Luchita Hurtado in Conversation with Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

Luchita Hurtado, self portrait, ca. 1947.

  • Feb 8, 2019

Born in Maiquetía, Venezuela, in 1920, Luchita Hurtado has dedicated seventy years of her painting and drawing practice to the investigation of universality and transcendence. Art writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer talks to the artist about her extraordinary life, as she remembers the artistic hub of Mexico City and New York, where Hurtado met and befriended Duchamp, Man Ray and Agnes Martin. Her body of work is cohered through a connection to landscape and the environment, and ultimately an examination of self-affirmation: at 98 years old, Hurtado remarks ‘I am having a wonderful time’.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer: You are 97 now, do you feel like you’ve been the same person your whole life or do you feel like you’ve changed a lot? Luchita Hurtado: I’ve been different people, absolutely. Things that were important are no longer important to me. But I’ve always had the same attitude. I do what I want to do. I don’t care what anybody else says. Since I was born, I was a difficult daughter. But, as far as having been different people, for instance, I had two children and [Wolfgang] Paalen said to me, ‘I cannot have children.’ I was really in love with this man and then one of my children died and my life changed. I became somebody else. SLG: I also wonder how memory functions for you in your work and in life now? You’ve lived so many lives and had relationships with so many people. What stands out that you go back to? LH: As I say, I’ve become a different person. At this point in my life what’s very important to me is what’s happening to the world. When that first photograph was taken of Earth from space and you saw this little ball in blackness… I became aware of what I felt I was. I feel very much that a tree is a relative, a cousin. Everything in this world, I find, I’m related to. SLG: Is this awareness something more recent or is it something triggered long ago by those first images of Earth? LH: I think it’s a way I’ve functioned. It’s very important to me, nature. Well, my latest paintings are words: air, water, fire, earth. For me, that is very exciting. I wouldn’t have painted that at any other time. This is what my life is now. I listen to Amy Goodman, I write political letters, I give money.

‘My memory is not what it was. It’s a very interesting situation because sometimes I don’t know whether I dreamt something or whether I lived it.’

SLG: So you live very much in the present, in present concerns. Your life isn’t spent thinking about the past? LH: That’s right. SLG: I imagine you’ve always been this way. That’s part of your secret: staying always in the present. And letting other people, like me, deal with your past. Well, something that can help people who do want to think about your past are the notebooks you kept for much of your life. When did you start that? LH: That’s been going on for a long time. I don’t know when I started. They probably go back into the 1970s or earlier. SLG: Do you still write in notebooks? LH: Yes. I keep journals about dreams and things that happen to me. There are great surprises at my age and I’m still writing them down. SLG: Do you go back and read your journals? How do you use them? LH: No. Part of it is for myself now because my mind, my memory is not what it was. It’s a very interesting situation because sometimes I don’t know whether I dreamt something or whether I lived it. It really doesn’t matter one way or another. It was an experience. It’s become a very strange world and sometimes I say, ‘Did I dream this or is this real?’ SLG: Are they also sketchbooks? LH: Occasionally I will draw. For instance, these paintings I have been making were first in my diaries. The drawings don’t originate as ideas for work, but they become that. You see, it’s not an idea for a painting when I write down ‘air’ or ‘water,’ but then they become a painting. SLG: Were dreams previously important? I’m asking because you spent so much time with the Surrealists. LH: It’s really different because my work was full of people before and now it’s words, not people. The people I drew were kind of weird, they all had no heads or little heads. How would you describe it? These headless people. RYAN GOOD: Sometimes they are like dancers, they have their arms up. SLG: Are those ways of working connected? The focus on language vs. the figure. LH: I had not thought about the difference, but from our conversation suddenly I realized that these different people that I’ve drawn are very much my people, no one else has done them that I can recount and the words arrived quite surprisingly.

Luchita Hurtado, c. 1939

Luchita Hurtado, Grand Canyon, United States, c. 1970. Photo: Lee Mullican

SLG: The figures are very early, those crayon-resist abstracted silhouettes from the 1940s and 1950s, beautiful works on paper. And then the text started later, in the 1970s. Was the way you approached language then different from the way you are working with text now? LH: Yes, it was a different approach. Earlier, I was really involved. ‘Yo soy’ (‘I am’) for instance, I wrote that over and over again and I thought of it as a portrait. SLG: So that’s a way that it connects to the figures. Another kind of portraiture. LH: There you go. Yes. ‘I am’ was a portrait. SLG: Did any word follow in terms of a sentence? LH: You could barely see the words. People see those things still as just lines. It was very important that there was a very fast energy in the paintings. These fast lines of color. Which turned out to be words and portraits. I did some that were words on words and they became really confused. SLG: Layering them? LH: Yes, the more you layer, the less visible. SLG: Was the intention to obscure the reading? LH: Yes. SLG: To keep it private for yourself? LH: I didn’t think of it as private, I just wanted to – I am curious to see what these things look like and if I like them. Then, I would get bored and go on to something else.

‘My latest paintings are words: air, water, fire, earth. For me, that is very exciting.’

SLG: Related to the legibility of text and pattern in those paintings, I wanted to ask about your long interest in textiles and clothing making. If we are going to map out a trajectory of concerns, you started with the figure abstracted and then moved into language, but through a form that has to do with textiles, and with the body and patterns that are worn on the body. When did you start making your clothes? LH: Oh, very early on. The thing is, they were so ugly. SLG: What was so ugly? LH: Pregnancy clothes, for instance. They called them butcher boy clothes. SLG: Formless and big? LH: Yes, immediately being pregnant you don’t really look your best. Let’s face it. You look different. SLG: You look different. LH: Well, some people really think it’s beautiful. It could be, but it reminds me of my oldest son. I had an apartment in New York that had a little garden and the kids sometimes found worms. If you have a garden, you have worms. They would collect the worms in milk bottles and then let them go back home into the garden. One time they found this worm that was stretching out and leaving tiny little worms behind. They do give birth that way and so they said, ‘What is happening mother?’ and I said, ‘They are having baby worms and they are inside the mother.’ So then we were on the bus and this pregnant woman gets on the bus and Daniel says in this loud voice, ‘Look Mother, she’s going to have worms!’ Everybody stared at me (laughter). SLG: They must have wondered, what are you teaching your kids? How nice to start an understanding of life and birth with an explanation from the ground up. So you started making clothes because of maternity, designing your first clothes to fit your pregnant body. That’s interesting. LH: And if I wanted a hat I’d go and get the feathers or whatever on 39th street. I taught myself, mostly. I copied a lot too. Comfort was number one and number two was feeling good. All my life. Well, it’s the same thing over and over again except in a different color and in a different pattern. I’m still wearing the things that I made ages ago. SLG: Then they are very well-made, we can say. They are exquisitely designed, as by an artist. Not purely utilitarian, they are really beautiful. LH: Yes, I like materials, textures, and colors, putting things strangely together.

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1949 © Luchita Hurtado. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Luchita Hurtado, Luchita - Dark Years, c. 1954 © Luchita Hurtado. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

SLG: Those language pieces from the 1970s remind me of Latin American textiles. Were you consciously inspired by that kind of vernacular? LH: No, I don’t think so. SLG: Those works also bring up the question of audience and who you make images for. Has that been different at different points in your life? LH: Definitely, I am thinking about who I am doing it for. I feel that’s my contribution, to say look this is really important: Air, that you breathe, pay attention. SLG: So with your current work thinking about the environment you feel an urgency about audience, they need to be seen? LH: Yes, I do. I feel it’s very important that whoever you are and whatever you’re doing, you stop and join the group and go out and say what you feel. SLG: Is that different from other times in your life? LH: No, I did a lot of speaking out. SLG: By showing artwork? LH: No, not with my work, just as a person. My work, no never. SLG: Ok, so why is that? LH: I guess I was self-centered. SLG: You were interested in making, not showing. LH: That’s right. SLG: Have you consciously pursued finding your voice artistically? LH: I’ve been completely unaware. It just happened. I just wanted to do keep making work. It was a need, like brushing your teeth. SLG: I like that description because I wonder how art-making has fit into your daily routine. Undoubtedly, it would change at different points in your life, like when you had young children vs. grown up children and your days are structured differently. So you made sure to fit it into your days? Whether that was juggled with childcare or settling into a new city. LH: Yes, right. SLG: When you had young children, you worked at night after they went to bed? LH: Right. SLG: Where did you work? LH: In the kitchen. A nice table is all you need. SLG: You were doing mostly works on paper at that time? LH: Yes, right. Crayons and ink are just so simple. You get to do things that are really serious. SLG: When the kids grew up, did you have a studio? LH: I had a studio at Bergamot Station. You see, Lee [Mullican] was also a painter. He had a studio from the university and then that ended. By then I was in this little studio in Bergamot Station that was $40 a month, that was really very reasonable, and he didn’t have a studio. I said he could come and work, and he moved in. SLG: Did you like having a studio? More space to experiment? LH: Yes, I did! I was there pretty much all the time I had free. At the beginning, you see, when Lee was alive I had a very busy schedule because I was a wife, so I worked mostly at home and nobody saw my work, really. I didn’t work as much as later on. SLG: Was Lee involved with your work? LH: He was teaching, so he didn’t look much at my work. I wasn’t interested in sharing it with anybody. SLG: That’s part of the present context of your work: only in the past few years do people like me even know about your work. LH: I’ll tell you, Ryan [Good] is the first one that saw it. He was organizing Lee’s work and came across it. He saw these drawings that were in storage and said who is ‘Luchita Hurtado?’ SLG: You never mentioned that you had vast bodies of work? LH: No, this was a big surprise and then, of course, Ryan showed it to Paul [Soto] who gave me a show, and that’s when it began, this whole interest. If Ryan hadn’t seen it, who knows. SLG: So you never sought out an audience? LH: No. SLG: Are you glad to have one now? LH: Oh yes! I am having a wonderful time. SLG: You just roll with whatever comes. If this wave of attention hadn’t come you’d be fine too. LH: Yes (laughter).

Luchita Hurtado, Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico, c. 1947

Luchita Hurtado, Untitled, 1950 © Luchita Hurtado. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

SLG: When did you start to think of and define yourself as an artist? LH: Well, that’s very strange because there was a time with Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago when I was involved in the art world. In Los Angeles in the 1970s. It was at June Wayne’s house, I think. Joyce Kozloff came and she invited all the artists, all women, to this big gathering. A meeting of women artists. Everybody gave their names and what they did, whether they were sculptors or whatever. I got up and I said, ‘Luchita Mullican, artist’ and June Wayne’s voice came above, almost a shout and said, ‘Luchita, what?’ And I said, ‘Luchita Hurtado, painter’ and that’s how it began. I said, ‘I stand corrected.’ SLG: There was a switch in the way you thought of and presented yourself at that moment? LH: Yes. SLG: That’s interesting, so feminist consciousness-raising changed things? LH: Right, it did. SLG: Did you stay close to those artists? LH: This group was broken up into little groups; I came across a photograph of my group. It was Alexis Smith and Vija Celmins. While Lee was alive, she also had a place near Taos. I would see her off and on when he was alive. SLG: When did you and Lee start spending time in Taos? LH: We would go to Oklahoma every summer because he was from a place called Chickasha. His family is there. We would stop in Taos to visit Larry Frank and Lyce Frank, who were close friends and who had collections of Native American objects. And Lee’s brother and him spent summers in Taos before Lee traveled. The army, the second World War, that’s where he began to paint and draw. He drew maps. SLG: At that point Taos was already a hub for artists. Did you ever meet Agnes Martin? LH: Oh yes, she was a very close friend. We had great fun. She had a very small place with two rocking chairs and she would have a martini for lunch every day; that’s an easy one to get into. She was a wonderful person to be with. She would say things like, ‘I’ve had too many children’ and I’d say, ‘You haven’t had one. What are you talking about?’ She’d say, ‘I’m not talking about this life. I’m talking about past lives, honey. This life I said nope, I am not going to have any children, I’m going to have myself. I am going to do things for myself.’ Her family was not rich, by any means, so they wore each other’s clothes and she said that all her clothes had big hems to open up as you grew (laughter). She loved clothes. SLG: Did you ever make clothes for anyone else? LH: No, I never did. But I gave her a couple of my clothes. SLG: Did you see her paintings? LH: Yes, I loved her paintings. I watched her paint. It was amazing to watch her work. She would get enough paint on and just do this so simply. I mean those colors. It was magic to watch it, all that light, light, light blue, light, light, light. Incredible. She painted, not on easel, on the wall. As I say, she would get just enough so that it would never run. I remember when she gave the children a park where they could skate. It was public land, but she fixed it up. They gave her a photograph of the whole group of children that she carried under her arm for weeks, she was so pleased with it. She was a very sweet poet, that’s who she was, a sweet poet.

‘Life changes so much, and it is like a book, like a diary.’

SLG: Who else in Taos did you spend time with? LH: Artists like Happy and Kenny Price. Sometimes Kenny would have people over on Thursdays to make ceramics. I still come across a little bowl or something I made there. SLG: Who you’ve hung out with is like a roll call of 20th century art history. LH: It’s true. When I was in Mexico, you see, married to Paalen, we’d come to New York occasionally. He would have to go to Washington and I would stay with Jeanne Renault, she was the sister of Eugene Renault, the publisher. She had this wonderful apartment in New York and I always stayed with Jeanne. She had an open house. That’s how I met Marcel [Duchamp]. SLG: What was that like? LH: Oh, it was interesting. He’d drop in because he was very close to Jeanne. He was very quiet about it. He didn’t want his name mentioned. He didn’t want any kind of publicity at all. SLG: Were you aware of his work? LH: Of course. He’s number one; his nude going down the stairs. That glass in Philadelphia, all those things. I mean, he was a brilliant, brilliant man. SLG: I read that Duchamp gave you a foot rub. LH: Yes, he did. Anything he did made the news. I was in my nighty and he arrived at Jeanne Renault’s. I was very impressed with Marcel Duchamp because of who he was. I didn’t want to miss anything he said. SLG: Did that make it into your notebooks? LH: I don’t remember whether I was bothering with a notebook then, I forget. Anyways, it was very chic.

Luchita Hurtado, c. 1939

SLG: That encounter with Duchamp loops us back neatly to the mid 1940s when you were in the midst of making the many early works that are presented in this current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. Looking at those early graphite drawings and crayon resist works on paper that you made in your 20s and 30s, you often depict headless or pinheaded dancing figures and shapes that, while distinctly yours – curved and sharp at the same time – remind me of some of Isamu Noguchi’s forms. LH: Oh no they had nothing to do with Noguchi. Nothing to do. Well, they’re my own people. Isamu’s work was fantastic and he was a great artist, but actually the work he was doing was not, you know, it was um, how shall I say… It was with wood or marble, I mean it had that feel. He had this island in Japan that he talked about. I was never there but there were friends who had been there and it was an island that was his place to work. The stone material was there and it was set up with someone that he trusted, it was really amazing. As I say, I was never there, but… You know, when I think of Noguchi I think of his ‘Miss Expanding Universe’ piece. I mean the weight, you felt the weight of this Miss Universe because it was hanging over his sofa by these small… I don’t know, I don’t remember exactly how he did it, but it was this weight over your head that you really felt. You felt challenged – the challenge and the weight of it, and the danger of it, especially. It was a strange experience. You know, you think of beautiful forms and things, but less of weight, weight and danger. SLG: You felt that experience so much in your body. LH: Yes, it’s kind of the animal experience. It no longer is art. It becomes a threat, which in a way is great because it’s part of the experience (laughter) and it’s a very human experience and seldom do you feel that. You know. SLG: While you had such a long and deep relationship with Noguchi, meeting him first through his sister Ailes Gilmour in 1941, it’s interesting to think that, many decades later, something like the visceral feeling of that piece is foremost in your memory. LH: Right, but you see, I think also your life changes so much, and it is like a book, like a diary. Because, looking back, I think I probably was someone else in my life. You know, my life was a different thing all together. I’m an old woman now. I don’t think I am (laughter) but the reality of it is that I’m 98 years old. SLG: Does that give you a new way to look at these early works from the 1940s and 1950s, when you were only 20 and 30 years old? LH: Yes, yes absolutely, I see it. I see myself in that age group, you see. The things I’m interested in now didn’t interest me then and vice versa (laughter). Now my paintings are about air and water and all the dangers to the little planet we live on.

Luchita Hurtado and Wolfgang Paalen, Mexico, 1946

SLG: Well, you couldn’t have gotten there, gotten here, without taking all those steps back then in the order that you did. LH: That’s true because it’s an attitude that you develop without knowing. Of being aware. Because most people, there are a lot of people who from birth to death have no idea what they’re doing here. You know the interest is minimal because it’s such a struggle to survive in today’s world, it seems to me anyway. You find these masses of people moving in every direction, fleeing from something, it becomes a political thing. All this is fascinating. You know, what Roosevelt said and did was important and I was alive then, too. I remember the 1930s and 1940s, you see. I think we’re living science fiction, that’s what we’re doing. This was science fiction, what we’re living in. The computer made all the difference in life and communication and travel and everything. I mean, in my time people didn’t fly. They went on a boat and a few days later they would come, maybe. You could spend six months and go to Europe. SLG: It’s incredible the enormity of the changes you’ve seen. LH: Yes exactly, so much. And you wonder in a hundred years what are you going to have, you know? SLG: And also, thinking about my daughter, who is a year and a half old, growing up with such technology being second nature and never knowing a world without it. LH: That’s right. SLG: What that will do to the brain and behavior is impossible to know. LH: Well, for one thing, I think the children of today are going to get bigger thumbs (laughter). SLG: Or smaller! They might have to be more precise. LH: Yes, we can think of the physical changes that are possible (laughter). SLG: We want your vision, your read, your take on the world for as long possible, so keep eating what you’re eating, keep doing what you’re doing, keep walking a lot and stay flexible. We need you. (laughter) LH: Yes, well I’m having a fun time here, always, so I’m going to try and stick around for a while. — Sarah Lehrer–Graiwer is an art writer and curator based in Los Angeles, where she teaches at Otis College of Art and Design, publishes Pep Talk, and runs the experimental art venue The Finley Gallery. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Artforum, ArtReview, Art in America, Artonpaper, ArtSlant, Mousse, and exhibition catalogs. Ryan Good is an artist and curator based in Los Angeles. He is Luchita Hurtado’s Studio Director, and his recent solo exhibitions include a presentation at Parapet Real Humans, St. Louis, in 2016. In 2015, Good curated the exhibition ‘Shatter Special’ of Lee Mullican’s work at Equitable Vitrines, Los Angeles. He is also the author of the forthcoming book ‘Sounds Good, 1,000 Ideas by Ryan Good,’ published by Onestar Press, Paris – ‘Luchita Hurtado. Just Down the Street’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth Zürich through 23 May 2020.