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.

He also studied music in Brazil, and in 1928 he returned to Bolivia as a professor of music history at the National Conservatory of La Paz. It's not clear why ten years later the Nazi Ministry of Information invited him to Berlin. But he conducted several concerts there and premiered his ballet, Amerindia, in which he once again deemed Andean Indians a worthy subject of high art. Either the Nazis were intentionally co-opting him, or they'd accidentally overlooked his praise of a clearly non-Aryan culture. Maidana, though, clearly understood the Third Reich. When he returned to Bolivia, he brought with him German concert musicians who feared for their lives. With them, he founded Bolivia's first symphony orchestra, and soon afterward, the country's first ballet group.

Hood loved Maidana's strength and protectiveness, but after six years of dizzying Mexican freedom, she sometimes chafed at the discipline and confinement he demanded of her. "It was a crisis, entering his world," she said.

But it was, at least, a world that encouraged her work. Maidana respected her art, and even seems to have been inspired by it; in the late '40s he named a symphonic poem Forma y Color. Perhaps more crucially, he did not begrudge her the time she needed to work. They chose not to have children, and though they weren't rich, they employed household help, people to balance the checkbooks, sweep the floors and fry eggs for breakfast. Hood was not Maidana's support staff.

In the '70s Lynn Randolph organized a reading group to meet people who intimidated her. Dorothy Hood fit the bill.
Deron Neblett
In the '70s Lynn Randolph organized a reading group to meet people who intimidated her. Dorothy Hood fit the bill.
As a young painter from Puerto Rico, Ibsen Espada used to talk to Hood in Spanish about art, a sharp contrast from Hood's early days when she spoke to famous Mexican artists in English.
Deron Neblett
As a young painter from Puerto Rico, Ibsen Espada used to talk to Hood in Spanish about art, a sharp contrast from Hood's early days when she spoke to famous Mexican artists in English.


In 1948, while visiting New York, Hood met Orozco at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For 15 minutes she and her old mentor sat silent on a patio bench as he studied a statue of a Roman soldier. "Here," Orozco said at last, was "not a conqueror, nor an egoist, but seen through his features, a perfect man." Hood considered the comment touching, free of the modern art world's endless dissections. Orozco judged a work the same way he composed one: from the outside in. Emotion and character were indicated by the set of a mouth, the position of an arm.

Hood's art, though, was moving in an entirely different direction. Her drawings were growing more precise, energetic and textural, but most strikingly, they were growing abstract. Recognizable figures, like faces or bulls, commanded less and less of her paper; they began to appear almost as decorations to the larger abstract forms -- and through those forms, shaped nothing like a human face, Hood conveyed emotion. She showed Orozco some of her early experiments. "These things I do not understand," he said.

She began to avoid him, worried that her new passion would offend him. "Blind and wrapped up as I was in my own thoughts," she later wrote, "I did not anticipate his dying. This never occurred to me as really possible."

He died in 1949. Art historians have noted that Hood's work has changed only a little throughout her career, that she returns to the same themes over and over. But they do note a sharp difference between her early drawings and the mature ones. The mature ones, the self-assured abstractions, began that year.


The '50s passed in a blur of hotel rooms. Sometimes Hood and Maidana lived in Mexico City; sometimes they lived in New York; for a few months, they even lived in Houston. Maidana capped his conducting career with a victory lap around Central and South America, leading concerts in almost every major city. The critics swooned: "one of the greatest musicians of America," "the awaited miracle," "a true artist," "a man who profoundly loves his country and who has known how to sing it with sincerity and nobility."

Hood, too, scored professional triumphs, but hers had the sweeter taste of youth, of a career on the upswing, her whole life still ahead. The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, bought her drawing The Seeming Beginning. She landed a "one-man" show at the prestigious Willard Gallery in New York. (Sniffed the New York Times' Stuart Preston: "It strikes me that Miss Hood is so concerned with the spiritual forces underlying her work that she has not bothered to express them with sufficient coherence.") She exhibited with the young Proteo group of artists in Mexico City, and Art in America picked her as one of 1957's new talents.


Things went bad all at once. Hood would later say that it was Mexico that had changed, that in the late '50s, "technology had taken hold of the people." The complaint echoes some of Orozco's murals, in which horrific machines devour their human creators. But Orozco had painted those 30 years before. Perhaps Hood was only beginning to feel the effects of Mexico's modernization; but more likely, the societal explanation was a cover story, a semiplausible excuse that hid more personal troubles.

Hood's Mexico City friends were dying or had moved away, and she was suffering a mysterious illness (possibly depression) that caused her to lose weight. But the largest problem lay with Maidana, who in his early sixties had begun to show the early signs of Parkinson's disease. He could no longer conduct, which meant he could no longer earn a living, and the couple had little in the way of savings.

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