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.

Houston made practical sense. The city's medical care was better than Mexico's, and both of Dorothy's parents, though divorced, still lived here and might be able to offer assistance. Too, in the United States, she might be better positioned to earn a living as an artist. Ann Holmes, the art critic for the Houston Chronicle, had been a faithful supporter of Hood's career, touting in print the hometown girl's triumphs in Mexico and New York and her occasional visits to Houston. During one of those visits, Holmes introduced Hood to new gallery owner Meredith Long, who was eager to build a "stable" of artists. Presumably Hood was equally eager to find a stable source of income.

Houston made good on its promise to support her financially. She landed a teaching job at the Museum of Fine Arts school, and Meredith Long agreed to buy a certain number of her works each year. Starting in 1962, his gallery gave her regular solo shows.

But in other ways the move was hard on Hood. Culturally, Houston seemed impoverished compared to Mexico City and New York. Hood used to joke that in the '60s only three serious artists lived in this city: Dick Wray, Jim Love and Richard Stout. When she settled here, she brought the number to four. At one point she lived next door to Wray, and in his driveway would conduct friendly ritual battles with him and Love. They considered her an upstart, the new kid in town.

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.

For Hood's first years back in Houston, she felt a stifling need to "toe the mark" and behave "properly." She felt that other women generally disapproved of her, and specifically, that her mother wanted her to lead a more conventional life. Mostly, she avoided such problems by staying home and staying quiet. She later said that during her early years in Houston, she'd gone "incognito."

For companionship, she depended on her husband. Maidana, she said, was "a great asset, a thinker, a beautiful person, a poet, a fortress." You imagine her taking refuge inside that fortress, barricaded against the onslaughts of her uncivilized hometown.

In the late '60s Hood began to paint on gigantic canvases, some so large that they couldn't fit upright in the bedroom she used as a studio. She'd wake up and, still in her pajamas, would begin rendering half-dreamed forms, those landscapes of her psyche. She said she didn't try to fill her works with emotion: "You think of form, austere form, and then yourself comes out."

And indeed, Hood's self came out. Ann Holmes described My Sweet Lion Pierced, from 1969, like this: "A summery color suggesting a mood of happiness was then overlaid by secondary washes, creating a rain of darker hues. The sense of trauma is unmistakable." Hood didn't like to explain her work, but My Sweet Lion seems like an obvious reference to Maidana, whose health was steadily deteriorating.

The gigantic colorful paintings appear at first to have nothing in common with the smaller black-on-gray drawings. But Alison di Lima Greene, curator of modern art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, finds similarities, too. Other color-field abstractionists painted gauzy veils of color; Hood, never content to let one color slip into another, sharply contrasted the occasional veil with a hard-edged opaque passage; the soft collided with the hard. "Dorothy would fling elements of composition against each other," Greene explains. "You get a sense of rupture, of dynamic, of discomfort. There's a sense of space not being stable."

Greene sees that same discomfort in Hood's other work, in the way the drawings' lines cut up space. Oddly, rupture and instability were the most stable elements of her art -- and of her life.

The '70s were Hood's decade. Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, both awarded her retrospectives; the Everson then devoted another entire show to her drawings. She won large prizes; her work entered museum collection after museum collection; and for a while it seemed as though she might crack the invisible barrier that kept artists from succeeding in any place other than New York.

Houston seemed eager to support her. Meredith Long's gallery catered to the River Oaks crowd, which was awash in oil-boom money. The newly rich needed big art to adorn their big houses, and Hood's canvases seemed perfect. Perhaps on some level the collectors understood how Hood's paintings fit the zeitgeist of boomtown Houston, a dynamic, disruptive city if ever there was one; or perhaps they just liked the paintings' impressive size and the way that their complicated presence seemed to certify the owner's good taste. Socialite Carolyn Farb was a devoted patron, and she urged her friends to follow suit. Once, Farb brought attorney John O'Quinn to Hood's studio; he promptly bought two large paintings for his office.

People began to refer to Hood as the "grande dame of the Houston art scene," and for her openings at Meredith Long, she dressed the part. She wore hats and furs and cowboy boots, and she carried herself, as always, like the model she'd once been. People thought she was magnetic, formal and regal; they were surprised by her naughty laugh. If she found the conversation of Houston's nouveaux riches less sparkling than that of Neruda or Orozco, she kept that opinion to herself.

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