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From the Vault: Doris Cross

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Submitted Art Figure 1, by Doris Cross, "EXPIRE/EXPRESSLY," ca. 1972-1980, Estate of Doris Cross, Roswell Museum and Art Center.

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections

and Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art

Center

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Santa Fe artist Doris Cross (1907/8-1994) was born in New York City in 1907 or 1908 to Russian immigrants. Her family isn’t entirely sure how or when her interest in producing visual art developed, but by the 1930s, Cross was working as a supervisor for the Works Progress Administration’s mural division. In 1939, she married and had two children, but continued to pursue her art career. By painting commissioned portraits and teaching painting classes in the basement of her Brooklyn home, she helped support her young family.

Living in New York City afforded Cross many opportunities to see the latest in the art world and meet some of the best-known artists of the period. From 1944 to 1947, she studied with German-born artist Hans Hofmann, who is considered by many to be the “Father of Abstract Expressionism” because of his influence on Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Hofmann’s use of brilliant colors, his fondness for big physical gestures in the painting process, and ideas regarding the push and pull of various tensions on the canvas were an inspiration to Cross, who painted primarily in his style for the next 20 years. Then, in 1965, she had her most life-changing artistic breakthrough.

“I was dusting books, and I had several old dictionaries around. I opened one and for no reason that I know, I saw the whole thing as one. Certain words just came out and they worked. I very quickly grabbed a pen and wrote down the words that just came out and they worked together. I crossed out what I didn’t want, left what I did want on the dictionary column. This was not a conscious experience; I felt excited, later a little frightened. I wondered if I was getting grandiose ideas. When that happened, I stopped. I didn’t look at the dictionary for months. I thought I was having a schizophrenic experience.”

What Cross had done by altering that dictionary was produce a type of visual poetry, which has since been termed Erasure art, wherein the removal of words from a page and a focus on others leaves the remaining text with a wholly different meaning. Cross was the first practitioner of this new genre in the United States. Her breakthrough predates several contemporary artists, like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, who found success in the early 1980s by combining language and fine art, and the new wave of 21st century Erasure poets inspired by the redacted documents of the 9/11 era.

Over the next 30 years, Cross repeatedly returned to the same book, a 1913 Webster’s Secondary School Dictionary, because of its compelling headers and illustrations. She used copies of the same few pages, working and reworking them frequently to pull out new combinations and meanings through her eliminations and drawings. In some places, she’d scribble out words, using pen strokes to eliminate or elevate specific words or phrases. On other pages, she might use white paint to cover entire sections, except for a few words. Sometimes she would leave these spaces blank and other times she would fill them in with drawings or abstract patterns. Sharp diagonal shards of cut paper or ordinary adhesive tape featured in some works to cover or expose type. Others seem to have an architectural feel. The works can be colorful or monochromatic, and are occasionally inverted, with white text on a black background. In addition to the emotional and physical gestures of Abstract Expressionism, some of these techniques harken back to the tenets of Dada art, including the use of humor, nonsense, freedom and spontaneity.

Cross’ legacy is not limited to this body of work — the “Found Word” series — although it is what she is best known for. She was also a painter, photographer, printmaker, multimedia and installation artist and teacher. In 1972, Cross moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico after visiting her daughter there. Soon she became a sought-after member of the city’s art scene. Twenty years later, the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe hosted a retrospective of her work, the first granted to a living female artist at that institution.

The Roswell Museum and Art Center was recently selected to be the repository of the entire Cross art collection and archive because we recognize the significant contributions that Cross made to modern and contemporary art, both regionally and nationally. Like the better-known and similarly strong-minded Georgia O’Keeffe, Cross brought European Modernism and coastal Abstract Expressionism to the American Southwest, invented an entirely new style of art, and inspired a generation of New Mexican artists. She deserves equal recognition for her efforts. To that end, RMAC staff wrote a grant seeking federal funding to make the entire Cross collection available to the public online. If this project is selected, we hope it will inspire poets, artists and the rest of our Roswell community.