Last week an exhibition opened at the Serpentine Gallery in London devoted to an artist whose work, hitherto unheard of by most art lovers, is receiving a glowing response from critics. This “emerging” artist, receiving her first solo show at a public institution, is 98 years old. Luchita Hurtado, who was born in Caracas, has lived a long, eventful and peripatetic life in the Dominican Republic, Chile, the USA, Mexico and Italy. She was friends with the De Koonings, Chagall, Léger and Duchamp, among others. The exhibition contains work from a career spanning the 1930s to the present.
Her third husband was a painter, Lee Mullican. As the Guardian’s critic, Adrian Searle, noted, it appears that his work “took up most of the physical and mental space” in the marriage. Though she never stopped making art, she hardly ever showed her paintings. Some are self-portraits, done without a mirror, produced in confined spaces – herself looking down on her own body. This lack of room seems an eloquent metaphor in itself. It was only by chance that she was “spotted”. The director of Mullican’s estate found paintings of hers stacked among her husband’s work.
Hurtado’s wait for attention has been particularly patient, but it is not an isolated case. In recent years many other artists have been “discovered” later in life. The career of sculptor Phyllida Barlow, who represented Britain at the 2017 Venice Biennale, took off only when she was in her 60s, after many decades teaching and raising a family.
On Saturday the first survey of the work of pioneering experimental filmmaker Lis Rhodes, who is in her 70s, opened at Nottingham Contemporary. This week a solo show will open at Modern Art Oxford devoted to Claudette Johnson, a member of the BLK Art Group of black British artists in the 1980s. Born in 1959, she is a relative spring chicken – but overdue for proper institutional attention, as was Lubaina Himid, who won the 2017 Turner prize in her 60s after a change to the award’s rules made artists over 50 eligible.
Cynics might theorise that the art market, in its restless search for novelty, has finally abandoned the cult of youth and has embraced the cult of the overlooked, salving its conscience with a few gestures towards those – particularly women, and non-white artists – for whom recognition has been slowed by often overlapping layers of prejudice. The effects of this turn are mixed. For the artists themselves, acclamation later in life may prove bittersweet, vindicating long persistence on the one hand, but giving a taste of opportunities denied them on the other. For art lovers and gallery-goers, the chance to see work so long obscured from public view is an experience to be savoured and treasured.
In the end, though, the “discovery” of such senior figures should provoke not self-congratulation but a determination that similar institutional barriers should not face the generations of artists who follow.