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 not all moments in the relationship proved so delightful. Dronamraju, the possessive type, once called Hood's former assistant, Alec Soto, and angrily demanded that Soto discontinue his platonic friendship with Hood; Soto declined, and continued to talk with Hood by phone. Hood told Soto that she found it strange that after all the time she'd known Dronamraju, he'd never allowed her to see his house. She worried Dronamraju might leave her for another woman; she was, after all, nearly 20 years older than he was. She worried that, at her age, she might never find another man.

In 1995 the Museum of Modern Art included one of Hood's works in a show called "Artists and Modern Women." The irony was obvious: Hood was definitely an artist, but just as definitely, not a modern woman.

In August '96 Dronamraju was charged with attempting to sexually assault an employee. According to the Houston Chronicle, the woman had worked for his genetics research institute for less than three hours when he tried to force her to touch his genitals. The court set his bond at $75,000; Hood bailed him out. Dronamraju eventually pleaded guilty to the charge. And still, Hood stood by him.

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.

It's widely held that Dronamraju tried to sell Hood's works directly to collectors -- basically cutting out the gallery middleman. That aggressive approach seems to have backfired, and it apparently cost Hood her longtime relationship with Meredith Long. In 1997 the gallery dropped her.

Around that time, Hood was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I believe I gave up ambition a long time ago," Hood said in the 1986 documentary Dorothy Hood: The Color of Life. "I believe there's no such thing as ambition. I believe there's accomplishment."

It's a lovely sentiment, but it doesn't ring true. What good is a great painting if no one sees it? What good is a lifetime's achievement if it's forgotten? If Hood's work represented her Psyche, could she have been content to see it dissolve into the Void?

Even near the end of her life, Hood never lacked ambition. In the late '90s she and her supporters urged the Museum of Fine Arts to mount a full-blown retrospective. Everyone understood that such an exhibit would almost certainly be Hood's last hurrah, the capstone of her career.

Curator Greene, the main recipient of Hood's lobbying, admired Hood's work enough that she included two examples of it in her recent book on Texas artists, and she is one of the few people who have read Hood's unfinished autobiography. But the museum was busy constructing its new building, and a one-person show would have required a large segment of its already cramped exhibit space. Greene had to tell Hood no.

As a fallback, Hood's friends organized a retrospective at three smaller, less prestigious spaces: the nonprofit Lawndale Art and Performance Center; MD Modern, Hood's new gallery; and the Transco Tower lobby. The installations were good, but not the grand, unified send-off that many thought Hood deserved. At the opening party, several of Hood's friends ended the evening in tears, but Hood tried to keep the mood light. When her oncologist asked to photograph her in front of a painting, she grinned devilishly. She recognized the camera, the same one the oncologist used to record outward changes in a patient's breast. "You don't want the usual pose?" she asked.

As the cancer continued its march, Hood dropped further out of sight. She had always preferred not to talk about certain matters, and her health was high on that list. She refused friends' offers to drive her to chemotherapy appointments; either Dronamraju or her household help would handle it. Dronamraju called regularly to check on her and remind her to take her pills. She gave him her power of attorney, and she made him the executor of her will.

She also named him to the board of the Dorothy Hood Foundation. For years, she'd talked about creating a nonprofit entity to handle the delicate matter of her posthumous reputation. She'd always saved the pieces she liked best for herself, and she wanted the foundation to find good museum homes for those works.

Too, the foundation would prepare a catalogue raisonné, an authoritative list of her paintings, their dates and their owners -- a crucial matter for art historians and museum curators, who use such lists to ferret out fakes and locate originals for exhibitions. With Hood, compiling that catalog forms an especially tall order. Even she wasn't sure how many works she'd produced in her long career, much less where they'd all ended up. And only weeks before her death, on October 28, she was still painting.

Dronamraju says that he is the Dorothy Hood Foundation's sole remaining board member, that the board's other members have died or resigned. But in the same breath, he also says that he can't show her paintings now, that his lawyers advise against it, that the foundation is somehow hamstrung by probate court. For the moment at least, Hood's work is lost to the Void.

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