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 usually, by the end of those conversations, both Randolph and Hood would claim Houston as their home. Hood said she felt a freedom to make art here without anyone looking over her shoulder -- a freedom that seems crucial, since she continued painting color-field abstracts long after the genre fell out of fashion.

Hood also loved the specific character of Houston, and it appeared in her art. The size of her paintings, she sometimes said, had to do with the wide-open Texas sky. From an aunt, she'd inherited a house in the Heights, and her backyard was a lush jungly garden, full of subtropical plants; perhaps those inspired the plantlike forms that she painted, veils of color that look like abstracted flowers.

She also was inspired by the presence of NASA, even after NASA's moonshot glory days had passed. Space fascinated her, perhaps as an embodiment of the Void. She met astronaut Alan Bean; she adored the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Satellite photos seemed to confirm things she already knew. "I was sketching outer space before NASA started," she told Ann Holmes. And the Voyager photos revealed planetary surfaces not unlike those Hood had already painted.

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.

"Through her art, Dorothy helped define the character of Houston to the rest of the world," Randolph said at Hood's memorial. Most of the world didn't notice, of course -- but if it had, it would have absorbed an interesting, cosmopolitan view of Houston, one that had little to do with Remington cowboys, and much to do with rupture, loss and beauty. Houston, like a Hood painting, is a place of sharp contrasts.

The oil boom collapsed into a bust, and by the mid-'80s everyone could recite the litany of Houston's losses. Gone were the flashy nouveaux riches, the big new houses, and the big new art their walls demanded. The art world, too, had changed. To her assistant, Alec Soto, Hood would complain that artists were now required not only to create but to publicize, position themselves and do accounting. She hated the change, and longed for the old days of patronage. She wanted a paternal figure to care for her; she did not want to face the world alone.

She continued to paint large canvases, refusing to bend to the whims of the market. But in the early '80s she also had begun to make collages, smaller works that turned out to be better suited to a constricted art market. She made the collages quickly, stacking one atop the other until she had a pile a couple of feet high. She considered them a self-indulgence, not serious work, like painting.

But many critics liked them; they saw in them the same dynamic, sharp-edged power they'd seen in her paintings and drawings. In '83 Rice art historian William Camfield was organizing "New Work from a New City," a show that would travel through Europe. He visited Hood's studio several times and looked through hundreds of her collages, trying to decide which to exhibit. He asked her about Spiritual Hazards, Mexico, a dark painted background overlaid with, among other things, an image of a Mayan stela, a picture of Cortez's ship sailing to Mexico, a newspaper stock page painted with velvety ink and a Bolivian postage stamp that showed Christ's crucifixion. For once Hood discussed her work's meaning: Yes, she confirmed, the somber piece was about the plunder of Mexico -- and also about death. The stamp was also a reference to her husband's suffering.

Maidana died in 1989. Despite his long impairment, Hood wasn't prepared for his death. Even addled, he'd provided her with company, and now she felt terribly alone. Brad Martin reminded her how many people admired her; he called them the Friends of Hood. At night, after her assistant and staff had gone home, she'd talk with some of those friends for hours on the phone. Confronting the Void first thing in the morning, while painting, was one thing. Confronting it late at night was another.

After Maidana's death, Hood met Dr. Krishna Dronamraju, an Indian geneticist who shared her spiritual leanings, but who also was interested in her in the way that men are interested in women. Hood had always appreciated that sort of attention, but especially now that she was over 70. Though she still remained striking, she often bemoaned the loss of her looks. Once, when the Museum of Fine Arts planned to exhibit one of her works, she asked Alison di Lima Greene whether she could leave her date of birth off the title plate; she didn't want anyone to do the math, to realize that she was an old lady.

"Dr. Krishna," as Dronamraju introduces himself, repelled most of Hood's friends, who found him abrasive and controlling. Hood's decision was clear: She saw less of those friends. "Our connection," says Dronamraju, "was on a higher plane."

The couple traveled every year to India, which Hood had longed to visit, and they once stayed at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo. Dronamraju had studied with geneticist H.B.S. Haldane, and he delighted in introducing Hood to other famous people of his acquaintance. They visited the Sri Lanka home of Sir Arthur Clarke, who'd written 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another time, they spent a weekend with James Watson, the geneticist famous as half of Watson and Crick, the discoverers of DNA. Hood gave Watson a collage.

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