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.

But she did join a highly intellectual reading group organized by artist Lynn Randolph, who regularly convened a group of artists, writers and professors. Officially the purpose was to discuss structuralism and post-structuralism; unofficially, Randolph had organized the gatherings to meet people who intimidated her. Hood fit the bill.

Randolph, a fiery feminist, was awed by Hood's paintings, and was eager to enlist her in overthrowing the patriarchy. Hood, of course, was busy courting that patriarchy. She didn't want Randolph to attend her Meredith Long openings; she thought the young radical might upset potential buyers.

Hood and Randolph found common ground, though, in their telephone conversations about art. Sometimes they'd exchange art-world gossip or giggle like little girls; but often Hood displayed the high seriousness that seemed so natural in '40s Mexico, and so exotic in '70s Houston. She commonly launched a conversation with some grand, sweeping question. "Where are the splendid things one looks for?" she asked Randolph one morning. "The magnificence of personalities? God? Coincidence?" Randolph, impressed by such large-scale ambition, wrote down the question.

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.

Hood actively pursued answers to such large questions. She quoted the Tao, she threw the I-Ching, and she studied the yoga practices of Sri Aurobindo. She encouraged her friend Brad Martin, an art-loving businessman, to read Joseph Campbell and Vassily Kandinsky, who argued that great art should move the soul. Martin thought Hood's art had that power; he considered himself lucky to be her student. Out of her mouth, he says, came wisdom.

Other friends were less impressed by Hood's spiritual questing. Robert Hobbs, who later curated a show of Hood's work, considered it New Age mumbo jumbo. But even he admitted that the quest was important to Hood, and important to understanding her work. Later, in an essay about her collages, he ended with a dense, spiritual quote from some of Hood's own writings:

In times of the incredulous and the agnostic, the ultimate symbol for art is the symbol of the unmeasurable, the Void. The Void is the end place of all correspondence in the mind, wherein function multiple mirrors and switchboards, revealers of their own inviolable truth on a level usually made inaccessible by dogma and delusion.In the end, within the Void, is true memory. The Psyche, that mute measuring relative of the Void, is forever acting and creating. It is reducing itself, refining itself; it is in itself saying the most by the simplest means. It crosses into the Void, into limits, and thus beginnings.

You can read that passage a hundred times without exactly understanding it. Your best bet is to try forming a visual image. Picture the Void as a dark background, as empty as outer space; picture the Psyche as an interruption of that darkness, life or electricity or the surface of some strange planet. Your mental image will look something like a Dorothy Hood painting.

During the '70s Maidana receded far into Parkinson's. But even on days when he refused to speak, or was obviously addled, Hood behaved tenderly toward him. She frequently claimed that he was psychic, that he knew what she was thinking.

She obviously loved him, but he was hardly the fortress he'd once been, and Hood told friends that she'd taken a lover, a cultured European man she referred to only as K. He may or may not have been the "Dr. Krister Kuylenstierna" whose name appears in the acknowledgments of a 1974 show of her drawings. The name, not recognized by her Houston friends, appears at the top of Hood's list, alongside that of her husband; the artist thanked the two men for their "inspiration." More familiar names -- Meredith Long, Ann Holmes, Clemente Orozco and Pablo Neruda -- appear lower in the list, not as inspirations but as supporters and friends.

Whoever K. was, she loved him deeply and looked forward to their meetings, every month or so, in Europe and New York. When the affair began, acquaintances commented on how well she suddenly looked. And when K. died in the late '70s, Hood mourned him deeply; that mourning showed, friends say, in her paintings. Mortality and the Void were bearing down on her.

Young Houston artists viewed her the way that she'd once viewed Orozco: as a wise elder, a possessor of secrets, a mentor -- but chiefly as a role model, someone whose life they could aspire to. Sometimes the parallels seem almost too neat. In Mexico City, Orozco had spoken to her in English, a language that placed them outside the city's everyday life. In Houston, she spoke to Ibsen Espada, a young Puerto Rican painter, in Spanish.

Espada was in the same critique class as Terrell James and Sharon Kopriva; all three are now professional artists. James adopted not so much Hood's painting techniques as her approach to life, and especially life in this particular place. "Dorothy was a doorway," James says, "an expression of art, of living with depth in Houston. She was an exemplar of making a life here."

Hood was established as a "regional artist" -- perhaps the best painter in Texas, but still, classified as "a Texas painter," or sometimes "a woman painter." She chafed at the belittling distinctions, and on the phone with Lynn Randolph, she complained that living in Houston had denied her the wider recognition she deserved.

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