife, the poet and Surrealist painter Alice Rahon. In Mexico, Hurtado made oil paintings and studied ancient Olmec culture.
When one of her two children from her former marriage died of infantile paralysis at the age of five, she could no longer live in Mexico. The couple moved to the United States and stayed in San Francisco with American artist Lee Mullican, one of the founders of the “Dynaton” group, known for its interest in Surrealism. Paalen eventually moved back to Mexico, but Hurtado stayed in California and married Mullican with whom she had two more children, one of whom is the artist Matt Mullican.
In the 1950s, Hurtado produced paintings and drawings of surreal landscapes and totemic figures. Her 1954 painting, “Luchita – Dark Years,” is a self-portrait, which marks a shift towards her investigation of self-affirmation and will become a pervasive them in future works.
Her 1960s and 1970s paintings epitomized an embodied, empowered female gaze. She often painted representations of her own body as seen from above. She adopted the perspective of a woman looking downward, seeing partial views of her own nude body against a backdrop of floors or patterned rugs. She made landscape paintings with the female body or her own body merging into deserts or mountains to show the connection between people and the earth.
Her 1970s Surrealist landscape paintings seem to be informed by outer-space exploration. A circle of a cloud-filled sky, surrounded by voluptuous brown hills, inverts the famous Apollo 17 photograph of Earth as a ‘big blue marble’ floating through space. A void in the Earth becomes an erotically suggestive spatial atmosphere.
Hurtado’s lush paintings, rich with cosmic motifs and geometric abstractions, were exhibited at the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2018.” In the summer of 2020, Hauser & Wirth Zurich gave a retrospective of her charged figurative drawings from the l940s through the 1970s. Hurtado had her first international retrospective, “I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn,” at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London in 2019. The exhibition traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but was shut down because of the Coronavirus. It remains fully installed for reopening at a later date.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.