Whenever I find that I’m getting nowhere with something I’m writing, I ask myself a fallback question such as an editor might raise: What does the reader need to know now? Shifting the viewpoint from maker to user often helps.
The question is one that Hauser & Wirth might have considered when organizing “Luchita Hurtado: Together Forever,” an exhibition in Chelsea of nearly three dozen works by the Venezuelan-born artist, who died in Santa Monica, Calif., last month at 99. What of Hurtado’s work does the viewer — or more specifically, the New York viewer — need to see now? The answer is not this exhibition of mostly bland self-portrait drawings showing the artist as a simple outline or silhouette. These are redeemed by too few of her more intense acrylic paintings from the last two years, all spread sparsely throughout a larger-than-needed gallery space.
Hurtado looms large in the international art world right now. For most of her life, she was an artistic outlier, navigating among the different styles — Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, realism and especially a distinctive form of feminist body-art painting — taking what she needed without ever quite coming ashore.
She rarely showed anyone what she was working on and for decades exhibited almost not at all. Fittingly her only solo show until recently was at the groundbreaking Woman’s Building in Los Angeles in 1974. But in 2016 she was rediscovered and for the last four years of her life was lavished with attention, praise and exhibitions. The pinnacle was a large retrospective that originated in 2019 at the Serpentine Galleries in London. Skipping New York, it then traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it opened in February and where it remains temporarily closed because of Covid-19. With luck it will be able to reopen and be briefly accessible this fall.
Born in 1920, Hurtado was beautiful and unusually self-possessed, at once implacable and passive. She decided to be an artist at age 5, inspired by the lushness of her natural surroundings and the rituals (if not the faith) of the Catholic Church. At 8, she immigrated to New York with her mother to live in an extended family of aunts and cousins in the Inwood Park neighborhood. She arranged to attend Washington Irving, an all-girls art high school near Gramercy Park, where she excelled, and upon graduation continued her studies at the Art Students League.
Hurtado was propelled through her long life by ambition, three marriages and a swirl of famous artists and writers. In New York she was especially close to Isamu Noguchi and Rufino Tamayo and everyone she met introduced her to everyone else: the Abstract Expressionists, émigré Surrealists, Frida Kahlo and Jane Bowles. At 18, she married an older Chilean journalist who abandoned her six years — and two sons — later. She kept her family afloat creating window displays and murals at Lord & Taylor and as a fashion illustrator at Condé Nast. Her second marriage was to the Austrian-born Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen who took her to Mexico and then, after the death of her younger son from polio, to Mill Valley, Calif. There, Paalen established the Dynaton group with the artists Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican. Hurtado settled with Mullican in Los Angeles in 1951; they had two sons, the artist Matt Mullican, and John Mullican, a filmmaker. (Lee Mullican died in 1998.)
Having missed the big reveal of the Serpentine show, New York needs several smaller concentrated shows to become current with the many phases of Hurtado’s art. Last year, Hauser & Wirth, mounted a commendable solo — her first in New York — of works from the 1940s and ’50s.
That show should have been followed by one devoted to Hurtado’s best-known, most polished paintings: vertiginous views that either look straight up at pellucid blue skies in which, for example, a single feather might float; or straight down, at her own naked body seen in a golden light, so that it resembles a bronze idol or even a desert landscape — a vista that often ends abruptly in the artist’s feet, standing on a bright geometric textile. These have barely been seen in New York, except for some paintings at Matthew Marks Gallery in the summer of 2018.
“Luchita Hurtado: Together Forever” is not a show that continues bringing New York up to speed on the artist’s achievement; in fact it weakens our sense of it. It is actually two shows, or more accurately, halves of two shows, neither sufficient. For one thing, Hurtado on paper is not always Hurtado at her best. She is a rather remote, cool-handed artist who needs color, canvas and the malleability of paint to shine.
There’s promise in the show’s first drawing, an untitled brown-ink rendering from the 1970s which shows the artist seated on a bed in an interior near some bookshelves, with a First Nation dreamcatcher on the wall behind her, all lightly outlined. In contrast, her face is filled in, concentrated, a little like one of Giacometti’s portrait paintings. But only a few other drawings that show the artist’s face approach this tensed intimacy.
The nine late works that form the show’s smaller second half — most in acrylic and maybe ink on wood, linen or canvas from 2018-2020 — are relatively powerful, even though their adamantine crudeness suggests waning artistic powers. They show Hurtado, whose childbearing years stretched from 1940 to 1962, zeroing in again on her body, looking past her breasts to her raised legs, between which the crowning head of an infant is usually, barely visible. The motif is almost hieroglyphic, repeated again and again.
“Birth” from 2019 reverses this viewpoint. The top of Hurtado’s head appears, but some distance away, merging with a tree. She has become nature and peeks over a broad abstract curve of green and bronze yellow stripes that could symbolize a tilled field or an expanded birth canal that has produced the world. Equally affecting is the only work from 2020, also titled “Birth.” Rendered in ink and crayon on a small panel, it again reveals the same open-legged torso, but in a cloud of aqueous blue (with woodgrain adding a rippling liquidity). A hand seems to move above it, as if in ministration or blessing.
One painting alludes more to death than birth. Against a landscape in simple bands of black, green and blue stand three stark forms: a schematic figure with raised arms and two trees. The totality speaks of anguish and alarm, conjuring Golgotha.
A short video playing on a wall monitor in the gallery may snap things into focus; at least it did for me. On it Matt Mullican tours the show, noting that in these last works, his mother is “in the process of leaving this earth.” The video begins with brief views of Hurtado working in her studio, where the walls are covered with similar works. It’s too bad Hauser & Wirth didn’t go all out and offer a similar bounty of these farewell efforts.
“Luchita Hurtado: Together Forever”
Through Oct. 31, Hauser & Wirth, 548 West 22nd Street, (212) 790-3900, hauserwirth.com.