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.

She became particularly close to Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and the country's consul general to Mexico. Neruda, in his late thirties, was 15 years older than Hood and already famous. Just the year before, in 1939, he'd published Canto General, an epic poem that covered all of South America, its people and its destiny. But it's doubtful that Neruda and Hood first connected over poetry or politics. He wasn't fluent in English; she didn't yet speak Spanish. They communicated, Hood said, "on a subliminal level."

She survived on a tiny stipend from home and experimented with a surreal drawing style that owed nothing to Houston, Rhode Island or New York. In The Seeming Beginning, from 1943, a pale moon or distant sun hovers over three ghostly beings with large round heads; they look like overgrown fetuses who somehow failed to harden into children. The figure in back looks toward the one in the middle, who in turn extends an arm to the one in front. The face of that last figure dominates the drawing; its sad space-alien eyes are unfocused and inward-looking. ("Clearly autobiographical," says James Harithas, who later curated a show of Hood's drawings.)

In 1943 Neruda arranged for the Gama Gallery to show Hood's work. The exhibit's catalog opened not with the usual essay but with a prose poem Neruda wrote about one of Hood's works. It began (in translation), "There is a painting that not only caresses but unnerves," and gushed onward with hundreds more words of flowery praise. Who, he asked, was this artist, this "Amazon from Manhattan"?

Hood's Extensor of the Sky provides a window on a different world at Rice's Brown Fine Arts Library.
Deron Neblett
Hood's Extensor of the Sky provides a window on a different world at Rice's Brown Fine Arts Library.
One curator notes that Hood's drawings, like Warrior's Plumage, convey the same sense of discomfort as her large-scale paintings.
Dorothy Hood/Courtesy of Houston MFA
One curator notes that Hood's drawings, like Warrior's Plumage, convey the same sense of discomfort as her large-scale paintings.

At a party that same year -- perhaps at the Gama Gallery opening -- muralist José Clemente Orozco picked Hood out of a group. Orozco was 60 but looked even older. He was a compadre of Rivera's, and like Rivera, was famous for big, passionate, political murals. The Mexican Revolution had disappointed the muralists, but their artistic reputations remained intact. Orozco, who had lived in the States, spoke to Hood in English. He asked where she was staying.

Sometime later, during a rainstorm, he showed up at her door wearing an oil slicker but no hat. "You know my work?" he asked. In fact, Hood was in awe of it. In most ways, it was very different from her own: big where hers was small; political where hers was psychological. But Hood and Orozco had this in common: Light and the dark were always clearly separated; the lines were clearly drawn; colors did not slip one into the other.

Orozco stood in the doorway. He'd brought a catalog of his art. "I want you to see my work," he told Hood. "Then I want to see yours."

Neruda escorted her to Orozco's studio, a large austere room with white walls. Jars of paint sat atop a carpenter's table with wooden horses serving as legs. It was, Hood thought, a space built for large movements, a pure space.

Hood wrote that Orozco treated her as a "granddaughter like artist," and that she considered him "a lonely man of the intellect." He allowed her to work in his studio, and every day he supplied her with a sandwich for lunch, often her only food for the day. Once he chased her around a table; the sexual attention seems to have flattered her.

On an errand to buy art supplies, they encountered a fakir, nailed to a board. "You and I are both like this," Orozco solemnly told Hood, "but for different reasons." She didn't dare ask him to elaborate; he was not the explaining type. "One must know, and be at one, or nothing positive or delightful was in the friendship," she wrote. With Orozco, truths were best left unspoken. They were "at one," and Hood, who had once been so lonely, would do nothing to risk that blissful state.

In 1946 Hood married Velasco Maidana, a famous Bolivian conductor and composer who friends agree was the love of her life. The handsome, courtly Maidana was nearly 20 years older than Hood. They spoke to each other in his language, Spanish. She called him "maestro." She was later fond of quoting Freud and Jung, and perhaps she consciously identified Maidana as a father figure, someone who could fill the psychological void left by her real father's absence.

Maidana was a leftist, and his political credentials must have set well with Hood's Mexico City friends. He'd grown up in the tin-mining town of Sucre, where his brother directed the mine; their father, a doctor and politician, eventually became president of Bolivia. But Maidana identified not with the powerful but with the oppressed. In his teens, he organized a native group to play Andean music, a scandalous activity by the standards of the Bolivian gentry. He became estranged from his family; the general reasons seem easy to guess.

He continued to ignite similar scandals. In the early '20s he directed Bolivia's first feature film, Profecia del Lago, whose mundane-sounding plot concerned a servant who fell in love with his employer's daughter. The movie's couple met with tragedy, but even so, the hint of support for Bolivia's downtrodden Indians caused government authorities to ban the movie. Undeterred, Maidana made several more films.

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