Arts / Museums

Tracing the Footsteps of Texas’ Greatest Painter — and Finding the Holy Grail in Corpus Christi

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 08.12.15

While James Surls, John Alexander and the late Bert Long Jr. cast long shadows in the annals of Texas art, we would argue that Dorothy Hood (1918– 2000) should be enshrined as the greatest painter Texas produced in the 20th century.

This claim was not arrived at casually or from distant memory — even though I knew Hood years ago and as a junior staffer in the early 1990s at Meredith Long & Company was assigned to work with the artist. (I also acted as a gallery hostess at her Heights studio on one memorable occasion, offering drinks to potential collectors and helping show her towering canvases.)

No, the basis for this statement is from my recent trip to the Art Museum of South Texas (AMST), a jewel-box of an institution that represents, for devotees of Texas art, a Holy Grail of Dorothy Hood material. (In the same way that art pilgrims travel to Houston for Rothko and Denver for Clifford Still, acolytes of Hood should head to Corpus Christi.)

And Corpus Christi houses not just Hood’s art, although that is in itself remarkable — canvases that can only be described as cathedrals of color, epic and heroic, joined by deft drawings that tilt to Surrealism and collages that evidence a global view before that was popular. Joining the bounty of Hood work at AMST are the artist’s entire archives, including correspondence, exhibition notices and gallery invites, show posters, photographs and more, spanning her early years at Rhode Island School of Design, into the Mexico decades and concluding with the Houston chapter, which arguably produced her best work and what we know today as classic Hood.

Besides its trove of Hood art and ephemera, the museum is also the repository of her husband’s archives — Bolivian composer Jose Maria Velasco Maidana (circa 1899-1989), including his music scores for ballet and orchestra — as well as the couple’s ashes. (A relative of Velasco has been in touch about making arrangements for a resting place, but for Hood, one wonders, what could be better than being near her work?)

The occasion for my visit was related to the upcoming Houston Fine Art Fair’s focus on Hood; the Art Museum of South Texas is organizing a special Hood pavilion during the Fair (September 9-12, at NRG Center) connected to its upcoming international retrospective, which begins its tour in Corpus Christi in the fall of 2016. Curator and art historian Susie Kalil is leading the charge on the exhibition, devoting years to the research endeavor — which amounts to a re-writing of American art history — while patrons such as Carolyn Farb, who early on took the lead, have joined with the museum in raising to date nearly $700,000 of the $1 million-plus needed to fund the entire exhibition tour, which seeks to take Hood on the road to museums in Mexico, Manhattan and the West Coast.

AMST from above: the original 1972 Johnson building (right), and 2006 Legoretta addition (note pyramidal roof line, left). The museum will devote both buildings to the Hood retrospective, set to open September 29, 2016. The de Menils introduced Philip Johnson to museum patrons Patsy and Edwin Singer, and recommended him for the job when a new building was planned in the early 1970s, and the museum moved to this dramatic location on Shoreline Drive.
The original Philip Johnson building (right), and the Ricardo Legoretta addition comprise Corpus Christi’s Art Museum of South Texas. The museum will devote both buildings to a Dorothy Hood retrospective, set to open on September 29, 2016.

First, a little background about the ground-breaking career of the Bryan-born, Houston-raised artist: After moving to New York in the 1930s, the RISD-educated Hood drove to Mexico on a lark and remained there for 20 years, at the epicenter of movements that swirled around Mexico City in the 1940s and 1950s. She palled around with Pablo Neruda, who penned a poem to her, and even shared a studio with José Clemente Orozco. And she met her husband, who was Bolivia’s foremost composer of the day, at the casa of Diego Rivera.

When Maidana and Hood moved to Houston, in 1962, she quickly became one of the leading artists in a world dominated by big brash male painters. With her studio in the Heights, Hood was represented by the blue-chip Meredith Long for decades and collected by America’s major museums — from the Whitney Museum of American Art to the Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Blanton Museum of Art in Austin; McNay Art Museum in San Antonio; and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Above all, Hood was enthusiastically acquired by the first families of Houston for her soaring paintings, which bridged the void and color field; obsessive drawings with a Gothic-Surreal sensibility; and collages that embraced globalism and sampled world cultures.

Among her distinguished and discerning patrons (some among us still, others departed) were Dominique and John de Menil, Nina Cullinan, Cornelia and Meredith Long, John O’Quinn (a regular in her studio), Mavis Kelsey Sr., Carol Ballard, Isabel Brown Wilson, Diana and Bill Hobby, Carol and Robert Straus, Fayez Sarofim, and Farb — the latter executive producer of a 1985 documentary on Hood and who early on stepped forward to serve as the underwriting chair of the Hood retrospective.

Now back to the Corpus Christi trip: After spending the day at the Art Museum of South Texas, where the museum has devoted a permanent gallery to Hood, installed Hood collages throughout its cafe, and lives with Hood in the executive suite — smaller canvases line the walls of director Joe Schenk and deputy director Sara Morgan‘s offices — I came to a renewed appreciation of this powerful voice in American art.

For some of the high points on the quest for Dorothy Hood — including the background of this museum on the bayfront designed by the iconic Philip Johnson (1972) and including a later addition by Mexican architectural giant Ricardo Legorreta (2006), who got Johnson’s blessing before he built onto the existing building — take a look at the slideshow. And most importantly, learn how the pioneering painter’s art and archives came to reside in Corpus Christi and how the book and retrospective were birthed.

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