Spir­i­tual en­ergy

97-year-old artist Lu­chita Hur­tado high­lights Los An­ge­les ex­hibit

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA

LOS AN­GE­LES – At 97, Lu­chita Hur­tado has had enough ad­ven­tures for three life­times. She traipsed around south­ern Mex­ico in the 1940s in search of pre-Columbian arche­ol­ogy. She was pals with sculp­tor Isamu Noguchi and Mex­i­can mod­ernist Rufino Ta­mayo. Mar­cel Duchamp once gave her a foot rub.

“It was the big talk!” she says with a laugh. “All the gos­sip was that he had mas­saged my feet.”

Hur­tado and her feet are again the big talk – this time for her strik­ing paint­ings of feet and other parts of the fe­male body against de­pic­tions of in­dige­nous rugs, blue sky and sump­tu­ous fruit. They are a large part of the re­cently opened “Made in LA,” the Ham­mer Mu­seum’s buzzy bi­en­nial sur­vey of con­tem­po­rary art by 32 artists work­ing in Greater Los An­ge­les.

On a breezy Fri­day af­ter­noon, the diminu­tive Hur­tado ca­su­ally strolls into the Ham­mer’s gal­leries decked out in a striped smock of her own de­sign. “It’s an orig­i­nal,” she says. “I made this one my­self.”

She notes that there are sim­i­lar ones avail­able for sale in the mu­seum’s gift shop – and pro­ceeds to lead me to the rack where they hang. As we make our way back to the court­yard, she stops and takes a breath. “It is,” she says with won­der, “such a beau­ti­ful day.”

If Hur­tado’s en­ergy could be bot­tled as a tonic, it would no doubt sell out.

“She has this com­pletely spir­i­tual en­ergy,” says gal­lerist Paul Soto, who showed Hur­tado’s work in 2016. “Ev­ery time I’m with her I’m, like, ‘How can I be more like you?’”

That en­ergy comes through in Hur­tado’s works, which have a con­tem­po­rary feel – so much so that one “Made in LA” guest con­tacted the mu­seum to ques­tion the wall text that ac­com­pa­nies some of her paint­ings. There’s no way, said the vis­i­tor, that a painter by the name of Lu­chita Hur­tado could have pos­si­bly been born in 1920.

“They left a mes­sage say­ing they re­ally loved the show but they found a typo,” Ham­mer se­nior cu­ra­tor Anne El­le­good, who co-cu­rated the ex­hi­bi­tion, says with a laugh. “They thought Lu­chita’s birth date was wrong.”

Luisa Amelia Gar­cia Ro­driguez Hur­tado was born on Novem­ber 28, 1920, in Cara­cas, Venezuela. And over the 97 years that have passed be­tween her birth and the cur­rent mo­ment, she has lived at the cen­ter of the art world – yet also at its mar­gins.

A peri­patetic life took her from South Amer­ica to New York to Mex­ico to Cal­i­for­nia – with pit stops in be­tween. In the 1950s, she set­tled in Los An­ge­les – Santa Mon­ica, to be ex­act.

Her paint­ings have also spanned con­ti­nents and the 20th cen­tury in their sub­ject mat­ter: in­dige­nous pat­terns, stark Mod­ernism, the sur­real and the ab­stract – bound by a keen un­der­stand­ing of ma­te­ri­als. (A series of works ren­dered in oil stick and bathed in a wa­tery ink have a strik­ing, dap­pled ef­fect.) But dur­ing the near cen­tury she has been paint­ing, her work has been largely over­shad­owed by the men she mar­ried – Chilean jour­nal­ist Daniel de So­lar, Aus­trian artist and the­o­rist Wolf­gang Paalen, and for more than 40 years US painter Lee Mul­li­can, a founder of the “Dy­na­ton” group, an in­flu­en­tial trio of artists known for their in­ter­est in the sur­real, the ab­stract and the cosmic.

While her work has been ex­hib­ited spo­rad­i­cally since the 1950s, mostly in group shows, it’s only re­cently that the art world has taken deeper no­tice of her paint­ings. Just in the last two years she’s had two solo ex­hi­bi­tions, but be­fore 2016 her last solo show was in 1974 at LA’s Woman’s Build­ing. You could say that at 97, Hur­tado is a fresh face in art.

THE STORY of how a vir­tu­ally un­known, prac­ti­cally cen­te­nar­ian, South Amer­i­can-born painter ended up in one of the art world’s hippest bi­en­ni­als is one of kismet and chance – the re­sult of an un­likely chain of events that be­gan roughly three years ago.

That was when cu­ra­tors cat­a­loging Mul­li­can’s es­tate be­gan to un­earth cu­ri­ous works. Stu­dio di­rec­tor Ryan Good says he kept stum­bling into draw­ings and paint­ings that clearly had been made by some­one other than Mul­li­can – totemic fig­ures, puls­ing ab­stract pat­terns, sen­su­ous draw­ings of plants, most bear­ing the ini­tials “L.H.”

“So I asked Lu­chita, ‘Who is L.H.?’” he says. “She was, like, ‘That’s me.’”

Good says he was as­ton­ished. Hur­tado went by the name “Lu­chita Mul­li­can,” so he was un­aware that the ini­tials might re­fer to her. And then there was the abun­dance of her pro­duc­tion.

“I don’t think even the fam­ily was aware of the breadth of it,” he says. “She has al­ways been making art.”

In fact, art is some­thing that Hur­tado has qui­etly de­voted her­self to since she at­tended Washington Irv­ing High School in down­town Man­hat­tan in the 1930s. It’s a prac­tice she main­tained re­gard­less of where life has taken her, re­li­giously carv­ing out time to paint – prin­ci­pally at night, when she could work undis­turbed.

“There is al­ways time to paint,” she says with de­ter­mi­na­tion. “Plus, my chil­dren slept the night through.”

After stum­bling into Hur­tado’s work, Good took sam­ples of it to var­i­ous deal­ers, who ad­mired her art, but none enough to give her a show. That was un­til Soto at Park View gallery (since re­named Park View/Paul Soto) caught sight of snaps on the cell­phone of a cu­ra­tor from Mul­li­can’s stu­dio.

“I was, like, ‘Th­ese are in­cred­i­ble,’” re­calls Soto. “I was sur­prised no­body was tak­ing them se­ri­ously.”

In Novem­ber of 2016, Hur­tado had an ex­hi­bi­tion at Park View fea­tur­ing ab­stract works from the 1940s and ‘50s. The show sold out – and drew the eye of Times art critic Christo­pher Knight.

“Her draw­ings’ loosely Sur­re­al­ist forms re­call dense pic­tographs from a va­ri­ety of cul­tures, an­cient and mod­ern,” he wrote in a re­view. “Hur­tado’s work was mul­ti­cul­tural be­fore mul­ti­cul­tural was cool.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion also caught the eye of El­le­good at the Ham­mer, co-cu­ra­tor of “Made in LA” – who had once pre­vi­ously met Hur­tado through her son, artist Matt Mul­li­can.

“Once I saw the show, I went to the stu­dio,” she says. “I wanted to know more.”

Hur­tado soon be­came one of the 32 Los An­ge­les artists to be fea­tured in the 2018 it­er­a­tion of “Made in LA”

“It means a great deal to me, ab­so­lutely,” says Hur­tado of be­ing cho­sen. “I’m de­lighted to be here.”

Get­ting to this mo­ment has been a re­mark­able jour­ney.

Hur­tado is the daugh­ter of a seam­stress who im­mi­grated to the US from Venezuela at age 8, set­tling in In­wood, at the north­ern tip of Man­hat­tan, where, she notes, “all the South Amer­i­cans lived.” She fell in love with art in high school – where she se­cretly stud­ied the sub­ject in­stead of tak­ing sewing, as de­manded by her mother (a de­ci­sion her mom didn’t dis­cover un­til grad­u­a­tion).

But a ca­reer in the arts was not in the cards for Hur­tado – at least not im­me­di­ately. Shortly after grad­u­at­ing, she mar­ried Del So­lar, a jour­nal­ist she met through a group that sup­ported anti-fas­cists in the Span­ish Civil War.

“He was a very mean man,” Hur­tado says of Del So­lar with­out bit­ter­ness. “He aban­doned me with two chil­dren... for this other woman that he also aban­doned when she had two chil­dren.”

But Del So­lar in­tro­duced her to a uni­verse of artists who would shape the course of her life. There was Ta­mayo, a good friend, who taught at a Man­hat­tan prep school and would of­ten stay with the cou­ple and paint in their kitchen.

“He was fun to be with,” Hur­tado says of Ta­mayo. “A bit of a Casanova. He would call me and he’d say, ‘Mana’ – he called me Mana – ‘please there’s this gor­geous woman who is wait­ing for a mes­sage from me.’ She hap­pened to be mar­ried, of course. So I would bring this gor­geous per­son a mes­sage. Who knows what was in those mes­sages!”

And there was Noguchi, the Ja­panese Amer­i­can sculp­tor she met shortly after he’d emerged from a World War II in­tern­ment camp in Ari­zona. “That was ter­ri­ble,” she re­marks. “They were all put in a ter­ri­ble place.”

The charis­matic sculp­tor – “he was so pop­u­lar with ev­ery­body,” says Hur­tado – ended up con­nect­ing her with myr­iad other in­tel­lec­tu­als, in­clud­ing Hur­tado’s sec­ond hus­band, Aus­trian artist and the­o­rist Paalen, who, with Mul­li­can, was one of the founders of Dy­na­ton. ON A WHIM, she ac­com­pa­nied Paalen to Mex­ico to see newly un­cov­ered Olmec heads at La Venta. “That was my first date with Paalen,” she says with a smile. “We mar­ried a week after we met. It was very im­pul­sive.”

Hur­tado soon re­lo­cated with her two chil­dren to Mex­ico. For the artist, this was a “very bo­hemian” time. She and Paalen trav­eled back and forth be­tween the US and Mex­ico and as­so­ci­ated with a who’s who of artists and writ­ers from Latin Amer­ica, Europe and the United States. In New York, she be­came ac­quainted with Duchamp, who at a ca­sual gather­ing held at a friend’s home started rub­bing her feet.

“I was sit­ting on this dou­ble seat ... and Mar­cel came and sat next to me,” she says. “He was just on the side mas­sag­ing my feet.” He was a friend, she adds with a laugh. But “the peo­ple, they all loved to gos­sip.”

The un­timely death of her son Pablo del So­lar ul­ti­mately put an end to her mar­riage. Paalen didn’t want to have chil­dren; Hur­tado did.

She made her way back to the US – to Cal­i­for­nia – where she and Mul­li­can even­tu­ally mar­ried.

Through­out all of this, Hur­tado painted – in im­pro­vised spa­ces of­ten carved out from one of her hus­bands’ stu­dios. But her work was in­fre­quently seen in gallery set­tings.

“She very much has had the life of an artist, but with­out the ex­hi­bi­tion his­tory,” El­le­good says. “She was in this ac­tive com­mu­nity of artists in ev­ery city she lived in. But I think she felt that be­ing a woman of her gen­er­a­tion, she felt she had other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

The work on view at the Ham­mer comes from a key pe­riod in Hur­tado’s life: the late 1960s and ‘70s, when her chil­dren with Mul­li­can – Matt and John Mul­li­can, the lat­ter a film­maker – were grown and she could take more time to paint. Plus, it was a mo­ment when, for the first time in her life, she had her own ded­i­cated stu­dio space. “That’s where it be­gan,” Hur­tado says. The paint­ings on view at the mu­seum, from a pair of re­lated series that fea­ture frag­ments of the fe­male body – of­ten shown from the per­spec­tive of a woman gaz­ing down at her own nude form – feel slightly mag­i­cal. In “En­counter,” a work from 1971, sev­eral pairs of feet and a trio of ap­ples ap­pear to float over a bright geo­met­ric pat­tern.

“When you think of them as works from the 1970s, you can imag­ine how mean­ing­ful they were at that time in terms of fe­male artists tak­ing back the abil­ity to rep­re­sent their own bod­ies and shift­ing the so-called male gaze,” El­le­good says. But the work, she notes, also re­mains “fresh” and “in the mo­ment.”

Hur­tado says that over the course of her life she has been less pre­oc­cu­pied with style or schools of thought than in cap­tur­ing what was im­por­tant to her at any given mo­ment.

“It’s kind of a di­ary for me,” she says. “In a way, it’s what I’m liv­ing. It’s a di­ary of what I know.”

It’s a di­ary to which she is still adding en­tries. Hur­tado, at age 97, is still making work.

“I’m not done here yet,” she says with a wry smile. “There is still life in this old horse.”

(Mel Mel­con/Los An­ge­les Times/TNS)

PAINTER LU­CHITA HUR­TADO, 97, is pho­tographed last month next to her 1971 art­work ti­tled ‘En­counter,’ on dis­play as part of the ‘Made in LA 2018’ bi­en­nial ex­hibit at the Ham­mer Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les.

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