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Luchita Hurtado, artist who became a sensation in her 90s, dies at 99

Luchita Hurtado, an artist whose paintings and drawings emphasized the interconnectedness of all living things with a visionary intensity that was almost shamanic, but whose work was recognized by the art world only late in her life, died Thursday night at her home in Santa Monica, California. She was 99.

Her gallery representative, Andrea Schwan, confirmed the death.

A near-contemporary and friend of Frida Kahlo, Isamu Noguchi and Agnes Martin, among other prominent modern artists, the Venezuelan-born Ms. Hurtado was an active participant in the art scenes of New York City; Mexico City; Taos, New Mexico; and Los Angeles, where she had lived since 1951.


Her work spanned surrealism, Mexican muralism, feminism and environmentalism, and she was associated with Dynaton, a group of mystically minded abstract artists, among them her second husband, the Austrian Mexican Wolfgang Paalen, and her third husband, the American Lee Mullican. Yet her art was rarely exhibited until the 1970s, and then only sporadically and in small venues until she was in her 90s, when Mullican’s studio manager came across a vast archive of her paintings and drawings.

Working in graphite, watercolor, ink and acrylic, Ms. Hurtado depicted bodies — her own, as well as totemic figures — merging with landscapes and interiors in electric expressions of rootedness and communality. She sought out diverse sources of inspiration, including ancient traditions — cave paintings at Lascaux, France; Olmec heads in La Venta, Mexico; tribal dances in Taos — as well as mid-20th-century schools of abstraction.

“Everything in this world, I find, I’m related to,” she once said.

Her “I Am” series from the late 1960s shows her surveying her own body: standing in a closet and smoking a cigarette, lit match still in hand, while staring down at her steeply foreshortened feet. (These works are reminiscent of the ruminative, multitasking self-portraits of Philip Guston and of painter Joan Semmel’s feminist nudes, shown from a similar perspective.) In some of Ms. Hurtado’s works, brightly patterned rugs, baskets and other decorative elements interrupt the introspection.


“Her vision of the human body as a part of the world, not separate from nature, is more urgent today than ever,” curator Hans Ulrich Obrist wrote when she was named to the 2019 Time 100 list of influential people. “Luchita’s masterly oeuvre offers an extraordinary perspective that focuses attention on the edges of our bodies and the language that we use to bridge the gap between ourselves and others.”

Luchita Hurtado was born Oct. 28, 1920, in Maiquetía, a Venezuelan coastal city about 15 miles north of Caracas. At 8 she emigrated to New York, where she lived with her mother, a seamstress, her sister and two aunts; her father remained behind in Venezuela.

She studied fine art at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan and, after graduating, volunteered at Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa. There she met Daniel del Solar, a much older journalist, and, at 18, married him. During their brief, peripatetic union, she was introduced to other creative expatriates and intellectuals, among them Noguchi, Mexican abstract painter Rufino Tamayo and Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta.

But her husband abandoned her and their children when the second of their two sons was still an infant — he “just came for his books and left, and I never saw him again,” she recalled. To support her family, she worked as a window dresser for the Lord & Taylor department store and as a freelance fashion illustrator for Condé Nast.


Ms. Hurtado took classes at the Art Students League and, with Noguchi and other friends, made the rounds of influential galleries, including Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century. It was through Noguchi that she met Paalen.

Ms. Hurtado joined him in Mexico City in the mid-1940s and became part of a close-knit art community there in which Mexican muralists, American photographers and European surrealists who had fled World War II mingled freely. The couple lived in the same neighborhood as Kahlo and her husband, painter Diego Rivera, and socialized with Leonora Carrington, the British painter and dream chronicler. They traveled throughout Mexico collecting pre-Columbian art, the influence of which can be seen in Ms. Hurtado’s paintings from this period.

The marriage began to unravel after Ms. Hurtado’s son Pablo, from her first marriage, died of polio. Grief-stricken, she wanted to have another child; her husband did not. Seeking a change of environment, the couple moved to Mill Valley, California, in 1948. There, Ms. Hurtado met Mullican, who, along with Paalen, was a proponent of Dynaton, a movement, named after the Greek word for “possible,” informed by automatism, mysticism and indigenous art.

She moved to Los Angeles with Mullican in 1951 and remained there until the end of her life, with frequent forays to a second home in Taos. They married later in the 1950s. She raised two sons with him and supported his career, going into his studio at night to work on her own art when everyone else was asleep.


Through all her relocations and relationships, making art was a constant — “a need, like brushing your teeth,” she said. Yet her dedication and productivity were not recognized until the 1970s, when she began to participate in consciousness-raising circles and was included in group exhibitions with a feminist angle. One of them, “Invisible/Visible,” at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1972, was organized by artists Judy Chicago and Dextra Frankel.

“There was a time when women really didn’t show their work,” Ms. Hurtado said in a 2019 profile in T, the New York Times style magazine.

Outside Los Angeles, however, she remained largely unknown until 2015, when, while working for the estate of Mullican (who died in 1998), his former studio director, Ryan Good, uncovered a trove of paintings and works on paper marked only with the initials “L.H.” He consulted Ms. Hurtado, who was then using the name Luchita Mullican, and found to his surprise that the work was hers.

Good set about finding a dealer to show her art. A sold-out 2016 exhibition at the Park View Gallery in Los Angeles followed, as did enthusiastic reviews. Christopher Knight, The Los Angeles Times’ art critic, praised the “salutary visual grit” of Ms. Hurtado’s works on paper.

Curators, including Anne Ellegood at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, took note, and Ms. Hurtado was included in the 2018 edition of the museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial. The next year, Hauser & Wirth mounted a show of her works from the 1940s and ’50s, “Dark Years,” at its uptown branch in New York.


In 2019, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London hosted the first international retrospective of Ms. Hurtado’s art, “I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn.” Reviewing it in The Guardian, Adrian Searle wrote, “Vitality, tenderness, spookiness, intimacy, gawkiness, sexiness, subtlety, anger, jazzy abstractions, totemic figures, near monochromes, word paintings and the acutely observed come one after the other.”

The show later traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Another retrospective, scheduled for the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Hurtado leaves two sons with Mullican, Matt, a multimedia and performance artist, and John, a filmmaker; and two grandchildren. Her son Daniel died in 2012.

Ms. Hurtado was a vivacious presence in the many video interviews she gave in her later years, cracking wise at her questioners with a deep, staccato laugh. She told Harry Smith of the “Today” show that for her 100th birthday, she wanted to dance “a very fast rumba.”

In recent years, the environmental themes in her work became more specific and urgent, as she took up the issue of climate change. Some of her later paintings and works on paper added block-lettered texts, like “Water Air Earth,” “We Are Just a Species” and “Mother Nature,” to her signature images of figures in wide, open-armed stances, who seem to be merging with the trees around them. Others, reprising the top-down perspective of her earlier works, showed globes emerging like infants from the birth canal.

“When I think about my painting and the political and the planet,” she told artist Andrea Bowers in a 2019 interview, “it’s about the hope that it’s not too late and that people can still get together and in whatever small way make a difference that adds up.”