Life in the Abstract

In Dorothy Hood's paintings, dark was dark and light was light. The contrasts were often as stark in her life.

Some painters care only about color, form and technique. Dorothy Hood was emphatically not one of them; such bloodless art, she wrote, "is hardly a thing the soul can bear." Her gigantic paintings existed to transmit emotion: joy, discomfort, mourning or anger. Dorothy Hood called the paintings "landscapes of my psyche," and said that behind each one lay an event. "I have no objections to events coming through in art," she told a critic. "In fact, I would consider it a failure if they didn't."

It's only natural to wonder what those events were. Hood offered few clues; she believed that a work of art should speak for itself. And like most people, she revealed her life story only in bits and pieces, offering different fragments to different friends: the Neruda poem; the ashram trip; her stint as a model; her husband's mental decline; her impressive successes; her fear of being alone.

Hood died in October. This story is an attempt to gather those fragments, to describe in words the life she described in her art.

Dorothy Hood sometimes likened her large-scale paintings to the wide-open Texas sky.
P.J. Collins
Dorothy Hood sometimes likened her large-scale paintings to the wide-open Texas sky.


Dorothy Hood's childhood started happy. She was born in 1919, the first (and only) child of Frank Hood and his pretty wife, Georgiana. Frank became vice president of Houston's City Bank and Trust Co., and in her early years, Dorothy lived the safe, Episcopalian life you'd expect of a banker's daughter.

But in Hood's early adolescence, her family suddenly cracked in a way that she was reluctant to explain precisely, even to friends. "Sad times came along," she said obliquely, when pressed by a film biographer. "Great difficulty. My mother had great troubles mentally, and things took a bad turn."

If you were drawing Hood's childhood, a sharp, distinct line would divide the light period from the darkness. To friends, Dorothy dropped hints about that darkness, but different hints to different friends. One says that Hood's mother suffered bouts of depression; another inferred that Georgiana was a lesbian; yet another says that Frank was a womanizer.

Whatever the parents' dark secrets, their effects are clear. Hood's beloved, dull-seeming parents spun out of control. Somehow, Frank and Georgiana lost their money, ripped apart their marriage and began spending little time with their child. Hood was left deeply, terribly lonely.


In 1937 a story headlined "Miss Dorothy Rose Hood Leaves for Art School" appeared in The Houston Post. The story described Miss Hood as "a young woman who doesn't care who writes children's stories if she may illustrate them," and said that she "left Houston this week with a four-year scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design tucked away in her handbag and a very clear idea of what she means to do in her pretty head."

In the late '30s the Rhode Island School of Design was a conservative place, one that taught students to paint in the Sargent/ Velázquez manner -- that is, with gentle shadings, one color slipping realistically into another. But Hood already knew herself to be another kind of painter, the Gauguin/ Tamayo sort, whose colors massed in big solid blocks with razor-sharp outlines. Her red stood separate from orange; pieces of a thing retained their distinct identities rather than coalescing gently into a whole. Light did not fade gently into shadows; light was light, and dark was dark, and between the two Hood drew a clear, sharp line. That was how she saw the world. And once again, it seems, she was alone.

After graduation, she moved to Manhattan, supported herself by modeling and enrolled in the famous Art Students' League of New York. But she didn't study there long, for reasons that are personal and murky. She was engaged to someone (perhaps the handsome surrealist painter Roberto Matta), but the engagement was broken off.

A painter friend and his wife invited Hood to drive with them to Mexico, where they planned to spend two weeks. They piled sleeping bags and cans of food into Hood's blue roadster, a gift from her father; it took them three weeks simply to reach Mexico. To Hood, the trip seemed dangerous and exotic, like a passage from Hemingway.

The destination proved more intoxicating than the journey. Hood loved Mexico's vivid colors and fast movements and the feeling that she was a world away from both Episcopalian Houston and conservative Rhode Island. For the first time, she said, she forgot "the repressions of home." At last, she thought, she'd arrived in a place she'd been waiting for all her life. She saw no reason to return to the United States.

Mexico City in 1940 was like Paris in 1920: a place where intellectuals gathered and traded ideas, a place where young Americans encountered the Other. The painter Hood had traveled with introduced her to a heady circle, a mix of writers and artists, Mexicans and Europeans. "Hope is what they saw in me," Hood once told an interviewer. But it seems likely that they also noticed her Manhattan-model looks. Whatever she lacked in Spanish fluency or education, she compensated for with creamy skin, reddish hair and dramatic cheekbones.

A list of her Mexico City acquaintances reads like an index to some intellectual history. Her circle included Spanish novelist Luis Buñuel, Mexican painters Miguel Covarrubias and Rufino Tamayo, American playwright Sophie Tredwell and German-born artist Mathias Goeritz. She adored the Spanish surrealist Remedios Varo and considered English-born surrealist Leonora Carrington a good friend. On occasion, Hood stayed at the house of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and painter Frida Kahlo; she didn't much like Rivera, and cared even less for his wife.

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