A new interview series details the fascinating life story of the artist’s artist Luchita Hurtado. Hurtado had been thrust into the limelight in 2019 by her institutional UK debut, ‘I Live, I Die, I Will Be Reborn’, at the Serpentine Galleries in London, which received rave reviews and later travelled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California. The serial interviewer Hans-Ulrich Obrist (also the artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries) discovered her and soon became a trusted friend. They would convene on at least five occasions, bar their many public conversations during the extensive exhibition programme, in preparation for this book. Though, unfortunately, I must slightly spoil the ending. Sadly, Hurtado passed away last August, 76 days short of her 100th birthday, and never held this heartfelt homage in her hands.
The interview series aptly carries the artist’s moniker: her first husband gave her the pet name ‘Luchita’ while ‘Hurtado’ was her maternal grandmother’s last name. And while she went by her married name for a long time, ‘Hurtado’ was resurrected during the 1970s thanks to the firm persuasion of close friends and members of the feminist group, the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (Janice Brown, Vija Celmins, Barbara Haskell, Ann McCoy, Lois Miller, Barbara Munger, Alexis Smith, and Susan Titelman). Hurtado’s conversations with Obrist stay true to her character and reveal many of her most admirable traits to the reader. We learn that she was humble and hilarious: at the admirable age of 97, she kept the menu of the Serpentine opening night dinner as a keepsake. She explained to Obrist, “you have to understand, this is one of the happiest days of my life. This will help me remember this wonderful evening once I’m old.” Other occasions reveal that she was incredibly cheeky. While commenting on her newly-found fame, she quipped, “I like that they like my work, but I don’t like the ritual, “Can I have my picture taken with you?” And especially when they say, “Please smile.” I don’t want to smile. I feel like sticking my tongue out.”
Then, there is the almost indefatigable zest for life and glamorous grace with which Hurtado navigated the many hours in conversation with Obrist on her long, fulfilling life. The geographic references in the chapter titles (’95 Christopher Street’; ‘The Valley’; ’95 McGee’) lead the way and trace the artist’s life from Venezuela to New York, Mexico to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Chile and back, before finally settling between New Mexico and California. Curiously, however, the first fifty years of her life have been mapped out in more detail than the latter.
The intelligent and elegant editing of this book reflects the intimacy and natural flow between Hurtado and Obrist, forgoing the traditional question-answer format of the interview genre. Instead, ‘Luchita Hurtado’ (2020) almost oscillates between a memoir, an autobiography, and a book with open endings. There is a climate-conscious trajectory to the conversations, alongside feminist, romantic and spiritual lines of thought. We learn about Hurtado’s artist friends: from the communal life with her second husband, the Austrian Surrealist painter, Wolfgang Paalen, to her experience of Marcel Duchamp massaging her feet, Fernand Léger following her around New York, or Man Ray taking her picture. Hurtado held séances with Leonora Carrington, lived in Louise Bourgeois’s house in Taos, New Mexico, and sipped martinis with Agnes Martin. She met with André Breton and his wife, Jacqueline, in New York, while she socialised with Joyce Kozloff and her feminist artist group in LA. She even mingled with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo during her first marriage to the journalist Daniel Del Solar. Though, quite sympathetically so, she was occasionally starstruck. In fact, her conversations with Obrist reveal the wealth of different lives Hurtado inhabited during her extraordinary lifetime. Above all, the series also traces her ongoing commitment to making art: to paint, photograph, draw, and collect. She duped her parents into letting her study art instead of dressmaking, only revealing her surprise during the graduation ceremony. With her friend and mentor, Rufino Tamayo, she would mix colours at the kitchen table. In Chile, she would paint and draw in a closet. In San Francisco, she would make art at night while the children slept.
Obrist and Hurtado do not shy away from the more unpleasant moments in life. The interviews treat child loss and divorce extremely delicately. However, the intelligent division of fourteen chronological, geographical and photographic chapters allows for a certain privacy. Notably, a complete chapter of family snaps between 1947 and 1973 remains decorative to the reader, but will speak volumes to family and friends. Footnotes are spread few and far between, only feeding the reader with essential life dates and brief biographical facts.
The only minus is that the majority of Obrist and Hurtado’s conversations have previously appeared online. However, fans of the artist will be quickly consoled by the extensive photographic and archive materials, which make up more than half of the book. The interview series also respectfully honours Hurtado’s quirks: a lover of flowers, she looked forward to pressing petals into the pages of this book. And while this was never realised, the editors have inserted Hurtado’s recent plant drawings on transparent leaves throughout instead.
Lastly, honouring an artist in book form almost inevitably raises questions about their memorialisation and impending institutionalisation. Given Hurtado’s advanced age, she sensibly agreed to this interview series with Obrist to be published by her gallery. This format allowed for a lively, personal introduction to the artist, her life and encounters, something an artist monograph would not have been able to achieve. All in all, these interviews have a much humbler purpose: of a heartfelt birthday gift from both Obrist and Hauser & Wirth that celebrates the century of Luchita Hurtado’s life.