The Overlooked Abstractionist

Artist Lynn Randolph makes it her business to be furious, always, about something, and the night of Dorothy Hood's opening at the Lawndale Art & Performance Center was no exception. "I'm furious," she announced the minute I walked in. With what you might call learned caution, I asked why.

"Well," said Lynn impatiently, as if the answer were perfectly obvious, "why aren't these paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts?" I looked around the room, and had to admit that for once I wholeheartedly agreed. Not that the installation at Lawndale didn't look good -- not to mention the effort: These particular Hoods are so large that Lawndale's storefront windows had to be removed just to get them into the building. But damned if the paintings didn't cry out for the outsized grandeur of the museum's Cullinan Hall.

The question of why Hood, who at nearly 80 is indisputably the grande dame of the Houston art world, and whose work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York first in 1946 and last in 1995, was not enjoying a retrospective at the MFAH came up time and again that evening. By the end of the night, Randolph was not the only woman in tears over Hood's allegedly awful treatment by the art powers-that-be. Other spectators, though, begged that the issue be put aside, the better to revel in the three shows of Hood's work that were up in Houston that night: drawings and large paintings at Lawndale, organized by director Eleanor Williams; smaller paintings at the Transco Tower gallery, organized by Sally Sprout; and collages at MD Modern, Hood's commercial gallery (that short-lived show has already come down, but Hood's work can still be seen there).

Compared with what a genuinely scholarly retrospective of Hood's work could be, these three exhibits, salted with second-rate works, are sadly incomplete. Still, they make their point by offering the opportunity to examine Hood's abstractions at a particularly interesting time. Contemporary abstract painting gets a great deal of serious attention these days. Art in America recently completed two major articles on the subject, and at least one of the artists they featured is on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum's blockbusterish "Abstract Painting Once Removed." The title of that exhibit says it all: Painters today, or at least those who are attracting the spotlight, place themselves a careful distance away from "pure painting," which adheres to the myth that paint spurts forth directly from the artist's subconscious, bypassing pictorial convention to land on the canvas with an emotive oomph. Dorothy Hood is a pure painter -- and her best work ranks with that of Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler (now on view at the MFAH) and other greats.

Indeed, Hood is often referred to as a color-field painter or, more precisely, a second-generation color-field painter, and certainly her work is rich with pooled paint and translucent hues. Like the most prominent of that group of artists, Hood arrived at her own stylistic conclusions. But in truth, her paintings depend more on the surrealists' faith in the subconscious and their precise rendering of interior worlds than on color-field's aesthetic habits and gestural looseness.

Another difference is that Hood's paintings don't take refuge from relationship. She presents highly narrative, even theatrical, situations that delve deeply, if abstractly, into the conflicts of being human. One of the best paintings at Lawndale, Princess, suggests a brooding woman in much the same way that Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) seems to dramatize the event of its title. In contrast, color-field painter Mark Rothko treated relationships between forms as if, like relationships between people, they presented a dangerous opportunity to incur bad karma. He simplified his compositions until there was nothing to compose.

He also presented a flat picture plane, while Hood's has spatial depth. In one of her untitled works from 1972, at Transco, Hood has used her trademark decalomania technique (think sophisticated sponge-painting) to create a rocklike form of red and blue, anchoring one side of the black background. Out of the rock shoots a flatly painted, graceful "arm" that casts about in space with palpable longing. On the arm, there are snatches of more decaled texture, as if the skin has been ripped off to present a view of the microscopic life underneath. Hood is a tremendous technician, able to orchestrate varied techniques with aplomb.

The very idea of painters being "once removed" from their work is anathema to Hood, who speaks earnestly of The Void, who used to get up early in the morning to paint in a trancelike state, and who has worked her way through all manner of spiritual philosophy, finally arriving at the writings of yogi Sri Aurobindo. This earnestness is a holdover from the '40s and '50s, and it is what New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman was poking fun at when he recently noted that one of Rothko's "hagiographers" of two decades ago thought the messianic artist "had attained a harmony, an equilibrium, a wholeness in the Jungian sense that enabled him to express universal truths." This is exactly the sort of thing that curators said about Hood in the '60s and '70s, and that no doubt many of the ordinary people who own her works still say about her.

There are two things I like about paintings graced by D. Hood's brooding signature, and one of them is the decidedly unfashionable way in which they transmit emotion directly from the artist to the viewer. It is that visceral tug at the heart and loins, the way her best paintings sing themselves off the canvas like stylish hymns. It is the extravagant bleeding of her abstracted red poppies (of which there is one at Transco), or the unmoored, strident shapes of her Slouching to Bethlehem (also at Transco). Of course, many of Hood's paintings just ain't got that swing, and instead become so much mucking about with paint. A case in point is the side-by-side presentation at Transco of Light from Haiti, with its divine pale-orange and creme-yellow overtones, and After the Storm, which is facile enough but ultimately decorative. It is difficult to say why one works and the other doesn't, but Hood would say, I think, that it has to do with her success at tapping into that subterranean current.

If that were the case, everyone would agree on which paintings work and which don't. It's difficult today to have the same faith in "universal truths" -- or in the idea that the same paintings sing for everyone in the same way -- that people did in the early decades of American abstraction. There are paintings left behind in the storage rack at MD Modern -- The Seeming Beginning, for example -- that I thought were shockingly great, and I would never have left them out of an exhibition.

The other reason I like Dorothy Hood's paintings is that many of them, like The Red Hill at MDModern, happen to look fresh and hip, perhaps for the second time. Her woodblock-like, sunset-over-water landscape SpaceRider (1975, at Lawndale) is clearly of the ilk that inspires the neo-kitsch of some of today's Los Angeles painters. The sherbet-colored retro shapes of thirtysomething painter Monique Prieto (whose work is on the cover of the September Artforum and at the CAM) are a thinner, flatter version of Hood's abstract mountains and limbs. The difference between a Hood and a Prieto is the difference between a thrift-store find and a designer remake: The latter is more palatable, perhaps, but less weighty.

One of the most irksome, and possibly sexist, criticisms of Hood I hear from art professionals is that her artistic project has a narrow scope -- as if Rothko, Newman, Mondrian and Reinhardt did not relentlessly constrict their own aesthetic choices. But perhaps what these critics are really saying is that it is difficult to see a trajectory in Hood's oeuvre. If there is one, it looks less like an arc and more like a stock-market graph. Thus, a painting from the '90s might not be distinguishable as such from one of the '70s, though perhaps the difficulty is in the exhibits themselves, which are not arranged chronologically and which, in all fairness, did not aim to be comprehensive.

After viewing the up-to-eight-by-ten-foot paintings, most notably Princess, Totem in White and SpaceRider, at Lawndale, there is yet another set of arguments for Hood's commitment to her work: the drawings in the rear gallery. With all the uncomfortable sexiness of Louise Bourgeois's works on paper (some of which are now on view at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery) these drawings are maddeningly intense, their shapes made up of hundreds of concentric or contoured lines of ink. In Africa, you can see a bit of the figurative work with which she began her career. A lily pad, covered with rows of tiny cell-like squares in a fingerprint-like pattern, incorporates a faint human face. Hood makes these drawings while standing up, and the effect is one of total aerial control.

There are few artists who can do "pure painting" today, because its tropes are already so heavy with meaning. Only an artist of Hood's stature, and frankly, her age, can paint as she paints with such authority and faith. In a fall art schedule so full of abstract painting, it is the perfect time to visit the works of a master who works with the kind of conviction that other painters take as a point of departure.

Before I return to the question of an MFAH retrospective, a bit about Hood's career. The details of her life are colorful and oft-repeated: She was born in Bryan, Texas, in 1919, studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design and in New York, and took a vacation to Mexico City in 1945. There she stayed for 19 years, surrounded by muralists such as Orozco and Tamayo, poets like Pablo Neruda, who wrote a poem about her, and expatriate surrealists. She met composer/conductor Velasco Maidana, whom she married and referred to as "Maestro." In the '60s, they left a rapidly changing Mexico and moved to Houston, because Hood already had established a relationship with art dealer Meredith Long. In one of the first of the countless feature stories that Houston's papers would publish about Hood over the years, critic Ann Holmes described her as "a young woman of certain strangeness."

Hood has always been celebrated for her adventurous approach to life. She once said, "I think the only verifiable knowledge that I would ever pretend could be authentic is the history of myself. My psyche.... I regard my life as an experiment." She travels annually to India, a country for which she has a deep affinity, with her companion and business partner, geneticist Krishna Dronamraju.

Even now, as she sits in the high-ceilinged studio behind her Heights bungalow, surrounded by countless paintings, she chuckles at the disturbing effect her work can have. "There can be, shall we say, an awakening, a stimulating," she says. "I've always felt that disturbance is sort of a nice thing, having grown up in a bourgeois household."

Discomfort or no, the well-connected Long made sure Hood's paintings found themselves in Houston's most prestigious homes -- today, they hang in the foyer of the Lanier penthouse. In 1974, the prestigious Tibor de Nagy gallery gave her a solo show in New York. (Writing in the New York Times, the crotchety Hilton Kramer called the paintings "a more hygienic, less magical version of Max Ernst's imaginary landscapes.") Her work was collected by the Whitney, the Modern, the Brooklyn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In fact, the '70s was Hood's decade -- she had solo shows at the MFAH, the CAM, Rice University and twice at the Everson Museum in Syracuse.

Hood's career, though, never took off the way some people thought it should (her paintings, at $15,000 for the largest, seem significantly undervalued), and many blamed Long for this, saying that he discouraged other galleries from representing her -- though it was because of Long that Hood made a living as an artist, and that over the years she had shows at commercial galleries in Chicago, New York and even Japan. Now, Hood says with a smile, "He was the boss. I was a peon."

I asked curator and critic Barbara Rose, who did a brief stint in Houston, why Hood has never gotten the recognition she deserves. "Because she never left Houston," Rose replied without hesitation. Indeed, reverse provincialism might be the key to why, despite her work's power and distinction, Hood hasn't gotten that retrospective. Does Houston prefer the prodigal to the stay-at-home?

I put the retrospective question to MFAH 20th-Century Curator Allison de Lima Greene. "We have shied away from the single-artist retrospective," was one reason Greene offered, along with lack of space in the museum. "Dorothy just hasn't fallen on our priority list."

The more people who love Hood, it seems, the more thankless the task of shepherding her career. Meredith Long is not the only person who has been criticized. Dronamraju, or Dr. Krishna, as everyone calls him, conducts Hood's business affairs, controls her appointments and, her friends admit, performs the crucial role of seeing to her health. Though he is respected in the Indian community, his commanding nature and self-aggrandizing tendencies (his business card lists six different posts) have made him no friends in the art world -- in fact, several people say his disregard for the rules of the business caused Long's break with Hood in 1997.

Dronamraju's a pushy salesman, which in the art world doesn't always work to advantage. "It took a year for Dr. K to understand that this is not a commercial gallery," says Lawndale director Eleanor Williams.

Dr. Krishna says he has helped Hood set up a foundation to handle her artwork, but it remains to be seen whether he is able to perform the delicate task of positioning her in the market at a time when the value of her work should rise. Dr. Krishna insists that he is working in Hood's best interest. "Lots of people express concern," he points out. "But they don't do a damn thing."

As for Hood, the business of art does not seem to have been her highest priority. She has left the job of archiving, dating and even titling many of her works to someone else. Though she seems to crave recognition as much as anyone, she has always been happiest at work in her studio, and that is where she waited for the world to come knocking.

"I believe I gave up ambition a long time ago," she said in a 1983 documentary about her life. "I believe there's no such thing as ambition. I believe there's accomplishment." A perfectly good distinction. But let's hope that in years to come, someone is there to put her achievement in the best possible light.

"Dorothy Hood: Paintings and Drawings" is on view through Oct. 24 at Lawndale, 4912 Main, 528-5858.

"Dorothy Hood: Paintings and Collages" is on view through Oct. 16 at Transco Tower Gallery, 2800 Post Oak Blvd., 526-6461.

Various works by Dorothy Hood can be seen at MD Modern, 2719 Colquitt, 526-5966.

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