Hauser & Wirth’s exhibit, Dark Years, features three gallery floors of work from painter Luchita Hurtado. Venezuelan-born and Los Angeles-based, Hurtado is 98 years old and beyond deserving of the show and recognition. This is a real celebration story of a life-long artist finally getting her due, with many solo shows in the works for the coming years, including her upcoming exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
Simply put, Hurtado’s work is extremely inviting and it makes you want to take in each and every work. She mixes bright, bold colors with abstract or figurative forms, using a variety of mixed media, ranging from crayons and graphite on paper to oil on canvas. They are big, bold, and ready for a viewer to devour.
Much of the work feels largely experimental, as Hurtado combines crayons with oil and ink to see what the result might look like. “What would happen and how fast could I go?,” Hurtado asks of herself in a video installed at the gallery, featuring an interview with the artist. There is joyfulness in her discussion of her work, and again, through her own voice and image, the video helps to make the work feel immediately relatable.
A handful of her work offers insight into both Hurtado’s practice and process, as the tops of some of the framed paper pages include the ripped spiral sketchbook holes at the top. With these works, you can tell that Hurtado was working quickly, experimenting with form, color, and media, all while tearing pages out as she went. Dark Years features over 55 works, focusing on her earlier works from the 1940s and 1950s. There is a really wonderful flow throughout the exhibit. In each room, her works seem to be laid out and exhibited by feel and form, nicely punctuated and bookended by two distinct self-portraits — one at the start of the show on the first floor, and one at the end of the show on the third.
Throughout her more experimental works with crayon or paint, Hurtado combines wildly abstract geometric forms with definitive organic shapes, animals, and structures. Some of these works are reminiscent of illustrations, such as Untitled (1947-1949) featuring two deer-like animals in a mystical landscape. In other works, she focuses more on expression, movement, and color theory.
The color families she creates in works throughout look as if she has explored every possibility of color combinations — like one group of works featuring green, pastel pink, orange, and yellows, or another grouping featuring turquoise, green, yellow, and oranges.
Few works in the show are fully figurative, including the aforementioned self-portraits, a few sketches such as “Man Worshipping a god” and “Portrait of the Sculptor,” and one particularly powerful work featuring a couple’s embrace. The moments when Hurtado does turn her attention to the figurative are compelling and moving.
In some of these moments, such as in two untitled paintings estimated to be from the same year (Untitled, ca. 1954, respectively), figures crowd a boat in the foreground in one and suggestions of animals pile on top of one another up to the sky in the other. These works left me longing for more information — a story or narrative through which to better know Hurtado the artist. But they also offered extreme insight into her work and practice. This beautiful, figural animalistic tower, for instance, is somehow full of contradictions in that it is both abstract and figurative, commanding and playful, color and colorless all at once.
In Untitled (1954), Hurtado suggests the arms of a couple embracing one another, using broad black brushstrokes full of momentum. They wrap their arms around one another, and around a red heart at the center, with a yellow background surrounding them. Quiet works like this are beautifully moving.
As she suggests, our body and this life “is just on loan…It’s a big story and we know very little about us.” Through her work, Hurtado clearly explored that bigger mystery of life, while also encouraging viewers to do the same.
Although the show feels well-deserved and long overdue, it also feels timely. In the wake of social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, the Museum of Modern Art recently announced that it will be closing its doors early to “reconfigure its galleries, rehang the entire collection and rethink the way that the story of modern and contemporary art is presented to the public.” MoMA will do so in order “to focus new attention on works by women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and other overlooked artists.”
And while MoMA might be a bit behind the times in finally acknowledging its canonical emphasis on the white male genius, it is an important step nonetheless. Amid such art news, though, Hauser & Wirth and the Serpentine Gallery have already been shining light on artists like Luchita Hurtado, whose attention and exhibitions are well-deserved.
Featured Image: untitled (1952)
Ellen C. Caldwell is Los Angeles Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Caldwell is an LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and educator, Ellen C. Caldwell reflects upon art, visual culture, identity, memory, and history for JSTOR Daily and New American Paintings. To see more of Ms. Caldwell’s work, visit eclaire.me.