Remembering Luchita Hurtado, Art’s Best Kept Secret

Photo credit via artsy.net Belatina, Latinx
Photo credit via artsy.net

The history of Venezuelan Art has always been led by great names Carlos Cruz Diez, Jesús Soto, Gego who had their time of glory, and their way open to the shelves of immortality.

For their compatriot Luisa “Luchita” Hurtado, the story was the other way around.

Last week the world said goodbye to the abstract artist who has lived in Santa Monica, California, since her childhood back in the early 1920s.

As The Guardian recalls, in the course of her life, Hurtado rubbed elbows with big names like Isamu Noguchi, Mark Rothko, Leonora Carrington, and Rufino Tamayo, admiring the work of others and keeping hers locked up.

“I always felt shy of it. I didn’t feel comfortable with people looking at my work,” she used to say.

In a visual language she began to develop in the late 1960s, Hurtado explored her own intimacy, body, and personal space. Her well-known series of self-portraits “I Am” dismantled her anatomy into elements typical of abstractionism, an anachronism that would become her personal mark.

“This is a landscape, this is the world, this is all you have, this is your home, this is where you live,” she later explained. “You are what you feel, what you hear, what you know.”

This diaspora rumor was amplified by her years as a foreigner.

Born in Maiquetía, Venezuela, on October 28, 1920, Hurtado emigrated with her mother and sister to New York when she was just eight years old. 

As the media recalls, Hurtado retained vivid sensory memories from the early years in Caracas: “As a child, I had an extraordinary sense of smell. I remember being in the garden, and this very pungent, extraordinary scent. I would follow it and see a butterfly breaking its cocoon.” She also recalled the fragrance of lilies in the church, connected in her infant mind with black, like the clothes of women in the congregation.

She studied Fine Arts at Washington Irving High School, where she met her first husband, Chilean journalist Daniel de Solar.

At the age of 18, at the hand of her husband, the young woman would meet la créme of Latino intellectuals, including Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo.

Two divorces later, Hurtado began her career as an illustrator and muralist in 1945, expanding her directory of artist friends and always staying out of the spotlight.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that her art began to be recognized, after Ryan Good, the director of Lee Mullican’s estate, discovered her paintings misplaced in her late husband’s estate.

Her pieces came into the hands of Paul Soto, founder of Park View, who would commission her first solo exhibition.

Christopher Knight said of her work: “Her drawings’ loosely Surrealist forms recall dense pictographs from a variety of cultures, ancient and modern. Among them are prehistoric cave paintings, Northwest and Southwest tribal art, pre-Columbian reliefs, and the abstract paintings and sculptures.”

Her ability to transit various artistic languages and break with the chronology to which historians are so ill-at-ease won her the attention of great art houses such as the Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she had her last exhibition in February 2020.

Despite receiving overdue recognition for her work, Hurtado did not harbor feelings of resentment for that fact. In a 2019 interview with fellow artist Andrea Bowers for the magazine Ursula, she surmised, “Maybe the people who were looking at what I was doing had no eye for the future and, therefore, no eye for the present.”