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The Overlooked Abstractionist

Dorothy Hood has three -- count 'em, three -- shows concurrently. And it's not enough.

Artist Lynn Randolph makes it her business to be furious, always, about something, and the night of Dorothy Hood's opening at the Lawndale Art & Performance Center was no exception. "I'm furious," she announced the minute I walked in. With what you might call learned caution, I asked why.

"Well," said Lynn impatiently, as if the answer were perfectly obvious, "why aren't these paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts?" I looked around the room, and had to admit that for once I wholeheartedly agreed. Not that the installation at Lawndale didn't look good -- not to mention the effort: These particular Hoods are so large that Lawndale's storefront windows had to be removed just to get them into the building. But damned if the paintings didn't cry out for the outsized grandeur of the museum's Cullinan Hall.

The question of why Hood, who at nearly 80 is indisputably the grande dame of the Houston art world, and whose work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York first in 1946 and last in 1995, was not enjoying a retrospective at the MFAH came up time and again that evening. By the end of the night, Randolph was not the only woman in tears over Hood's allegedly awful treatment by the art powers-that-be. Other spectators, though, begged that the issue be put aside, the better to revel in the three shows of Hood's work that were up in Houston that night: drawings and large paintings at Lawndale, organized by director Eleanor Williams; smaller paintings at the Transco Tower gallery, organized by Sally Sprout; and collages at MD Modern, Hood's commercial gallery (that short-lived show has already come down, but Hood's work can still be seen there).

Compared with what a genuinely scholarly retrospective of Hood's work could be, these three exhibits, salted with second-rate works, are sadly incomplete. Still, they make their point by offering the opportunity to examine Hood's abstractions at a particularly interesting time. Contemporary abstract painting gets a great deal of serious attention these days. Art in America recently completed two major articles on the subject, and at least one of the artists they featured is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum's blockbusterish "Abstract Painting Once Removed." The title of that exhibit says it all: Painters today, or at least those who are attracting the spotlight, place themselves a careful distance away from "pure painting," which adheres to the myth that paint spurts forth directly from the artist's subconscious, bypassing pictorial convention to land on the canvas with an emotive oomph. Dorothy Hood is a pure painter -- and her best work ranks with that of Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler (now on view at the MFAH) and other greats.

Indeed, Hood is often referred to as a color-field painter or, more precisely, a second-generation color-field painter, and certainly her work is rich with pooled paint and translucent hues. Like the most prominent of that group of artists, Hood arrived at her own stylistic conclusions. But in truth, her paintings depend more on the surrealists' faith in the subconscious and their precise rendering of interior worlds than on color-field's aesthetic habits and gestural looseness.

Another difference is that Hood's paintings don't take refuge from relationship. She presents highly narrative, even theatrical, situations that delve deeply, if abstractly, into the conflicts of being human. One of the best paintings at Lawndale, Princess, suggests a brooding woman in much the same way that Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) seems to dramatize the event of its title. In contrast, color-field painter Mark Rothko treated relationships between forms as if, like relationships between people, they presented a dangerous opportunity to incur bad karma. He simplified his compositions until there was nothing to compose.

He also presented a flat picture plane, while Hood's has spatial depth. In one of her untitled works from 1972, at Transco, Hood has used her trademark decalomania technique (think sophisticated sponge-painting) to create a rocklike form of red and blue, anchoring one side of the black background. Out of the rock shoots a flatly painted, graceful "arm" that casts about in space with palpable longing. On the arm, there are snatches of more decaled texture, as if the skin has been ripped off to present a view of the microscopic life underneath. Hood is a tremendous technician, able to orchestrate varied techniques with aplomb.

The very idea of painters being "once removed" from their work is anathema to Hood, who speaks earnestly of The Void, who used to get up early in the morning to paint in a trancelike state, and who has worked her way through all manner of spiritual philosophy, finally arriving at the writings of yogi Sri Aurobindo. This earnestness is a holdover from the '40s and '50s, and it is what New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman was poking fun at when he recently noted that one of Rothko's "hagiographers" of two decades ago thought the messianic artist "had attained a harmony, an equilibrium, a wholeness in the Jungian sense that enabled him to express universal truths." This is exactly the sort of thing that curators said about Hood in the '60s and '70s, and that no doubt many of the ordinary people who own her works still say about her.

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