Luchita Hurtado, California. 1962. © Luchita Hurtado. Photo: Lee Mullican.

Luchita Hurtado (1920–2020)

Luchita Hurtado, whose intimate and expansive art explored the boundaries of the self and the world, has died at age ninety-nine at her home in Santa Monica, California. Throughout her nearly eight-decade career, the Venezuela-born American artist developed an oeuvre of pioneering figurative paintings, drawings, and prints, the most famous of which merge her own body with landscapes and domestic interiors in dreamlike compositions. Collapsing figuration with abstraction and encompassing feminist, environmentalist, and spiritual concerns, her work has only recently received wide institutional attention, overshadowed by that of her spouses and peers, who included Frida Kahlo and the Surrealists, among many others. Last year, a survey of her work was held at London’s Serpentine Galleries and traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the city where she had long been based. It was originally scheduled to stop at Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo this fall, to coincide with the artist’s centennial. Hurtado is survived by two grandchildren as well as her two sons with her third husband, the artist Lee Mullican: the filmmaker John Mullican and the artist Matt Mullican.  

Born in Maiquetía, Venezuela, in 1920, Hurtado moved with her mother to New York at age eight. Soon after graduating from the city’s all-girls Washington Irving High School, she married Chilean journalist Daniel del Sar, with whom she had two sons. Through del Solar, Hurtado was introduced to many Latin intellectuals and artists and spent time in Santo Domingo and Washington D.C., before ultimately returning to New York with her two young sons, Daniel del Solar Jr. and Pablo del Solar. In the mid-1940s after Hurtado’s divorce from del Solar, she worked as a fashion illustrator for Condé Nast and frequented artist meetings at the Automat, where she met Josef Albers, André Breton, Willem de Kooning, and Max Ernst, among others. In 1946, Isamu Noguchi introduced her to the painter Wolfgang Paalen; they married in Mexico and resettled there, where their circle included Kahlo, Luis Buñuel, Diego Rivera, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo, many of whom would influence Hurtado’s own art. In 1948, after Hurtado and Paalen visited California, the couple returned to Mexico City, where her five-year-old son Pablo died shortly after a diagnosis of bulbar polio. “My life changed,” she later said. “I became somebody else.”

Mullican and Hurtado became a couple in the early 1950s. Hurtado then relocated to Santa Monica and gave birth to her third son, Matt Mullican, where Lee joined soon thereafter. In 1962, Hurtado welcomed her fourth son, John Mullican, reinforcing her own identity as a mother while simultaneously continuing her private art practice at night once everyone was asleep. 

The late-’60s and early ’70s saw Hurtado increase her output and establish some of her most well-known artistic devices, such as the dizzying downward first-person vantage of her “I Am” series, which features the artist looking at her own naked body, often amid vividly patterned domestic settings. Some have recently pointed to her work’s exploration of the female gaze as having anticipated later approaches by feminist artists and figurative painters. In the 1970s, Hurtado became involved with the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists that included Vija Celmins, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Schapiro—members of which later founded the Womanspace Gallery in Los Angeles. The Guerilla Girls invited Hurtado to form a West Coast chapter, but she declined, telling Artnews that she thought “it was the wrong approach to art.”

With Mullican and their two sons, Hurtado began to spend time each year in Taos, New Mexico, and served as the artist-in-residence of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1970. In Taos, Hurtado befriended artists Larry Bell, Gus Foster, Agnes Martin, and Ken Price. Hurtado and her family traveled extensively through the world before Lee’s passing in 1998.

All of her work was consigned to relative obscurity until 2015, when the estate director of Lee Mullican, who died in 1998, discovered a trove of paintings and works on paper. An exhibition of her early abstractions was held at Los Angeles’s Park View Gallery in 2016—her first solo show since the 1970s.

As a nonagenarian, Hurtado enjoyed major success and continued to make new work about the natural world and its ecological crisis. She was featured in the 2018 edition of the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. biennial, joined Hauser & Wirth, and was named one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2019. Hurtado’s first museum survey exhibition opened at the Serpentine Galleries in 2019 and later traveled to LACMA in 2020.

Speaking with the New York Times last year, Hurtado considered her own mortality with the same fluidity that defines her art. “It’s not death; it’s a border that we cross,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to come back and tell you, but if I can, I’ll find a way.”

This article was updated on August 18, 2020.