Luchita Hurtado on love affairs, abstract painting and foot massages from Duchamp

Lucita Hurtado in her studio in Santa Monica, California
Lucita Hurtado in her studio in Santa Monica, California Credit: Oresti Tsonopoulos

 This interview from 2018 has been republished following the death of Luchita Hurtado on 13 August 2020, aged 99

“I sometimes dream about those years when the children were small and we were adventurers,” says Luchita Hurtado, the 98-year-old painter about to have her first museum retrospective, at the Serpentine Gallery in London. She has no shortage of adventures to draw on – or many selves, as she would say.

When we meet, Hurtado is sitting in her living room in Santa Monica, California, wearing a top and skirt of her own design. Laughter often skips through her speech. Her face radiates such energy you wonder if she’s made some sort of pact with nature.

Light streams in over the plants on her balcony; her elbow rests on a tall stack of Time magazines: all copies of the latest issue, in which, having lived in total privacy for almost a century, she features as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. “I really feel that this is a great time,” she says, serene and surprised.

Does she wish recognition had come sooner?

“No,” she replies calmly. “It wasn’t the right time sooner.”

Luchita Hurtado, photographed by Man Ray in 1945 Credit: Man Ray Trust

The facts of Hurtado’s life suggest she has been carried by great gusts of world history. Born in November 1920 in a small coastal town in Venezuela, she grew up largely in New York, married at 18 and gave birth to her first son on the day the Germans invaded Paris. She escaped the amorous advances of a Latin American dictator, flew a plane over a jungle and watched Diego Rivera shoot a bullet into a piñata at a children’s party. She has been photographed by Man Ray, drawn by Don Bachardy, befriended by Isamu Noguchi, propositioned by Luis Buñuel and given a foot massage by Marcel Duchamp. She has had four sons, three husbands and many lovers.

And yet, when you speak to her, you get something less dramatic than these experiences imply – something more like tangential history, and funnier. She doesn’t mind telling me, when I ask about the Abstract Expressionist painter Lee Krasner, that Mrs Jackson Pollock “had a beautiful body, but the face didn’t go with the body”. Or that Robert Motherwell’s wife Maria, who once inspired an artwork by Joseph Cornell, “took forever to get dressed”. Or how, when Duchamp stopped by, you made sure you were around to hear what he had to say, even if you were in your nightie and had already gone to bed.

“What did he have to say?” I ask.

“That,” she replies, “I don’t remember.”

The story of Hurtado’s “discovery” by the contemporary art world is one of coincidence, joy and triumph. Ryan Good, now Hurtado’s studio director, had worked with her son, the artist Matt Mullican, in New York. It was only a few years ago, when he came to look after the estate of Matt’s father (and Hurtado’s late husband), Lee Mullican, that Good found, mixed up in Mullican’s portfolios, a large number of works signed “L.H.”

Their origin was a mystery. Hurtado was known to any friend of Matt or Lee as Luchita Mullican, mother and widow, and certainly not as a painter. Who was the artist drawing naked women, whose surname began with H?

It didn’t occur to anyone that it might, in fact, be an artist drawing herself: again and again, in assertion of her own existence. Later, the assumption of a male gaze was brilliantly illustrated by a basic query over orientation. When curators came to look at what Hurtado calls the “I am” drawings – in which the female form is seen in unusually foreshortened perspective, breasts, belly, legs and feet almost abstracted into a dune-like landscape – the bodies were assumed to belong at the top of the frame, opposite the viewer, as if they were the object of another person’s gaze. No, Good would have to point out, it’s not that way round; the body goes at the bottom of the frame. You’re seeing it closest to you because it’s a self-portrait, the artist looking down at herself.

Untitled (Birthing), 2019, by Lucita Hurtado Credit: Lucita Hurtado/Hauser & Wirth/Jeff McLane

When Good began to show the work to others, there was a lot of interest in the story, but no serious takers at first. High-end museums and galleries would try to assess the quality of Hurtado’s work in relation to that of her better-known contemporaries. But Good knew that was the wrong measure. Instead, in 2016, he put on a show of intimate-scaled works at Paul Soto’s small apartment gallery in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Suddenly, Hurtado was received not as a lesser-known acquaintance of André Breton, but as what the setting dictated and as what she is: cool.

Before long, she was the big sensation at the 2018 “Made in LA” biennial at the city’s Hammer Museum, described by the New York Times as one of its “hands-down stars”. She was taken on by Hauser & Wirth, joining Louise Bourgeois and Lorna Simpson on the gallery’s books, as well as Piero Manzoni and Henry Moore. She was championed by the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and offered the show at the Serpentine that is due to open on Thursday. Next year, she will turn 100.

Some things Hurtado remembers “like I’m living it”. She remembers the aunts who raised her in Maiquetía, Venezuela. She remembers the first time she saw ice, and how the cube was so precious to her she kept it in her purse, only to find it gone and the inside of the purse wet. And she remembers the earliest drawing Good has found, from 1938, of a gas stovetop, lit: “It was such a discovery, this light,” she says, “that blue light, and the black hands over it. The black iron around it.” She was a surrealist before she met any.

“I’ve been different people,” Hurtado reflects. “I’m not who I was. I’m who I am.”

After her first husband, the journalist Daniel Solar, left her and their two children in 1944, she met the surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, who took her from New York to Mexico with his entourage two years later. When her younger son Pablo was five, he contracted bulbar polio there, and died. Hurtado tells me that, as a result, she temporarily lost her sight. “I had these terrible dreams, that he was alive,” she says. “It was a very painful experience. I said: ‘I can’t live on, here in Mexico.’ I couldn’t take the chance of losing my other son.”

In 1949, she left for the United States, married Paalen’s friend Lee Mullican, and had another child. Matt was followed 11 years later by John.

Untitled (Match Triptych), c.1970, by Luchita Hurtado Credit: Lucita Hurtado/Hauser & Wirth/Jeff McLane

Though much of Hurtado’s work was on its way to London by the time I reached Los Angeles, Good still had about 1,000 other pieces he could show me. In a warehouse in a formerly rather barren area of LA, I spent hours looking at a vast range of images: decades’ worth of productivity, characterised by unshowy skill, diaristic dedication and an extreme thirst for variety in form. Some of the small oil paintings from the Sixties resembled Hurtado’s beautiful “crayon resist” drawings from the Forties: rich, almost prehistoric abstractions made with black ink poured into the crevices of coloured crayon.

There were ink sketches with blank centres that looked like portraits of light itself, and life drawings that resembled solarised photographs, made with ink that changed colour at the edges. There were giant striped geometric canvases from the early Seventies, built out of words cut up and sewn together, or else masked and rearranged to the same effect: Woman, you couldn’t tell they once said, or Eve.

There were all-white paintings, declaiming Yo Soy: “I am”. There were hyper-realist Magritte-like skies with feathers floating in them. There were Matisse-like paintings depicting sex, and Roualt-like others depicting birth. There were long paintings that looked like strips of celluloid or calligraphic scrolls. Some, ecological proclamations, were very new. Hurtado’s capacity for creation seemed infinite.

In amongst all this were sketches for what would become the “I am” paintings. Later, these stayed with me the longest. Clearly part of a daily practice, there was a dizzying urgency to some of them, as the artist looked down at her own naked body, finally alone, twisting her feet this way and that, bending, walking: a few were almost blurry.

In one, the figure seemed about to lean down and pick up a toy plane from the floor. In another, she faced a toy racetrack – Pit Stop, it read, as if the mother could ever have one – and in her palm was a Matchbox car, drawn in far greater detail than the body, the nude like a ghost and the boy’s toy some kind of stigmata. “I was always a night person,” Hurtado would tell me a day later. “I needed very little sleep.” Large in scale but intimate in nature, declamatory yet private, all of these after-hours sketches bore Hurtado’s assertively scrawled initials. L.H.: I am. For decades, she drew in the dark.

Untitled, c.1951, by Luchita Hurtado Credit: Luchita Hurtado/LA County Musuem of Art/Genevieve Hanson

“I was always looking after people, you know?” Hurtado tells me. First there was her little brother, then there were all the sons, and let’s not forget the husbands. “I cooked, I did everything. I made them jackets,” Hurtado says. “I could never make a pair of pants though. They’re so complicated.”

I ask her when she first drew herself looking downwards. She says: “Well, that came when I decided, you see, that that’s all I had. I was just me.” It’s not clear to me what she means. Then she says, as if moving on to another topic: “I found that my husband had been having an affair with this woman.”

But it’s not another topic. The drawings – the declaration of her own body, rooted in the world – were a response. It was Mullican who addressed the affair when it came to light.

“He said, ‘You’ve been married twice, you have had an affair. You’ve been very free about living your life here. And I ... you were the first person.’ And I understood,” Hurtado explains. “I think it has to do with being an artist, you know, that artists have different lives. I said he should have other affairs, and it hurt me every time he did. It was painful.”

A sequence of six small blue and white paintings in the Serpentine show depict the sex act, abstracted. They are dated 1967 and titled, oddly for a series of couplings, “A Time of Being Alone”. It strikes me listening to Hurtado that these, along with a portfolio of similar sketches I’d seen in the warehouse (titled “The Spaces of Love and Longing”) may not have been the joyous images I’d taken them to be, but born, perhaps, from pain. I ask her which it is. “I don’t remember,” she says. “Life is complicated. Life is complicated.”

Hurtado’s story has been cast, in the couple of years since she’s been art-world news, as one in which she has been overlooked in favour of men. In some ways that’s true, but Hurtado herself has never minded, even when egged on by feminists outraged on her behalf. “I never lacked for artists,” she tells me, as if her own prominence in that orbit were irrelevant.

Hurtado in a photograph from c.1939 Credit: unknown

But it’s possible that her obscurity can tell us something about the way she worked. Hurtado knew Leonora Carrington and Agnes Martin and shared a show in 1974 with Vija Celmins. Compared to them, privacy or intimacy – domesticity, even – were important components of Hurtado’s practice. When she was a teenager, she would paint landscapes and still lifes on the backs of her life drawings, so she could turn them around if her mother came in. The habit followed her into adulthood: until the Seventies, she would turn her pictures to face the wall when anyone entered her studio.

The gesture has an element of protectiveness about it as well as modesty, as if she enjoyed the company of these creations and had no reason to invite the judgement of others. Standing in the warehouse full of work, you can easily imagine it. Hurtado is delighted to be receiving such widespread praise now, but the quiet in her past may have been caused by something more nuanced than neglect.

Throughout our afternoon together, Hurtado was sharp and warm and vibrant. Though she spoke disconnectedly at times, it was hard to tell whether that was because her memory was resistant or because it was all too clear and she wanted to move on. Sometimes she told half-stories, which seemed to edge towards a feeling more than a fact.

Still, dogmatically, I would try to pin things down. Over lunch at the local fish market, Hurtado told me that she was once at a party, reading people’s palms, when someone presented a hand with no lines on it at all.

“Now you know who I am,” said the blank-palmed man to the young Hurtado.

“When was that?” I asked, with an involuntary gasp.

Hurtado paused with a taco halfway to her mouth.

“That was when I stopped reading palms,” she said.

Hurtado in her Santa Monica studio today Credit: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Later, some of the half-said things Hurtado had told me floated up past the memory of her wit: losing her sight after her son Pablo died; her eldest son Daniel’s death decades later from swimming in contaminated water; Lee’s other women; Paalen’s suicide, long after they’d parted; Maiquetía – the way she pronounced the name of the town where she was born: staccato but slow and sweet.

And, amid all the loss, over and over again in the paintings: “I am”.

She hadn’t half-said any of this really. If you gave it time to settle, it was whole.