Epiphany, n.,3.(l.c.) Literature. a. a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience. --Random House Dictionary of the English Language.
Doris Cross's art is inspired by epiphanies, by those bright mysterious bursts of subjective meaning. She seeks them in what might seem an unlikely place--the dictionary, specifically Webster's Secondary School Dictionary (Mirriam & Company, 1913). The epiphany is triggered by the relationship between seemingly unconnected words, words found either at the head of the dictionary columns or words within a column. (Example: I opened my dictionary at random to page 826, and the headings were life-and-death and light.) Using the column, directly and faithfully, she makes her art. Words are deleted, but none are added. Some of her work is black and white photostats, and some of it employs color and form to reinforce the subjective meaning of the text.
There is an automatic effect of her art. It can cause the viewer to laugh, to wonder, to feel anxiety, anger, fear, or elation, and all without apparent reason. Her art is heady, and sometimes heavy stuff. She is an artists' artist. Her work is unique and, oddly, very personal, yet it touches universal chords in those who are not put off by its unlikely, sometimes stark appearance. Though it acts like art, it doesn't look like art.
And Cross is an artist's artist in her total, single-minded devotion to her work. There's no separation between what Doris does and who she is. She is a true artist of the avant-garde, one of the few remaining, challenging artdom's hallowed conventions, inventing new ways of seeing and experiencing. Often during the course of our long interview in her Santa Fe home and studio, I found myself being interviewed.
You've been working with the dictionary for some time now. Are you treating it any differently?
I'm coming to see the columns as totems. Can't they be? Isn't it a possible interpretation?
Yes, they're both vertical.... In a sense, you're carving them, shaping them, somehow investing them with a power or significance...
How did you come to base your painting on words in the first place?
It stems from ignorance and curiosity. I've always found that I was only run-of-the-mill literate.... I always had to live with someone who could teach me things. You're fascinated by all this, aren't you?
Yes, I'm intrigued by creative people, how they work, why. How did you get involved with dictionaries?
I never have thought about the question. One day I discovered that I was collecting dictionaries, so I started opening them up. And the first time I did.... It was one of those miracles, findings, something found seemingly by accident. But I saw it differently, too, as a structure.
Well, a dictionary column has a head and a body, and sometimes a base. But my first fascination was the headings. They struck me as literature.
I don't understand. How are the headings of dictionary columns literature?
Like literature, not literature. They stimulated connections I'd never made before. Like... the first one was lacerate and lamb. That's the way it started. It was right there, saying something. I went crazy on the headings, just the headings, but then I stopped and went more into the body of the columns.
Do you think of yourself as a poet?
No. I'm just dong these things. In this town I'm referred to as the artist who does the dictionary columns. That drives me mad. I'm also referred to as a conceptualist. I guess that means I'm original.
How would you like to be thought of?
As a composite, I guess. My work is not random. It's more than just words. It's rhythm, too, and form and texture, and sometimes it's color. I use it all to make a statement of fact. You tell me what I am? We'll call it a portrait of Doris Cross by Steve Parks.
I don't know you well enough yet.
Try. Use what you know.
You use a lot of opposites in your work. And your hair is white, your sweater is black. You don't like being defined but your art is based on the dictionary. On the surface, much of your work appears cold, stark, black and white words and illustrations. But when I read it, it gets hot. The words in your work are clear, very legible. Your voice is very gravelly, and I have to listen carefully to understand you. Now you talk. Let's go back to the development of your idea. You started with headings and the connections between them.
That's what I'm doing, making connections, not writing poetry.
Are you creating the connections, or discovering them?
Both. I went from the headings that grabbed me, into scanning the four columns, looking for connections, and gradually came to concentrate on one column and regarding that as the body--the head, the body and base. Sometimes I use the first letter in the line, say B, and repeat it all the way down the left margin to contain the column.
So that's strictly a visual concern.
No. sometimes it's involved with sound--b-b-b-b-b-beee. I'm dying to find someone to do music to these.
So you take a column and you strip words out of it...
And the words left create their own rhythm and meaning, and that gets back to my great love. Henri Focillon, a French aesthetician. He wrote The Life of Forms in Art. He proves that it exists, that forms have a life, an existence of their own, gained through a series of formalizations.
I don't follow that.
Most people don't. Artists do. Artists are my public.
Do you ever manipulate the words in the column, add words, or change their location?
No, never. That's unfair, usurping. It's a rule that I never do that. An artist has to have rules.
Tell me about Woodstock, about the old days.
What about them?
What was your painting like then?
Madonnas. I don't want to talk about that, about the past, about who I am. I distrust the whole cult of personality business. Someone said--I think it was Don Fabricant [a Santa Fe art critic]--that I was the most avant-garde artist in Santa Fe. It's time for me to leave! I'm known! [Much laughter]
What's the story behind this photo, Doris Reclined?
Well, I was living in Woodstock, reading Marcel Proust, smoking and having a drink. That's the story. Someone came in with a camera and took the picture. "The desirable you." I can't afford that kind of relaxation any more.
What were you doing in Woodstock?
Well, I wasn't a tourist! I feel like a tourist here. I've lived in Santa Fe for ten years, and it still doesn't feel like home.
Once you've been born and bred in New York, it's...you always long for it. It has an existence that's been concretized by all the artists who went there and stayed there. It created a concentrated energy. It was Robert Motherwell who, directly or indirectly, brought so many artists from Europe to New York--Dadaists, Surrealists, Albers, Mondrian, the German Expressionists, Guston, Hofmann, Beckmann. It was that concentration of creative forces that gave birth to Abstract Expressionism. There was so much communication, education, it was new stuff they were doing, and they literally, in some cases, supported each other. There was The Energy! What a contribution Motherwell made!
Were you involved in all that excitement of the '40s?
Partially. I saw it all, I knew where it all was coming from. But I had got married--that's why I say only partially. Hans Hofmann was the greatest teacher in America. I studied with him--after I'd studied with ten others--and I never left him. He presented, as he himself had absorbed, a whole gamut of early 20th century endeavors, including the Bauhaus, along, of course, with the possibility of discovery! He and the others didn't do presentation in the usual sense, pictorial. They used the image for a purpose other than itself. That's addition, building, discovery. They were going further with basic material. They certainly weren't painting to sell. I hope, I assume, everybody knows about Hofmann, the great Hofmann. That's enough about him.
Why do you paint, Doris?
Why do I paint? Why do I paint? I think it has something to do with time. You're in another time when you're painting. It's another way of making love, of doing it. It's inside, that's the difference between those I've been talking about and those working in a style that's salable, that's outside. I'm lecturing. I don't want to do that.
Do you have a need for confirmation?
I'm constantly in search of confirmation. It usually comes after I finish something. The stone sculpture I did for the Armory [Armory for the Arts, Santa Fe], I did it without preconception, presented myself with the final work. But afterwards I came across an interview with Buckminster Fuller. He was invited by an architect friend to look at his completed building. Bucky looked at it, turned to his friend, and asked, "Do you know what it weighs?" That was all the confirmation I needed for my sculpture of weighing the stone. But we're getting too close to the personality bit. That's a hangover from the Hollywood bit. [Long pause] Do you believe that, that one can begin something not knowing why?
Yes. It's what so much of contemporary art and life is about. Often we do things and hope that before they're finished we'll know what it is we're doing.
Write that down.
I know you don't think of yourself as a poet, but there is a lot of poetry in your work.
[Reading from Cock] "Cock! Coaxer with high stylish action. Tough, lustrous...flat-bottomed COBRA of the warm parts of Asia...The network spread a single thread, flimsy, clogging, entangling, with Peruvian cuca, nerve stimulant--yield dim, scarlet, berry, bodies of females central. Conical cock vessel. The male faucet in the lock, an extravagant firearm set for firing, knowing the turn, tilt."
Don't blame me. It was all in The Book! Seriously, a lot of poets like my work, especially the concrete visual poets. Some of them in San Francisco are doing a book of my work.
Your most recent pieces, like the Flower/Fluting series--is it still from the 1913 Webster's?
Of course! That's the rule. That's the challenge, the discipline. It's a series of ten paintings based on those two columns. I once did a series that got down to one word--terminated, unfortunately, was the word. But I've done many columns that really only needed one treatment, so that's what they got.
Are you creating from the dictionary, or discovering within it?
You already asked me that. Both. As Einstein said, poetry is condensation. I'm not a poet, but I'm discovering something about poetry. Condensation creates--can create--an unbearable intensity. Right now, write a comment on your pad there about condensation.
It gets easier as you get older.
What do mean?
I can concentrate better now that I could ten years ago.
You should keep a chart. I'm interested in keeping a chart on suicide among artists. Guston, for example. He worked 40 years, worked until his brushwork and his imagery were totally integrated and he was free, a child again. He went full circle, and then he died.
Is there a bit of the mystic in you?
No, damn you. There are those who think so, but they're hopeless. [Long pause] I have my failures. I'm fascinated by them, examining them, why they didn't work, trying to figure out ways to make them work. They're very mysterious, your failures. I love them, but I'd never show them. They're too private.
You avoid the whole notion of personal history, don't you?
Certainly. It's just that I've never encountered it quite so strongly before.
Well, it's like how you put it together, that's the doing part. I have an idea that I have privileged myself, occasionally, by making a reference that is appropriate, and that can be picked up on or not.
Why don't you privilege yourself more often?
What for? I can get it together in what I do, that's where it's at.
You're unpredictable, just like your work. In fact, the better I know you, the more clearly I see you in your painting. Sometimes it just screams, "Doris!"
I haven't reached, or touched a broad audience, so perhaps in that way I've failed. But the people I have reached, which would be academic people, people in universities, they've loved it. There's a woman who teaches at Oxford, a woman who I think is extraordinary, who had this past year and a half set up an international archives of concrete visual poets, and she's included my work, which she is interested in. What's interesting to me is that it's that caliber of person that has picked up on me. They've accepted me as a poet. That bothers me somewhat, because while it's true I've been using words, I was using them with a special kind of imagery. Anyway, she lectures and performs all around Europe, and that's pretty exciting. She's explaining my work somehow. I'd like to hear how.
Are you trying to communicate anything in particular with your painting?
I don't know.... The word is the word.
Have you ever used that reference?
Just once. "In the beginning was the word, and the word was God...." I wrote something based on that, a dictionary column I did. There's a northern country where they do not use the word God, but rather substitute the word odd. What I wrote was:
"Odd, the word God
Not paired with another
There were 20 and odd men there
Remaining beyond what was taken
Sing, odd man, sing."
Not bad, eh? The work sheet for that sold to a Texas woman who owned a huge bookstore. It was the one work in the show--at Hill's Gallery--that was not for sale. She had to have it, so I sold it.
When are you going to have another show?
I don't know. I should have one when the book comes out. I'll mention it to a couple of galleries. If they pick up on it, fine. If they don't, I'll just wait.
Stephen Parks, February, 1981