Los Angeles

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1970, oil on paper, 19 × 18 1⁄2". From the series “I Am,” ca. 1967–73.

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1970, oil on paper, 19 × 18 1⁄2". From the series “I Am,” ca. 1967–73.

Luchita Hurtado

Isolated in your apartment, you are lonely, stressed, bored. You walk into the kitchen and see the bowl of apples and the dishes in the sink. You’re getting nothing done; maybe you’re resorting to bad habits. Nothing inspires. Now is the time for you to look at the art of Luchita Hurtado, who teaches us that, whether just standing in our living rooms or wandering aimlessly around the kitchen, we are as alive as we will ever be—that every passing moment is an opportunity to reach for the sublime.

Hurtado was born in 1920 in Maiquetía, Venezuela, and moved to the United States when she was eight years old. After becoming a mother, she traveled and lived in Mexico, and today lives in Santa Monica, California. She had been painting in a semiprivate way for eighty years until increasing recognition led to this survey, “I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn,” which first opened at London’s Serpentine Galleries before it briefly illuminated the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (shuttered at the time of writing). Having waited since her early career for this kind of support, Hurtado is having her Hilma af Klint moment. The revelation of her career—which she spent working with the themes of intimacy, the domestic, and the familiar—is widening our frames of reference for self-portraiture and feminist aesthetics.

From the mid-1960s to the early ’70s, Hurtado made a series of paintings titled “I Am,” in which she portrayed her body from her own perspective, looking down. In Untitled, 1970, the swirly blue background appears to be a rug. Toward the bottom half of the painting, we see Hurtado’s body, sheathed in a green dress that is as luminescent as a mallard’s head. Her hands emerge on either side of her bent knee; the left one holds a cigarette, the right grasps a blazing match. Is she depressed and sneaking a cig in the indigo dark of the coming night? Is this the most pleasurable moment of her day? The narrative eludes us, but what might strike viewers is Hurtado’s invitation for them to share her vision of her isolated body, a gesture that is both generous and alienated, reminiscent of the complex work of Joan Semmel. Yet Hurtado’s imagery seems to be less about the pleasures and trajectories of her body than about its suspension in otherwise throwaway moments. This particular piece likely ignited the subsequent works, which together seem to sing, “I am here, thinking, feeling, perceiving.” Untitled, 1971, homes in on black-and-white zigzags, perhaps the pattern of her kitchen’s tiles, and a huge red apple. Standing above the fruit of knowledge is Hurtado, naked; we see her breasts and the swell of her belly. The scene could be an ironic comment on the ancient origins of sexism or a reminder that art can erupt from the need to clean the floor.

In Untitled, ca. 1966, body and surface are more explicitly linked. The large oil painting is structured by the traced outlines of the artist’s and her four-year-old son’s bodies, which Hurtado colored a tawny brown, surrounded by cerulean. Hurtado’s arms are spread out like wings, making reference not only to Henri Matisse’s Dance (I), 1909, but also to his figurative work with blue cutouts, to which he turned once physical illness made it difficult for him to paint. Here, we see Hurtado creating art out of her circumstances: In the house, with her children, she transformed what might otherwise have been an “art project” into art that projects love and intimacy and constitutes a meditation on the ephemeral. A different kind of retrato may be discovered in Untitled (WOMB), ca. 1970s, a text-based work of unprimed canvas gilded with the repeated and heavily patterned word WOMB. At the center of the painting is a little open window that looks out onto a blank space, as if the word were a frame for the chasm. Emptiness need not be a place of terror; it can be a source of generativity.