Brian O'Doherty: Reflections and Memories
“And I discovered, to my joy, that it is life and not death, that has no limits.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Brian O’Doherty’s long life resoundingly realized the above.
We are left with the fruits of his labors as a pioneering artist, a medical doctor, a television presenter, an art critic, a university teacher, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) administrator, an award-winning filmmaker, novelist, and writer. Yet Brian carried his erudition lightly. A tall handsome man, he stood out in a crowd in more ways than one. He was funny, a storyteller who could talk to anyone about almost anything. A great communicator, he loved to talk on the phone, write wonderfully witty letters and later, e-mails. Yet, he was very much his own man; with a steely determination he did things his own way.
Many critics found Brian, and his art, difficult to categorize. This is, surely, because he broke the usual criteria within which an artist’s work, and persona, were assessed. As Beckett once said: “The danger is in the neatness of identification.” Brian created his own kinds of identification. Thus we get the “between categories” multi-disciplinary artist, one that had, then, yet to be defined. He defined it through performance, installation, Conceptual art, film, video, art writing , poetry and fiction. He once said that it takes more than fifty years for a new idea to become accepted. As we know, this was as true for Conceptual artists as it was for Galileo, Darwin, the Impressionists, Cubists, and countless others.
His extraordinary life was conducted by a number of different personae, including one female art critic. It began in Ireland as a medical doctor, followed by the study of psychology and then a M.Sc. in Hygiene at Harvard. Although a medical training was dutifully pursued due to parental insistence, it was finally abandoned in the late 1950s for his first passion, art. As a medical student he was already multidisciplinary, publishing poetry and art criticism and exhibiting art drawn from the work of Paul Klee and the Russian Constructivists, rather than the French-influenced art that dominated, in Ireland and elsewhere, at the time.
Another convention was broken in a conservative Irish Catholic household, when he married the love of his life, American art historian, Barbara Novak, in 1960. She was the primary constant of his tumultuous life as wife, intellectual confidant, supporter, and fierce guardian of his art. Throughout their sixty years together, while writing and making art independently, both contributed to the cultural life of America in significant ways; Barbara as the teacher of many of the leading scholars and art historians working in America today and Brian, among other roles, as an administrator in the National Endowment for the Arts for thirty years. There, he supported artists as director of the Visual Arts Program and later developed new media as director of the Media Arts Program of Film, Radio and Television. At the same time he was developing his own multimedia practice.
Like many artists, Brian absorbed affinities with other artists into his art. There were many from science, cinema, psychology, philosophy, literature and visual art that attracted his agile, curious mind. Klee has been mentioned, but while a medical student, he was also attracted to Jack B. Yeats, more for his independent-minded attitude than for his style of art. Indeed it was Yeats, with poet and National Gallery of Ireland director, Thomas MacGreevy, who recommended Brian for a scholarship to Harvard. James Joyce and Flann O’Brien also strongly informed his thinking. In America, Brian was similarly attracted by Marcel Duchamp’s independent attitude more than some of his ideas. His Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1966–67) challenged some of those ideas, yet at the same time, emphasizing Duchamp’s importance to late twentieth century art. The foundation of this portrait (the first of Conceptual art), was the earlier medical studies and the first human heart transplant, in 1967, by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. The earlier study of psychology was absorbed into the thinking behind the mirrored Ogham sculptures and the “Rope Drawings” installations, all of which probed the complexities of self, location and space. An early conceptual work, tellingly titled Between Categories (1957–65), was also based on the previous experiments on perception in Cambridge University, UK Indeed, one could say that a medical understanding of the integration of mind and body underpinned his artistic output from the beginning of his career. His work included not only the mind but the body and the senses in contradistinction to much Conceptual art. But in addition, by uniting the sensually visual with the cognitive (language), there was also a refutation of a long-standing dichotomy in Western aesthetics. As Barbara once noted in an essay on Brian’s art, seeing it as sensation and language (quoting Delacroix): “The first quality of a picture is to be a delight for the eyes. This does not mean that there need be no sense in it…”
My first introduction to the artist was through Irish art historian Catherine Marshall, a lecturer when I was a mature student in Art History at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1990s. She thought I might be interested as he was both an artist and a medical doctor. She was right. I discovered that we had both graduated from the same medical school, University College Dublin, he in 1952, and I in 1970. Brian and I first met in 1995, when he was artist-in-residence in the Sirius Arts Centre in the southern coastal town of Cobh in County Cork. The mutual bond of medicine became, and remained, important. I remember watching him work on the two-room “Rope Drawing” called Borromini’s Corridor (1995) after his favorite Italian architect. He remarked that I was the first person to observe a “Rope Drawing” from start to finish. I noticed that he was using a non-slip surgical knot to tie the ropes securely to floor, wall or ceiling. When I pointed this out to him, he was surprised, completely unaware that he had being doing so. As he was (a spritely) sixty-seven years old at the time he had a couple of assistant artists helping with the work. To my surprise, he asked me to paint one of the walls. I protested that I was not an artist, but he insisted. At the opening a few days later, I was shocked to see my name listed as one of the assistant artists. I was to witness, and receive, many acts of generosity over our friendship for the next twenty-eight years.
As I began to research Brian’s work, I became intrigued by its apparent simplicity based largely on drawings of dots, lines, and planes, yet ,at the same time, it seemed to be underpinned by weighty philosophical concerns. I was also surprised, after forty years of exhibiting internationally, that apart from some excellent catalogue essays, there was no book available to help unravel such a complex body of work. So I decided to write one.1 I discovered (previously unidentified) concerns that marked his art for over sixty years and presciently anticipated much of what was to come: self/identity, language, and perception.
Brian was a tall and slim with a mop of gray hair when we first met. He had a mischievous sense of humor and piercing blue eyes which, when fixed upon you, could be quite unnerving. I remember my first visit to his delightfully cluttered home-cum-studio in New York, west of Central Park, when he laid out a range of work for me. Suddenly, he looked across the room and asked if I knew his date of birth? The first thing that had struck me prior to that visit, was that his stated birthdate (1934) in numerous exhibition catalogues could not be correct, as he would have had to have begun medical school at the age of twelve. Checking the records at our old university revealed that he had been born in 1928. He laughed and said: “I knew you would find out!” He then launched into his ideas around the question of the self, a concern that permeated not only his art, but also his writings.
Saul Ostrow once remarked that Brian outdid Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy with installation artist Patrick Ireland, linguistic philosopher Sigmund Bode, critic Mary Josephson and editor and writer William Maginn. Evidently, as he once remarked, it was boring to be just one person. But were there more? At the interview in New York in 2019 after the launch of Dear…Selected Letters from Brian O’Doherty, 1970s to 2018, I asked him if he had any other unknown pseudonyms? He revealed that he had used John Harrington as the ‘photographer’ for his essay on Las Vegas, published in Art in America in 1972 (when he was editor), but that he didn’t use him much after that. Typical of Brian’s sense of humor, as I learnt later, was the fact that Sir John Harington was the inventor of the flush toilet in 1592. Presumably, during his M.Sc. at Harvard, he had come across Harington? He often joked that all he had learned at Harvard was the difference between sewage and sewerage.
The doubling of self was established with his first pseudonym, Sigmund Bode (b. 1950s), created while a medical student in Ireland. Bode was an amalgamation of two figures he detested: Sigmund Freud (for his theory of the self) and German art historian, Wilhem Von Bode (for his opposition to the theories of physician and art connoisseur, Giovanni Morelli, who had also used multiple pseudonyms). Patrick Ireland, his best known, most serious political alter ego, was created in 1972 following the Bloody Sunday massacre on January 30 of fourteen civil rights marchers in Derry, Northern Ireland, by British army paratroopers. At great personal cost, and risk to his growing artistic reputation, Brian vowed to use the name Patrick Ireland for his art, until civil rights were restored to all citizens in Northern Ireland. Decades later, many in Ireland remained suspicious, even angry, at his stance, seeing art as separate from day-to-day life and politics. Yet some younger artists saw it as liberating and a marker of how art could make non-violent statements without becoming an agent of propaganda. The Name Change performance in November 1972, formally launched the new artistic persona and simultaneously introduced performance art into Ireland. The perilous nature of a vow, dependent upon historical events beyond anyone’s control, was to last for thirty-six years until a power-sharing government was established in 1998.2 Patrick Ireland, by then a distinguished installation artist, was ceremoniously buried in 2008 in the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The success of Brian’s maintenance of Patrick for so long was evident when I began my research. Many I spoke to were unaware that he and Patrick were one and the same artist; and Who’s Who in America had two separate entries for each artist. The critic Brian even did a review of Patrick’s work in the Charles Cowles Gallery in the 1990s. Besides Patrick, the other names remained secret until revealed in 1998 and later at Beyond the White Cube: a retrospective of Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland at Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane in 2006 and at the Grey Art Gallery, New York, in 2007.
Like Joyce, Brian was hostile to the socially repressive power of the Catholic Church in Ireland. This was expressed by his self-imposed exile and the creation of his female persona, Mary Josephson, in the early 1970s, this time a doubling of two of his own names. He was christened ‘Brian Mary’ at birth, a common practice at the time. He subsequently reasserted his masculinity, at the age of twelve, when he took the name ‘Joseph’ at his confirmation. Mary Josephson therefore incorporated a secular Holy Family: Mary and Joseph, to which he added ‘son’. She also represented his support for feminism. But she caused him some problems as editor of Art in America when the brilliance of her critical writing attracted the attentions of John Coplans, the editor of the rival Artforum, who wanted her to write for his magazine. She refused, saying that she only worked for Brian O’Doherty. Why the need for all these pseudonyms? To me, it can be summarized in one word: freedom. The freedom of a restless, remarkable and curious mind to harness, in tangible ways, a boundless imagination.
“Art is a teacher, it’s not an object,” the artist Larry Bell once said. O’Doherty/Ireland’s art is one that gently, but insistently, pushes us to reassess our assumptions about art, the role of the artist, and ourselves. As such, if willing, it teaches. This was made explicit early in his career with Aspen 5+6 (1967),when the viewer, rather than the artist-creator, was placed centre-stage and given agency. It also declared the emergence of the collaborative artist, by its inclusion of an older generation of artists, writers, poets, dancers, and musicians with Conceptual contemporaries, including himself. While he resisted the term ‘manifesto’ for Aspen 5+6, it nevertheless revealed the wide range of ‘movements’ that concerned him throughout his long career: Constructivism, Structuralism, Conceptualism, Tradition of Paradoxical Thinking, Objects, and (significantly, a new category) Between Categories. These were further refined as ‘themes’: Time (in art and history), Silence and Reduction, and Language.
Although Brian left Ireland willingly, he, like Joyce and Beckett, never forgot the country or its people. “America,” he once said, “gave me the gift of my own country.” Once free from the suffocating atmosphere of Church and State, Brian gave much back to Ireland through his writing, his attitude, and his art. He, with James Coleman, introduced Conceptual art to Ireland at the third Rosc biennial exhibition in Dublin in 1977. As mentioned, he also introduced performance art with Name Change in 1972, installation art with the “Rope Drawings,” and land art with Rick in 1975. Besides an ever-growing body of his work in national and private collections, there are permanent works in his old university, an Ogham sculpture, Newman’s Razor (1970), that references the founder Cardinal Newman and the medieval philosopher William of Occam. There is also a “Rope Drawing,” The Arrow of Curiosity, the Curve of Conciliation, and the Line of Inquiry in 2011.
Elsewhere in Ireland, there is One, Here, Now: The Ogham Cycle, the monumental wall painting made in 1996 at the Sirius Arts Gallery in Cobh, Co. Cork, and restored in 2018. It was donated, and accepted in 1996 on behalf of the Irish people, by President Mary Robinson. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, the stone labyrinth, Teanga/Aisling an Phobail/Language/The Community’s Dream, based on the ancient woven St. Brigid’s cross, stands at the top of the Falls Road in the Gaeltacht/Irish speaking area of the city since 2011. Finally, closing the circle of an Irish American odyssey, Brian and Barbara donated an important collection of Post-War American art to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2010. Fittingly then, the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, issued a statement on Brian’s death last November, noting his many achievements internationally and nationally.
Our shared love of Italy was reignited for me in 1998 while staying in Brian and Barbara’s house in Todi, Umbria. Since the mid-1970s Brian had been transforming its interior into a dazzling, pulsating work of art with mainly wall paintings, based on Ogham, and a few “Rope Drawings,” that became Casa Dipinta /Painted House. It is now, significantly in the light of his seminal Inside the White Cube essays, an anti-white cube museum where his work is on permanent display. He and Barbara donated it to the city of Todi before his death.
Following my first visit to Todi, we subsequently restored a barn in the nearby Tuscan hills which later became adorned with a beautiful wall painting by Brian. I am fortunate, like many others, to have been the beneficiary of such generosity, which included in 2001 (on completion of my Ph.D.), a unique drawing, One (For Dr. Dr.). To Brian’s immense delight, I too, had doubled myself.
It is not often in life that you meet such a towering yet modest person, who not only changes the way you think, but leaves such a warm presence in your memory. He was many things, but in a sense, he never stopped being a caring humane doctor. We shall not see his like again.
- Moore-McCann, B. Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Between Categories, 2009, Surry, U.K. & Vermont, U.S.A., Lund Humphries. ISBN: 978-1-84822-014-0. This is the first monograph on the artist’s work. Also by Moore-McCann, B. editor & O’Doherty, B, Dear...Selected Letters from Brian O'Doherty, 1970s to 2018, 2018, Dublin, Blackpitts Press & Vermillion Design. ISBN: 978-1-916468-20-7., and Casa Dipinta: An Evolving Artwork (forthcoming).
- For the first detailed description of the performance, see Brenda Moore-McCann, “ The Politics of Identity, Place and Memory in Contemporary Irish Art,” conference paper in Art and Politics: The Imagination of Opposition in Europe, 2004, Dublin, Ireland, R4 Publishing, pp. 25-31. ISBN: 0-9543079-1-7.
I met Brian in the early 1990s. I was a graduate student writing a dissertation on the emergence of “conceptual art,” and Lucy Lippard, whose archives I was then researching, strongly recommended that I speak with him. I was, of course, familiar with Brian’s contribution to Conceptual art, and was happy to follow up on Lucy’s recommendation.
Brian was very warm upon our first encounter. We immediately took a liking to each other. Even as he explained his artistic practice, he was consistently interested in my work. He inquired about my project, my thoughts, the questions I was asking. Our meetings continued regularly for years. He also began writing me letters outlining his artistic process and encouraged me to write about his work several times.
My research on early conceptual art kept leading me back to Brian’s artwork. The landmark Aspen 5+6 that he edited in 1967 brought together the core ideas of this art movement in one volume. It traced a veritable genealogy of twentieth-century strands, from poetry to filmmaking, sculpture to painting, and aleatory to serial experiments, culminating in conceptualism in the mid-1960s. I recall my astonishment when discovering that Roland Barthes had written “The Death of the Author,” one of the most important poststructuralist texts, in response to Brian’s prompt for this volume. The back-and-forth dialogue between Brian and Barthes is fascinating, as is that between Brian and Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Susan Sontag, Hans Richter, Dan Graham, and others.
When the Sirius Project Gallery in the port town of Cohb, Ireland, commissioned Brian to make a fugue of wall paintings in 1996, he asked me to contribute to the exhibition catalogue. I located Brian’s nine-part series, “The Ogham Cycle,” in Ireland’s colonial history, arguing that the ensemble figures Ogham’s esoteric and anachronistic language. Brian also arranged that I attend the show’s opening. By then, I had taken an assistant professor position at the University of Florida, which pulled me away from New York. But Brian and I stayed in touch. I would visit him and Barbara every time I traveled to New York; they even visited Florida once or twice. In 2000, Brian and Barbara witnessed my marriage to Nora Alter at the City Clerk’s Office in New York’s City Hall. Then, in 2008, the wonders of chance brought me back to teach at New York’s Barnard College, where Barbara and Brian had taught for decades. Barbara had even studied there in the 1950s. By the time I applied for the job, they had retired.
Over the years, I wrote several more papers on Brian’s work and presented papers on his art at several conferences. In 2018, the Sirius Project Gallery again featured Brian’s Ogham Cycle. We traveled together to Cohb again, celebrating the reappearance of this important history painting. But this was the last time I was able to travel with Brian. Soon after that, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe, and Brian’s health steadily deteriorated. I was fortunate to have seen him one last time in 2021 at the presentation of some of his early performance works curated by Lucy Cotter at The Kitchen in New York City. Brian was in his element. Witty, warm, and charming, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he thoroughly enjoyed the staging of Vowel Chorus for Five Voices (1968) and Vowel Grid (1970) that engaged with the breakdown of language into vowels isolated from meaning and enunciated as bodily sounds. At the end of the evening, we stared each other in the eye and gave each other a warm hug.
When I wrote Into the Mystic as a meditation on Brian’s painting Vaughan’s Circle in the October 2019 issue of the Brooklyn Rail , I knew Brian was in his final chapter. His chosen title Vaughan’s Circle had made me pause for thought.
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres ….
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”
The World, by Henry Vaughan
Brian was hilariously anti-clerical, with his tales of spitting on priests, and reenacted childhood confessionals detailing “self abuse.” Brian’s The Deposition of Father McGreevy chronicling a priest’s life in an inaccessible snowed-in village, where men committed ungodly acts with sheep, hinted at an even more complex riddle. Was Father McGreevy a character inhabiting Brian’s interior, where the lambs of God crowded into his church, as he witnessed the darkness of the human condition? Brian’s devout Catholic mother had given him the middle name Mary which may have launched his rebellion. In another age the youngest son would have been given over to the priesthood.
It was as though he was searching for a safety net to suspend over the horrors of a childhood Jansenist Catholic vision of hell—where the unknown is seen as a dark abyss. Brian had found his fortress in the work of the “left footer” (Protestant) Bishop of Cloyne, the Irish philosopher George Berkeley’s An Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision (1709). What enters through the senses is what exists. Forget about the rosaries and the novenas to dispel the darkness.
Hearing Brian had died, I imagined him not with St. Peter at the pearly gates, but strolling through something more like the Elysian fields, accompanied by his old pal the Bishop Berkeley. They were two Irishman who “thought differently.” Extreme Unction had been out of the question, but Brian was not going to need it. I saw his soul traveling into a realm far more ancient inhabited by the architects of Newgrange and the monuments he celebrated. Brian’s death was a passing of the old guard, a genius never to be replicated. I had gotten Sam Francis to publish Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, with his Lapis Press. The book’s publication and the occasional loaf of brown Irish soda bread with oats was about all I could ever do for Brian. He was a man who liked to do for others, not receive praise or gifts. I feel sad and miss my old friend.
Memories of Brian O’Doherty
I first arrived in NYC in 1982 to intern at Franklin Furnace, an artist Book Archive and Performance Art venue. I’m not quite sure who introduced me to Brian but when he heard I was delivering Live Irish Art—the first ever Irish Performance Art festival in the US at Franklin Furnace—on a shoe string he got on board with some fundraising advice to help make the event happen. I was right out of art school and to me Brian O’Doherty was an art world giant. The time he took to help me out meant so much. We continued to keep connected over the twenty-three years I lived and worked in NYC and his sage advice was always hugely appreciated. I know I wasn’t a lone recipient of his generosity and that he was incredibly generous to a host of visiting Irish artists and curators, and we were all the better of it.
Over those two decades I was lucky enough to be invited to many a Christmas gathering at Brian and Barbara’s incredible A.I.R. apartment on the Upper West Side close to Central Park. It was the essence of sophistication to me at the time, with a dining table laden with Barbara’s baked ham and finger food and drinks aplenty, making the schmoozing oh so enjoyable. I was introduced to world-renowned artists and major figures in the art world, some of whom I never thought I would ever get to meet. I remember once being introduced to Max Kozloff and naïvely asking him what he did. I was completely mortified when I found out later that he was an important writer and photographer.
Once I got the date wrong for the party and turned up the next evening all dressed up with house gift in hand to find Brian and Barbara in their slippers about to tuck into party leftovers. Without hesitation they welcomed me in to one of the cozy nooks in the apartment and we had a wonderful evening of chat. What a treat to have them both to myself—it was an evening I have never forgotten. Brian O’Doherty achieved so much in his long and fruitful life and I trust many others will cover his huge contributions as an artist, critic, novelist, editor, activist, and broadcaster, but it will be his essential kindness that will remain with me forever.
Director & Chief Curator
Anne Collins Goodyear
Brian O’Doherty: On Art, Death, and Life
The brief biography that accompanied the article “The Politics and Esthetics of Heart Transplants” published by Brian O’Doherty in the May 20, 1971 issue of Art International speaks volumes. It runs: “Brian O’Doherty, M.D. is Editor of the magazine Art in America and Director of the Visual Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC. He is also a sculptor and has exhibited his work at the Byron and Betty Parsons Galleries, New York.”1 This short description of the extraordinary scope of professional activities that already characterized his remarkable career did not yet include the artist’s alter ego, Patrick Ireland. This new identity would only emerge the following year as an act of resistance to the brutal assertion of British military power in Northern Ireland epitomized by “Bloody Sunday.”
While seemingly unrelated, the article, published in the context of an arts journal, grew out of a lecture that O’Doherty had delivered, in his capacity as an Irish physician, fifteen months earlier at the University College Dublin Medical Society in February 1970. Arguably a “transplant” himself, already having moved from his native Ireland to the United States, O’Doherty’s comments would themselves be removed from one context to appear in another, providing them with a new sort of life.
At the time O’Doherty shared his reflections the world was grappling with the ethical implications of the world’s first heart transplant, conducted in South Africa by Christiaan Barnard, who had—like O’Doherty—trained in the United States before returning home to resume his medical career (let us recall O’Doherty had not entirely relinquished his). It was obvious to O’Doherty, as artist, critic, and medical doctor, that Barnard had breached a divide with his audacious operation, creating a chasm that would not quickly be bridged. As O’Doherty explained:
In all fields, including the arts—which are rumored to be the epitome of unorthodoxy—[there are] restraints imposed by our colleagues. We may do only what our colleagues allow; otherwise our reputations are at risk, not because we are daring, but because we have been daring in a way our colleagues do not permit. … Each field has its permissions and prohibitions. If they are not conformed with, we fracture the conventional limits of the profession in a way that opens it to promiscuous entry ...2
In writing about a fellow physician who had dared to disregard the historic constraints of his own field, it seems likely that O’Doherty recognized a parallel with his own experience, unwilling himself to be limited by the traditional boundaries of any given discipline. Thus, in publishing about Barnard’s procedure in a journal dedicated to the arts, O’Doherty not only pulled a medical procedure into the sphere of artist practice, but meditated upon its implications for humanity at large. O’Doherty’s reflections continued:
If we follow up the implications of the detachable heart … we find Dr. Barnard’s scalpel separating two ages from each other, and calling the specters of what we might call identity past and identity future to confront one another across a division called consciousness.
For, if I am correct, consciousness as we know it is the symptom of a lost identity, a paradigm of an obsolete space, an artificiality accepted as fact. Certainly, one can say that the mechanical heart summarises what I believe is the theme of the age—the swoon of consciousness into technology, the loss of a self that was itself a fiction.3
Recognizing that one’s sense of self derives from a particular alignment between an individual and the surrounding world, O’Doherty freed himself from the trap of an inherited identity, opting to understand his own life as an affirmative gesture—an artistic medium in its own right—an opportunity to achieve synthesis by detaching himself from the very conventions that might constrain the polymath.
O’Doherty’s reflections on “The Politics and Esthetics of Art Transplants” were not purely philosophical. The artist/physician had, as James W. McManus has pointed out, himself enacted his own “earlier successful transplant of a mechanized heartbeat” in his 1966 Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.4 The sixteen-part work derived from O’Doherty’s recording of Duchamp’s heartbeat with an electrocardiograph. Approximately thirty-three years later, O’Doherty would observe: “With [Duchamp’s] death the work began its proper life.”5 But if O’Doherty, using his skills as a medical doctor, had traced the rhythm of Duchamp’s heart, he refused the elder artist’s attempt to imprint his own name upon the work, declining Duchamp’s request that he inscribe the work “Brian O’Doherty, M.D.”6
“Naming is a crucial element in the construction of identity,” affirmed the artist in 1998, having assumed, in 1972, the moniker of Patrick Ireland, which he vowed to use to sign his work until “the British military presence is removed and all citizens granted their civil rights.”7 O’Doherty’s decision to relinquish the epithet against which he had defended an incursion by Duchamp reflected his acute sensitivity to the politics of authorship.
Created as a gesture of resistance against injustice, Patrick Ireland was laid to rest in 2008, “when the name no longer represented conflict,” as Brenda Moore-McCann has noted, after the Belfast Peace Agreement (1998) paved the way for a power-sharing government in 2007.8 Thus O’Doherty celebrated “the chance, literally, to bury hatred,” as he put it.9 The death of this figure then, represented a new beginning, just as Duchamp’s passing provided a sort of resuscitation for the portrait O’Doherty had crafted to represent him.
“None of us wants to be put in a box,” Brian O’Doherty quipped at the time of Patrick Ireland’s burial.10 While addressing his resistance to being labeled, O’Doherty no doubt had his tongue in his cheek.11 Perhaps he even had in mind Roland Barthes, whose influential essay on “The Death of the Author” O’Doherty had commissioned (among others) in 1967 for Aspen 5+6, itself released in a white box—anticipating his later critique of the white cube.12 As Barthes famously recognized: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”13 Just as the transplanted heart—or heartbeat—can—Iike the interment of acrimony—confer new life, so too does O’Doherty’s own complex work, situated at the conceptual intersection of medicine, art, and language, now invite renewed attention. Reflecting on the “A New Union of Art and Life” he perceived in the early 1960s, O’Doherty commented: “Art and life … are brought into [an] equilibrium extending both into a twilight zone where each partakes of the other and only gains meaning in the presence of the other.”14 His own legacy strikes just such an elegant balance.
- Brian O’Doherty, “The Politics and Esthetics of Heart Transplants,” Art International, May 20, 1971, 26.
- O’Doherty, 27.
- O’Doherty, 27.
- Jame W. McManus, “Dr. O’Doherty’s ‘HeArt Machine’: A Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” The Recorder: The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society 21, no.2 and 22, no. 1 (Spring and Fall 2009), 33.
- Brian O’Doherty, “Taking Duchamp’s Portrait,” in AKA Marcel Duchamp, edited by Anne Collins Goodyear and James W. McManus (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2009), 276.
- James W. McManus, “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: Mounted Cardiogram, 4/4/66,” in Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The Dynamics of Portraiture, edited by Anne Collins Goodyear and James W. McManus (Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, and MIT Press, 2009), 254.
- The first of these two quotations by Brian O’Doherty appears in Brenda Moore-McCann, Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Between Categories (Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2009), 24; the second appears in Michael Kimmelman, “Patrick Ireland, 36, Dies; Created to Serve Peace,” New York Times, May 28, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/22/arts/design/22patr.html, accessed 3-26-23.
- Moore-McCann, 32.
- Brian O’Doherty, quoted in Michael Kimmelman.
- As Brenda Moore-McCann notes, “Boxes can be found throughout O’Doherty/Ireland’s art as both objects and metaphors” (Moore-McCann, 33).
- O’Doherty commissioned Barthes’s “Death of the Author” for Aspen 5+6, published in 1967. For a detailed account of this important publication, see Moore-McCann, 72-77. His series of three article on “The White Cube,” which originally appeared in Artforum in 1976, are anthologized in Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (San Francisco: The Lapis Press, 1986). An expanded edition was published in 2000 by the University of California Press. In haunting fashion, O’Doherty reminds us at the beginning of the afterword to the 1986 edition: “Writing about your past writing is the closest you get to coming back from the dead” (p. 87).
- Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 148.
- Brian O’Doherty, “A New Union of Art and Life,” March 1964, The New York Times; reprinted in Brian O’Doherty Object and Idea: An Art Critic’s Journal, 1961-1967 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 212.
Anne Marie Bonnet
Brian O’Doherty (BOD): The Master of Inbetweeness
When I had the chance to meet/encounter BOD, he was still living his multiple personalities, but only Patrick Ireland and Brian O’Doherty were known to me at the time. For an art historian at a German university in the 1980s, it was not yet “normal” to focus on modern and contemporary art, which then was still largely left to art critics and not considered academically worthy. I was surprised that art historians were not very interested in the places, where contemporary art was encountered (museums, exhibitions), or even in the real “conditions of possibility” (Bourdieu) of art in society. All aspects concerning the “lowlands” of the art market and the so-called ‘art world’ were below the threshold of perception of academic art history. The encounter with the texts of the “White Cube,” which articulated the awareness of the “being located” in the contingencies of socio-cultural structures, proved to be all the more exciting. The painful awareness of artists, that they lose control over their works as soon as they leave the studio, led, as is well known, to a variety of institutional critiques, increasingly from the late 1960s onwards. BOD knew, experienced and reflected on the complexity of the real constitution of so-called “artistic freedom” or autonomy in modernity both from within (as an artist) and from outside (as a critic and partner of a gifted art historian and connoisseur of the nineteenth century). His multiple roles and talents as artist, critic, writer, curator and performer were strategies of evasion and self-assertion, which at the same time made him partially invisible. I was very much fascinated in the 1990s by the little I managed to gather from his work. But it took me some time till I dared to contact him, and in doing so I was overwhelmed by his enthusiasm, interest and complete willingness to answer my questions. That such a luminary was so unpretentious and accessible made me bold, and I invited him to come to Germany and participate in my seminar, which he spontaneously agreed on. At that time (2004) Kasper König was planning his ‘Edward Hopper’ exhibition at the Museum Ludwig; so we planned a joint venture: BOD gave a lecture on Edward Hopper, whom he had known, and he was my private guest at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Bonn. Besides my research and teaching I run a private off-space in Cologne, which is all about experiencing art free from the constraints of the art market. When he heard about it, he immediately agreed to contribute a wall piece: So “One” became Patrick Ireland’s only wall piece on the continent, except those in his Casa in Todi. It was a great pleasure to experience, how he realized the minimalist-looking work with only three colors and three geometric shapes (for O, N, and E) with only a few handicraft tools; in contrast to e.g. Sol LeWitt’s works, which prima vista may seem somewhat related, but are always realized hypertechnically by his assistants and are overwhelming through their monumental perfection. BOD’s work was of delicate beauty and its “handmadeness” touched in its striving for precision, which, however, was by no means to be achieved. Between mathematical perfection and human striving for it, ‘One’ breathed out of its made-ness in an idiosyncratic: In-between.
BOD held an unforgettable seminar and was even more overwhelmed by the curiosity and openness of the students. The students were fascinated by his mercurial wit and kindness. At that time he re-edited the predecessor (or partner) text to the ‘White Cube’, the text about the Studio, and these two texts belong to the compulsory reading of every one of my students, whether he/she is concerned with old or new art. The texts negotiate the complex constitution of being an artist between all the chairs of the striving for autonomy and the dependencies in the so-called “free market”. This famous
“freedom” of being a modern artist, which is known to be only a euphemistic paraphrase of having to sell oneself or to conform to the laws of economy. BOD has always known this, and all his strategies of evasion basically serve to remain truly autonomous. Listening to him was like being transported in a time machine into the engine room of post-war north American modernism, whose protagonists he characterized with vivid anecdotes, a true “applied network theory,” and we joked that one should “actually” write a Gossip history of the Avant Garde. When I asked him why he didn’t appear in Lucy Lippard’s famous book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, he disarmingly replied: “I was not a smart guy then.” He generated key situations and seminal texts and could vividly convey how Roland Barthes wrote the cult text “Death of the Author” for his Aspen box in 1967 ... and why Michel Foucault took up the idea again. In BOD’s life, theory and practice, theory was always closely anchored to the personal, the seat in life, and he walked from the everyday to the literary or philosophical with relaxed naturalness. In 2008 I ’s funeral in Dublin only to find, that BOD was all the more vital and active in resuming his novel writing and his pictorial activities: His “Rope Drawings” finally receiving more attention. These works vividly embody the essence of BOD’s thinking and work: It starts from the human being and his perception, they live in the encounter and the movement. It is about a dialogue, a space, a process and an exchange: the sounding out of all spaces between people, thinking and doing, one’s own and the other’s. Our last ‘project’, to visit together the new presentation at the MoMA was prevented through COVID-19; he was always curious and open to new perspectives and I will ever miss his reaction to our changing world.
Space and time condensed in his presence, as a counterpart one always felt “meant.” He was a polyhistor, who always perceived from the inside and outside, people, situations, facts, and sounded out and invented wonderful spaces and above all in-between spaces: He was a master of “in-betweeness.”
There are so many people around the world who have known Brian O’Doherty longer than I.
That’s hardly surprising as I first had the pleasure of meeting him in Hugh Lane Gallery in the mid-nineties when he was a firmly established artist whose practice has been to the fore of conceptual art practice in the US since the mid-1960s. But he and his wife Barbara Novak warmly embraced me as a new friend and it was my good fortune to get to know them so well. His associations with Hugh Lane Gallery were long established before I arrived here, having contributed prodigiously over the decades to the Irish art landscape though his art and writing. Moving easily between continents and cultures he was acutely attuned to Irish affairs. One of his most moving performances in Ireland was his name change to Patrick Ireland in 1972 in protest against the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in Northern Ireland in 1972.
Brian/Patrick, as I called him, enjoyed a long and eventful life and this polymath’s contribution to the arts in so many diverse ways is prodigious.
He was an integral part of the American art landscape, bringing to the story a unique contribution in several manifestations. His pioneering conceptual works were nurtured by the prevailing climate and cultural temperature of New York, informed by a substantial literary legacy, and—like Joyce before him and Samuel Beckett, his contemporary—his creativity flourished in exile. His oeuvre comes out of a Catholic response to experience, realized in tangible form with images where words are impossible and with verbal response where the visual is non-negotiable. The impossibility of one gives way to the possibility of the other and both are realized with courage that is as renowned as it is unique.
In 1971, in association with Rosc ’71 Brian/Patrick organized the exhibition The Irish Imagination, in Hugh Lane Gallery. The exhibition and his thoughtful and provocative overview of Irish art practice became a lightning rod for a younger generation of Irish artists. Influential and erudite, it wasn’t until 2006 that we had the pleasure to work with him on his marvelous retrospective Beyond the White Cube which travelled to Grey Art Gallery, New York in 2007. Brian O’Doherty, Sigmund Bode, William Maginn, Mary Josephson, and Patrick Ireland: the five identities of this artist, four men and one woman, came together for the first time in 1998 at the Orchard Gallery exhibition Language Performed/Matters of Identity and then again in this exhibition.
Putting together this retrospective was as exciting as it was challenging with several visits to West 67th Street and Casa Dipinta—the necessity of getting an overall picture of the diversity of Brian/Patrick’s oeuvre was coupled with the delightful journey of developing friendship and conspiratorial collaboration. Beyond the White Cube revealed a fascinating and disparate opus realized through an impressive variety of media, including labyrinths, chess pieces, sculptures, drawings, structural plays. Three site specific temporary works reiterated the artist’s enduring obsession with themes of language, perception, and identity. An iconic “Rope Drawing,” Golden Door Rope Drawing #110, transformed the white cube into a contemplative color field replete with concepts of identity contingent on place; Song of Vowels wall painting, intoned its meaning through the early Irish language Ogham; while Labyrinth, a low-rise maze through which the viewer could walk or rest, was binary to both. As the exhibition came together it became clear that these manifestations, each of which is a successful entity, when viewed together did not present the whole, but rather a mastery of alternative realizations revealing as much as it cloaked, deliberately frustrating unity. This in-betweenness, independent of the realisations, has been an intriguing constant in the artist’s work. Beyond the White Cube was a microcosm of this extraordinary artist’s oeuvre, revelatory yet still elusive, defying a conclusive identity, forever interrogating the possibilities of existence.
From Casa Dipinta in Todi, Italy, to New York and Dublin, spending time with Brian/Patrick and his wonderful wife Barbara Novak was such a pleasure. Barbara‘s marvellous sense of humor and her self-deprecating accounts of her attempts to converse in Italian left me in stitches. Brilliant and generous, together they wore their scholarship and creativity lightly, warmly embracing old and new friends with their generous hospitality and sparkling company.
Brian/Patrick, slán go fóill agus ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
Boris Hars Tschachotin
“Art is serious, but not solemn”
When I met Brian for the first time at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2010, Thomas Gaehtgens, the director, introduced Brian O’Doherty to the other fellows as the author of Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976). And I still remember the charming but prompt reply of Brian: “Well it's interesting that a number of things follow me. One is: The White Cube, it will never leave me alone. People are always White Cubing at me.” That was how I came to know Brian, through his essays about the gallery space, without any prior knowledge of the brilliant artist, novelist, editor, activist, filmmaker, and broadcaster that he was—a truly complex and daunting multi-doppelgänger persona.
But what stood out the most about Brian wasn’t just his incredible talent as a polymath and cultural icon. It was his exceptional ability to connect with people on a deep and personal level, to listen attentively, and to understand the intricate emotions and struggles that we all face as human beings. Brian soon became a dear friend and a trusted mentor, a guiding light. From the moment I met him, I was struck by his warmth and generosity of spirit, his infectious curiosity, and his passion for art and culture. Brian had a way of making everyone around him feel welcome and valued.
In that regard I remember a conversation I had with Brian and Barbara at the Getty about the Hoppers.
Brian: We knew the Hoppers quite well at that point, beginning of the sixties and they would come to dinner. But they would come even to our parties.
Barbara: We had a very small two room flat, in Greenwich Village and the Hoppers would be the first ones to come up the stairs and they would park themselves on a little settee …
Brian: …That they’d look out because, we had practically nothing to sit on, and everybody else would go into the other room, and I couldn’t get anybody talk to them: a big space formed around them, like a Hopper space. Nobody would enter it. Our friends were terrified of the fame of Hopper. Of course the Hoppers felt that.
Barbara: So what I would have to do as the hostess, I would ask somebody and say, “Come on over and talk to the Hoppers.” But they were just sitting there and friends would come and go but very quickly. These were all sophisticated New Yorkers and it was a very sophisticated crowd but Edward Hopper was already so famous—an icon, that wonderful figure, that special figure certainly. So there was always that Hopper space around them. Do you remember that?
Brian: I do remember very well. And yet what was lovely about them was that they were willing to come and I’m sure he was watching as people passed into the other room. He was a great watcher.”
A few weeks later Brian showed me his Hopper documentary titled Edward Hopper: The Silent Witness (1972). Brian explores Hopper’s life and work, focusing on the themes of loneliness and isolation in Hopper's paintings. I was intrigued about its use of slow, contemplative pacing and atmospheric visuals, which create a mood that mirrors the melancholy and solitude present in Hopper’s paintings. At the same time the film is an example for me of Brian’s experimental approach to film or art in general, using the medium to explore ideas and themes in a unique and artistic way.
During one of the most challenging moments of my life Brian would call every day for weeks and if I was not home, he would leave a message on the answering machine full of warmth and caring. His words of encouragement and support gave me the strength to pursue my path. And amidst all of this, Brian never failed to make me laugh. His sense of humor was infectious, and he reminded me to approach life and the art world with humor and ease.
Today, as I mourn the loss of this remarkable individual and beloved friend, I want to remember the joy and laughter he brought into our lives. Brian once said that “Art is serious, but not solemn,” and he showed me, that the same can be said for life itself. His legacy will continue to inspire us all, reminding us to embrace creativity, joy, and humor in everything we do.
Brian Duggan Brian O’Doherty Remembered, Dublin, March 2023
I first became aware of Brian O’Doherty through my O’Doherty cousins in Gorey. Growing up in the eighties, the name didn’t ring any bell for me. There were no images of his work in my school books and with no internet to research, he became a mythical figure in my mind, taking up residence in the art world kingdom of New York.
Later in my studies I began to understand the work he had achieved and see how remarkable it was, particularly coming from where he started his journey. I was fortunate to eventually meet Brian and Barbara in Ireland several times and was struck by his sharp intelligence, quick wit, openness, and kindness.
I was honored to assist in a small way with the burial of Patrick Ireland in the grounds of the Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, a marker of how Ireland has changed. His work is now well known and studied in the art schools of Ireland, and I know this legacy of ideas will live on, inspiring and challenging many contemporary artists. The other day as I was working in the Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, turning a corner I unexpectedly realized I was looking at his name on a piece in the national collection. His work will continue to surprise us as we navigate the maze of the future.
Two actions influenced me as a young art student in Dublin. The first was the protest in 1969 against the then Northern Ireland government by artists who withdrew their work from the Living Art exhibition in Belfast. Their work was instead exhibited at 43 Kildare Street, Dublin, hosted by the Citizens Committee. (The committee had been founded to provide aid to residents of nationalist areas in Belfast following the outbreak of the Troubles in August 1969, and was modeled on the Citizens Committee founded in Paris.)
The Citizen Committee also hosted poetry readings, music concerts and photographic exhibitions at Kildare Street. Musician Tony McMahon, poet Justin O’Mahony, and the group Jazz Therapy, featuring Roger Doyle, were among those who participated. The actor Siobhán McKenna formally opened one event, while the British ambassador to Ireland was a guest at those whose work was withdrawn from Belfast. As a student I was familiar with the Kildare Street building, as I typed (in truth badly) in the evenings a manuscript by the republican marxist and scientist Derry Kellaher.
The refusal of part of the Living Art exhibition to show in Belfast demonstrated to this young student the link between art and politics.
Brian O’Doherty’s further act of resistance was in response to the massacre in January 1972 of unarmed citizens by the British Army in Derry. He changed his name to Patrick Ireland until the British Army withdrew from the six counties, a historic event which occurred in his lifetime. The act of that massacre led to many responses, more recruits to the IRA than at any time since. Patrick’s non-violent yet fierce response influenced me to find my route within art practice rather than in collective violence. At the subsequent burial of his alter ego in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, he welcomed “the chance, literally, to bury hatred.”
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith
REMEMBERING BRIAN O’DOHERTY
I’m not quite sure when I first met Brian O’Doherty, but it was sometime in the mid-1990s. It was either at a gathering in the Dublin home of the critic Dorothy Walker, or on an early trip to New York. As I gradually got to know the New York art world through regular visits, I benefited greatly from Brian’s encyclopedic knowledge, generous hospitality, and encouraging support. I remember fondly those strolls through Central Park to Brian and Barbara’s apartment on West 67th Street, the warm welcome and the long and lively chats. Sometimes dinner would be had at the Café des Artistes nearby. Plans, though, could suddenly change. One such last-minute diversion landed me outside an unfamiliar door in the West Village, which was flung open by a slightly flustered man: “Hi, I’m Jim. You must be Caoimhín. Come and have a cocktail while we try to free Robert, who’s accidentally locked himself in the bathroom.” I spent the next twenty minutes in a mildly star-struck haze, drink in hand, as Jim Dine and Brian O’Doherty jemmied open a faulty door to release Robert Altman, while Diana Michener, Barbara Novak, and Kathryn Altman looked on in some amusement. Then we all went out to dinner and the evening got even more interesting.
I was under no illusion that my art writing was what interested Brian, though he was always generous in his comments. What most intrigued him was my “day job” in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies & Folklore at University College Dublin. I was honored to be asked to cast a professional eye over the historical Irish-language verse quoted in his novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy. Needless to say, his Irish turned out to be faultless. I still have page proofs from a point in the novel’s evolution when it was titled “The Last Lover of Sheep,” which, as Dorothy Walker pointed out to Brian more than once, might have had something to do with his initial difficulty in finding a publisher. The novel, of course, went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
It was also an honor to be asked to read (in Irish) at the funeral of Patrick Ireland at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2008, when Brian’s most famous alter ego was finally laid to rest. Ten years later I was invited to contribute (in English this time) to a seminar celebrating Brian’s life and work, which took place in Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, County Cork, the site of one of his most significant installations. The topic for the day was “Persona & Fictions” and the following is a lightly edited version of my unpublished text mar chloch bheag ar charn an fhir mhóir.
Among Brian O’Doherty’s most scintillating performances of ventriloquism was his 2014 novel The Crossdresser’s Secret. This is a first-person account of the life and times of the Chevalier d’Eon, one of history’s most remarkable double agents, who haunted the intrigue-ridden courts and élite social circles of eighteenth-century Europe. At one point in the ramifying, meticulously plotted proceedings, our gender-fluid, shape-shifting narrator wryly observes that “one of my selves was prospering.” Brian O’Doherty, on the other hand, was notable for the persistent fecundity of manifold selves, given the numerous personae he inhabited over the course of a long career, as well as his work’s persistent troubling of the delusive fiction of identity. He once said that for him “The great thing about the conceptual/minimal adventure … was that it wasn’t about me.… The notion of self-expression was somewhat abhorrent to me (still is).” Or, to shift gears, as Brian himself often did so adroitly, from the discourse of international contemporary art to the rich history of Irish writing, we might invoke Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
While we’re less glib these days about how a truth—much less the truth—might be established, it’s worth calling to mind the particular masks Brian donned over the years as an artist and as a writer of criticism, as opposed to fiction. All five of these cut a dash on the cover of the catalogue of Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland, the splendid exhibition curated by Christina Kennedy at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 2006. From the left we have “the artist” Brian O’Doherty, looking much as he did for all the years I knew him. Beside him we have William Maginn, whose nineteenth-century namesake was a brilliant journalist, renowned wit, versatile writer, and, by all accounts, general contrarian and mischief-maker. (One can see the attraction there.) Then we have the ghostly figure of Patrick Ireland, the persona to whom was attributed all of the art Brian produced between the dark days of 1972, in the wake of Bloody Sunday, and the ceremonial burial in the grounds of IMMA of this finally superannuated avatar thirty-six years later in May 2008.
On the far right we have Sigmund Bode, an amalgam of Sigmund Freud, who brilliantly exploded the notion of a unified subjectivity available to consciousness, and his German contemporary Wilhelm von Bode, gifted gatherer of diverse art works into the unity of a great museum’s collection. And finally—my favourite—seated in front, not so demurely, we have Mary Josephson, a regular contributor to Art in America during that magazine’s heyday in the early 1970s when its editor was none other than … Brian O’Doherty. I still find it remarkable how long some of these pseudonyms survived without being unmasked. My Catholic upbringing may explain why I find Mary Jacobson’s portmanteau invocation of the Holy Family a giveaway, but it fooled the New York art world of the day. One of Brian’s many wonderful (and always wonderfully told) tales of that world involved a rival art-journal editor pestering him for this promising new writer’s contact details, though it’s unclear if what was envisaged was a magazine commission or a blind date. As someone who met said editor decades later, by which time he was a rakish curmudgeon of a certain age, I can only imagine his response had Mary Josephson duly turned up in full regalia.
Keeping editorial endeavors in mind, while turning once more to The Crossdresser’s Secret, we might recall that among Brian O’Doherty’s dizzying range of accomplishments is having the foresight to commission, for the legendary Aspen 5+6, one of the landmark essays of our times, Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author.” Revolutionary as Barthes’s argument was, Brian pushes the boat out further in the guise of the Chevalier d’Eon. According to this fictionalized, compulsive journal-keeper, “In writing I became aware that I had company—a shadowy, receptive presence, neither man nor woman, a vague neutrality. This presence is not an imagined reader.” That said, the Chevalier does acknowledge the usefulness of imagining how actual readers of his acquaintance might respond to his writings, according to individual nature, interest or prejudice. There is, however, more to it than this. For, as he/she observes, “when all such phantoms depart, I still have the company of my own phantom, a thinking presence equally distant and intimate.” This presence, sometimes referred to in the book simply as “Companion,” was, we are told, “probably born with the first realization that one is strange to oneself.’
By now we should no longer be surprised by the continuing resonance of such ruminations or the prescience they bespeak. “I thought I might be looking not at the sophisticated exchange of temporary identities, but the melding of both sexes,” writes the Chevalier, marveling at the extravagance of a transgender ball in St. Petersburg during the reign of the Empress Elizabeth. “We contain the other, hopelessly and forever” the writer James Baldwin is reputed to have stated two centuries later. Today we find ourselves in a moment when debates about the performance of subjectivity, ignited in the eighties and early nineties by thinkers like Donna Haraway and Judith Butler, have been lent a renewed urgency by queer and trans theorists such as Susan Stryker and Jack Halberstram. As ever, Brian O’Doherty anticipated and addressed—in various ways and works—such crucial matters early on.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, 24 March 2023 (& 28 September 2018)
It’s one of the exemplary stories of recent art history: in 1972, on “Bloody Sunday,” British troops massacred fourteen unarmed citizens of Northern Ireland. The writer and artist Brian O’Doherty responded by changing the name of the art-making part of himself to Patrick Ireland. He intended the change as an affront to British sensibilities that expect the worst from the Irish, whom they know generically as “Patrick”—or “Paddy.” The artist later said, “I wanted to make “Patrick Ireland” as good a name as I could make it.” But what of personal identity, a perennial obsession of the Western artist? “All that is psychological bric-a-brac,” said Ireland. “Finding an identity, having an identity—I’ve never believed in it. Changing my name was a serious gesture because it was political, not just a personal matter.” Yet Ireland/O’Doherty had an acute sense of what it was to be the complex individual one happened to be—and of everything that threatens one’s individuality.
Arriving in New York in the early 1960s, O’Doherty became an art critic for The New York Times. On a visit to Marisol’s second exhibition at the Stable Gallery, in 1964, he watched the artist wandering from one sculpture to the next, “constantly meeting her own image. I asked her if she had ever met her doppelgänger, that ghostly projection of oneself that one can meet face to face. At last she said, “I saw myself once, one evening when I was lying in bed, a shadowy figure flying through the air, like a silhouette, a cut-out, front face.” To O’Doherty’s question “Were you terrified?” she answered, “Yes.” Marisol had seen a vision of herself in absolute isolation. To prevent the return of that vision, she populated her world with sculptures that have the presence of other people. O’Doherty/Ireland dealt with the threat of isolation differently, with works of art that draw us into shared settings of his invention. Under his influence, each gallery-goer becomes a member of a temporary community, a group of people rendered conscious of one another’s quasi-accidental presence in contingent surroundings.
“I'm not making art for the ages,” he once said, during a conversation about the labyrinthine installation pieces known as “Rope Drawings”. “I’m making art in one place for a limited time for whatever community I can find there.” Literally speaking, there was gallery space, which he saw not as privileged but as just another portion of the ordinary world—“a kind of jungle, a complete chaos with no rhyme or reason at all.” With the rope pieces he sketched “temporary propositions that give brief visions of order. But that order is always lapsing into chaos again, with each new step.” Ireland engaged us with symbols of order and disorder, not because he wanted to amuse us, calm us, or frighten us, but because he wanted us to see that symbolizing, in whatever medium, is a game we play together.
O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube, a series of three essays launched in 1976, dismantles the fiction of the white-walled gallery as a neutral space where art objects reveal their aesthetic essences. He also dismantled the fiction of aesthetic essences, arguing, in effect, that culture is “a kind of jungle”—a site of ever-shifting contingencies through which we make our way, struggling and sometimes succeeding in giving meaning to our experience. Acutely alive both to the struggle and to the occasional success, ours as well as his own, O’Doherty made art the vehicle of a brilliantly sprawling reflection on the glorious happenstance of the human condition.
A Thank You to Brian/Patrick
My first acquaintance with Brian occurred across the pages of his pivotal Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976/86) during research in the mid-1990s for my undergraduate thesis on art gallery architecture. In some ways, we had already met across the time-space continuum within the walls of The Douglas Hyde Gallery (DHG) at Trinity College Dublin, site of the first all-room installation artwork in Ireland. This was created by Brian, as Patrick Ireland, under the directorship of Patrick T. Murphy a decade beforehand and entitled Rope Drawing No. 73, Purgatory of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, Homunculus, 1985.
As a student of the History of Art and Architecture at Trinity, I seized the opportunity early to work at the DHG, Ireland’s first permanent kunsthalle. Most of my fellow students had focused on either art or architecture; however, I felt I could not separate them—the experience of the two, together, were what captivated me. The built solids and the articulated voids, along with sculptural or spatial interactions energized me, especially in this gallery space, designed by Paul Koralek as part of the 1970s Arts Building complex and the “opening up” of a new pedestrian entrance to the university. The architectural conversation in this gallery is one that the artist inevitably makes a conscious or subconscious decision to stand apart from, to rail against, or to wholly embrace—in 1985, Brian/Patrick embraced everywhere.
By working in this gallery space, I too was inspired to explore further and, therefore, found Brian initially through his words and concepts about the “white cube.” Never did I imagine, as we walked together through the gallery in my mind, that I would ever meet him in person—indeed at the launch of One Here Now at the Sirius Gallery Cobh in 1996—let alone work with him or walk “for him” some fifteen years later as his “lead walker” in Hello, Sam as part of Dublin Contemporary 2011. This personal connection to Brian in 1996 came about through my friendship with Dr. Brenda Moore McCann, a fellow student at Trinity, whose knowledge of Brian/Patrick was already extensive by means of her undergraduate thesis on his work. She then developed this into the first monograph publication on Brian/Patrick and a lifelong, deeply shared friendship and scholarship with him and with Barbara.
It was this scholarly inclusivity, this ever-excited, ever-searching brain oozing with ideas and how he might express them, and with whom he might conspire, that drew you into the most wonderful imaginings of artworks and projects—or unwittingly becoming his apprentice performance artist! As of 2007, I head up the Art Collections at Trinity College. Early on, returning as curator to my own alma mater, Brian and I walked and talked of possible labyrinthine benches between libraries; rope drawings stellar in the sky connecting buildings and disciplines; and dreamt of weaving works across atria. Most remain unrealized, constrained only by finances, not will. His pre-existing works in the collections, one donated by Dr. Brenda Moore McCann and Professor Shaun McCann, I placed on display within and beyond Trinity, where many different audiences could engage more than ever before. We also staged a public panel discussion with Brian in 2011. His sketches for Purgatory (DHG, 1985) at one point, I housed in the office of the Provost/President for almost a decade, the Provost of the time having a keen interest in literature and Joyce’s Ulysses. And, in 2019, we acquired, from Stoney Road Press, his energetic Vowel Grid and Ogham on Broadway editions for the university’s first new boardroom suite in centuries.
I wished we could have realized more together during his lifetime, but I managed to “honor” him appropriately at least once by arranging a unique, extended procession for Hello, Sam (2011) through the campus of Samuel Beckett’s alma mater, Trinity College Dublin and on, to the National Gallery of Ireland, where we had processed weekly. To walk with him on that day, and for him and Beckett as “lead walker” through Trinity as the sun set will never leave me. I experienced a dichotomous sense of “presentness” of body yet freedom of mind, the spirit playfully evaporating out from me as if by osmosis.
Brian’s ebullient spirit was so generous in his engagement with everyone he met, so nurturing, so inspiring, so genuinely interested in the potential for alchemical wonder by bringing together so many people—no matter who you were. We were all creating, curating, learning, and blossoming in Brian’s presence, and he wouldn’t allow anything less in his great ecosystem of inclusivity. To him I introduced the students and graduates working with me; these were not students subject to his “master,” they too became recruits, collaborators, and walkers for Sam.
My way to continue to honor you, Brian, is to aspire to keep that ecosystem of inclusivity going in my small part of your world—by connecting ever more students, staff, and visitors to your work, and to your ideas, so that we all might perpetuate your generosity of spirit and welcoming approach to scholarship and creativity.
I met Brian in 1976 as the artist Patrick Ireland. We shared a panel discussion with Bob Irwin and Anne Healy, moderated by Marcia Tucker, for the Philadelphia College of Art’s Projects for PCA exhibition. From that day forth my life was blessed by Brian the bard, his thoughtful, generous spirit. When he decided to bury “Patrick Ireland,” he asked me if I could make his “death mask.” His animated discussion of Arabic poetry and inner-city social work with my daughter was only interrupted when the plaster began to cover his mouth. In the year before his death, he and Barbara came to dinner. The next day I found on my answering machine a wonderful rambling three-minute message celebrating our love and friendship, and how “magical” the evening had been, re-creating for him “how the art world used to be when it was small, and we all cooked together.” I have never erased the message and sometimes I replay it. Everywhere in it, Brian’s love of life sings out as an inspiration.
Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes
Brian O’Doherty: Reading Time
In order to join the chorus of those paying homage to Brian O’Doherty, I would like to create a word-and-image collage, a “tour” of the current exhibition Brian O’Doherty: Reading Time that I curated at the Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, Co. Cork, Ireland.1 This exhibition features works by Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland, layered in time and space, addressing Irish history, and literature as a medium that unfolds durationaly. Together, they reiterate O’Doherty’s key themes: language, the self, perception, and ideology. I was privileged to have discussed my curatorial ideas with the artist during several visits in New York in July 2022, and to have found in Sirius not just a welcoming and like-minded organization2 and great team to work with, but also a history-laden building that Sirius occupies (The Yacht Club of colonial Queenstown), complete with Patrick Ireland’s room-filling, colorful mural, One, Here, Now (1996), now covered. It was a particularly unique and challenging task to hang the work of the artist and author of Inside the White Cube on white walls that cover his work.
One idea that I discussed with Brian O’Doherty and that he liked was for us to tie twine, just like that used in the “Rope Drawing” we re-created, from a column of the Sirius’s balcony to the docks below, about 150 meters away. This gesture creates a material connection between the Yacht Club/gallery and the harbor (Irish naval base, cruise ship terminal, last port of call of the Titanic and the artist’s site of emigration). O’Doherty’s multiple links to Ireland thus extend through the layers of Sirius’s history and space, to the water and the sky beyond, and along and across the time he lived. In “reading” his works in and through time, this exhibition proposes a vital relationship that he establishes with each and every one of us, here and now.
Like many Irish emigrants, O’Doherty departed Ireland from Cobh. The building Sirius occupies was likely one of the last that he saw. This is the former headquarters of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, designed and built in the 1850s for the Anglo-Irish. A residency here in 1996 gave O’Doherty the opportunity to reflect on his origins and Ireland’s social and political divides.
O’Doherty was an avid reader of James Joyce, appreciating his manipulation of time and use of the (expanded) English language. Joyce’s literary output, also generated in self-imposed exile, gave O’Doherty a framework to think of home away from home. His iconic installations known as “Rope Drawings” are comments on the unsettling but true-to-life experience of engaging with Joyce’s writings, especially Finnegans Wake (1939). O’Doherty approached reading it sometimes as disabling and annoying, making him silent, and sometimes as projecting lively, darting lines into the world, as in the “Rope Drawings,” but also lines of text.
HCE Redux, 2004
This “Rope Drawing” originates from an invitation to exhibit in Dublin, at the “Protestant” university, Trinity College, in 1985, and in a gallery with a Brutalist architectural design: a “purgatory” in the institution that did not allow Catholics, like Brian O’Doherty, to study. “Redux” indicates a “revived” version of this installation, first shown in an exhibition entitled Joyce in Art at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, 2004, and currently in yet another formerly colonial institution, this time in the thematic frame of time (life and death) and reading: the pages on the table are the beginning of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, 1939.
The vertically written letters “HCE”, framed by the ropes, are the initials of the male protagonist of that book. By giving no fixed names but merely initials that can stand for e.g. “Here Comes Everybody”, Joyce indicates his aversion to fixed notions of identity. As an Irish emigrant like Joyce, Brian O’Doherty found in the writer’s work a familiar place, an Irish, but also a critical voice, far from the Catholic orthodoxy that both gladly left behind.
The Doodles Family (p.299), 2004
This drawing resembles other works in the artist’s oeuvre that are organized in a grid. This one is made up of the “sigla” or signs that Joyce used to construct Finnegans Wake. The capital “E” for HCE and the “Δ” for ALP’s (river) delta can turn around their axes and stand for the changeability of identity. The drawing, made in the context of the Joyce in Art exhibition, Dublin 2004, implies that Joyce has been a “lozenge” (or soothing medicine) for all of the artist’s life. In a letter by the artist, Joyce is described as the “damnably brilliant” writer who keeps “PI/BO’D”, i.e. both the visual artist and the writer O’Doherty “honest”. In 1984, O’Doherty recorded a reading of the opening pages of the Wake: an impressive, virtuoso performance.
Documentation of Performance Entitled Name Change, 1972
As an Irish emigrant, O’Doherty was shocked at the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland, 1972, and began to create his visual art under the stereotypical name of Patrick Ireland. He “buried” this persona in 2008 to both acknowledge and further the “Peace Process” on his home island. This coat was used in the performance with which the Name Change was marked (at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 1972). It is a doctor’s coat, referring to a past “persona” and profession of the artist. In the performance, the white-clad artist was on a stretcher, being painted from head and foot. First he looked like the Irish Tricolour, then the helpers overlapped and the result appears to foreshadow the “dirty protests” of the Hunger Strikers in Northern Ireland, 1982: a low point of the “Troubles.”
Here, the coat also signifies the artist painting the One, Here, Now wall paintings in this building’s central gallery as artist-in-residence at Sirius in 1996. It also conjures the many ways in which the artist is now both absent and present here.
Brian O’Doherty problematized the supposed “neutrality” of exhibition spaces in his “Inside the White Cube” essays published in Artforum in 1976. There he argued that the sparse white walls, as much as the works shown there, have defined what art is. He saw such white walls as invested with political and economic agendas—the macro-level stories in our connected, polluted, warring world.
Sirius, as both an institution operating in the art sector and the former Royal Cork Yacht Club clubhouse, is inevitably entangled in these realities. It is fitting that O’Doherty filled its white walls with color, when he painted One, Here, Now in 1996, during a residency here. This floor-to-ceiling mural references Ogham, an ancient alphabet once popular in Ireland. It is ironic that this mural has lived, for most of its existence, hidden behind the white walls of the central room. It is as if Sirius encapsulates the intrinsic contradictions of art’s presentation.
O’Doherty anticipated many current questions in art and research, whether advancing institutional critique, a social art practice or examining the interplay of word and image. His passing in November 2022 shines a light on the imponderability of time. “One, here, now” as a motto, rather than obsessing about the present and the individual, appears to connect to many pasts, disciplines, people and places—and envisages a future that art helps to shape.
Aspen 5+6, 1967
This magazine double issue from 1967 was, as Brian O’Doherty said, “my one-person show for that year.” He seems to have approached the editorial task as an artist, not (only) as a critic or academic, thus connecting art and research, form and content, but also Europe (ten years after leaving from Cobh) and the US, as well as pre WWII and post-War work. The stellar cast of contributors provided conceptual art (Duchamp), visual poetry, European Dada, US minimalism, music, dance, performance, and the formats of spoken word, interview, critical and (again multi-disciplinary) academic writing. The artistic aspect seems then to be a holistic one—and one empowering others: readers and viewers. From Roland Barthes, O’Doherty commissioned the famous “Death of the Author” essay, placing emphasis on the readers’ active contribution. The white sculptural box turns all who take the various items out of it—in order to consider and place them—into curators and researchers: artists.
Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, (1966) 2012
Brian O’Doherty, as the medical doctor he was, in 1966 rented an ECG machine and, with his wife, Barbara Novak, invited their near neighbours on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Duchamps, to dinner. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), was then a gray eminence in the New York art scene. His ready-mades from 1917 onwards had revolutionized art by making it more thinking-based, world-related: conceptual. He then stringently stopped making art (or so he said). He confided in O’Doherty that “the others take me to be a has-been”. O’Doherty did not. His ECG portrait proved that Duchamp was, even when silent, still creating (observable) forms, with his brain, breathing, and with his heartbeat—i.e. that one should not forget the body when focusing on thinking.
This work thus shares in an “Aesthetics of Silence”, to put it in the terms of Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, published in Brian O’Doherty’s Aspen 5+6. John Cage, another friend of Duchamp’s (and Joyce-reader) in Aspen considered there to be no such thing as silence, as there is always noise, or we at least hear our circulation.
The ECG portrait gave O’Doherty the opportunity to manipulate it: to make a light box, with the heartbeat slowed down. In this way, he “extended” Duchamp’s “life” to last three-hundred years. It’s a move that complicates time (and silence), as well as O’Doherty’s own presence here and now.
Time Piece, N. 4, 1967
O’Doherty was in the formative late 1960s clearly thinking about time and the possibilities for it to move in a non-linear way, which Einstein’s relativity theory had posited in the early twentieth century. Thinkers about history repeating itself do the same, like Giambattista Vico, whom James Joyce had read and used for the manipulation of time in his writings, something resembling “hyperlinks” before the internet. George Kubler addressed such issues in O’Doherty’s Aspen.
Joyce had also already in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) made his young alter ego Stephen Dedalus situate himself in his classroom (Sirius was once used as a school), moving out to Ireland, Europe, the world, and the universe. Connecting large and small-scale temporal units here, O’Doherty makes us realise the human being’s short presence on this planet: what we may now describe as awareness of the Anthropocene.
Writing both left to right and right to left reminds one of the zig-zagging of Ogham lines and ropes in O’Doherty’s oeuvre, but also of Leonardo’s mirrored writing, and cultures whose writings move in other directions. Looking back in time means and necessitates looking at difference and situating oneself also geographically in connection with all that is around us.
Ogham Column: One, Here, Now, ca. 2003 (Maquette)
The artist started using the words One, Here, Now, translated into the ancient Celtic language of Ogham (ca. 4–7th century A.D.) in the late 1960s within the context of Conceptual art, of which he was a pioneer. With Ogham, twenty letters of the Roman alphabet are translated into four sets of lines either above, below, or across a median. This is a structure similar to that of serial music. The sculpture therefore can be perceived, simultaneously, as a linguistic code but also an abstract drawing, and a musical score. The three words were used individually in many different media, until coming together in this work.
Variations are the two studies also shown here for both the coloring and the formal layout of one of the walls of this central gallery for the One, Here, Now mural, 1996.
Philosophically, the three words represent the essence of what it is to be in the world in terms of a self (I/One) in space (Here) and time (Now). Each cannot exist without the other. Each continually changes from second to second, minute to minute. The sculpture is a remarkable contemporary metaphor for the experience of reality through the use of ancient signs that constitute language, music, and visual art: the cultural systems we use to try to make sense of the world.
The Fallibility of the (Left) Hand, 2012
Witnessing one’s body aging and failing over time is hard for anyone. For an artist with a doctor’s knowledge of medicine, this process must have been particularly poignant—or perhaps just more familiar for longer. From the Duchamp portrait onwards, the awareness of needing to think with and through the body was always a presence in Brian O’Doherty’s art. During rehabilitation in 2012, he needed to regain and exercise the control of his leading hand: he produced with this drawing a mesh of wobbly lines that simultaneously reveal and hide—or rather: use—the lapses of control over the pen that would have brought career-ending despair to most artists. For O’Doherty, vulnerability and fallibility are clearly facts of life. Humanity can be shown, its results can even be shared: the work was a gift from the artist to the curator of this exhibition. No wonder that those honored by such disarmingly generous gestures make sure that there is a legacy, an afterlife. Such an immensely human vision of social warmth, expressed in any and all ways possible, demands to be shared.
Ireland, A Modest Proposal, 1980
The water’s edge in Ireland is something that the artist problematizes in this highly charged and yet poetic work. We viewers can situate ourselves easily, yet, as the Sirius as a site of emigration and displacement amply clarifies, human beings can move or be moved. The suggestion here is that (those on) the landmass of the six Northern counties of Ireland are re-distributed in the Republic, thus sharing the experience of other instances of both plantation and migration. As the title indicates, this is something that concerns Patrick Ireland personally, and it is as biting an indictment of British colonial rule on the island as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) was: to ease starvation among the Indigenous population by offering children as fricassee. Well into the “Troubles,” yet just before the Hunger Strikes, this work practices exchange between populations, a for-some-unpleasant but arguably necessary contact. It also removes the land that some have for too long considered to be theirs, and it dares to name a reality: for many in the South, the North did not exist. The work’s placement here adds sailing to fishing as bucolic past-times for the privileged—and shows what a charge reading canonical literature and using the (colonial) tool of mapping can have in artistic interventions in contemporary socio-political affairs, modestly.
Art Since 1945, 1975, remade in 2018
Brian O’Doherty was asked to write an authoritative history of art since 1945. That year comes with associations of death, which black-on-black, square artworks from Kazimir Malevich to Ad Reinhardt on the title page confirm. The writer received and spent the advance from Praeger publishers—and then did not wish to tell that story. He felt that artists’ voices should be heard, and that art dealing with 1945 (and after) demanded a different approach, and audiences did, too.
Instead of writing, O’Doherty let his visual artist alter ego Patrick Ireland respond to the book commission. A woodworker was involved and a sculpture came into being that forms the centerpiece of this display. O’Doherty’s history of art since 1945 is a knowledgeable and respectful one—and (thus) without words.
As a boy, O’Doherty’s elderly aunt had told him of her youth, of seeing people with green mouths from eating grass: the Irish Famine around Europe’s year of revolutions, 1848, had not that long passed. As a youth in rural Ireland, he had overcome Typhoid: death was a known entity.
Brian O’Doherty: Reading Time is through this book object an exhibition both of and about art: it is about writing and reading and about remaining silent.
With its silence, we mark Brian O’Doherty’s passing on November 7, 2022.
When I first met Brian O’Doherty in Ireland (I moved to Dublin in 1997), I was researching artists responding to James Joyce’s works. Since Joycean references were not hard to find in his oeuvre, I asked the artist (Patrick Ireland then) if he could tell me a little about what reading Joyce meant for him. He wrote a letter, which was transcribed and featured in IMMA as a label (including spelling mistakes, which he decided to correct there and then, while we visited the opening of Shifting Ground together in November 2000). The wall text is included in the small vitrine in the East Gallery.
Brian’s work was to feature centrally in my Joyce in Art exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy, 2004.3
When I travelled to New York to research it, Brian invited me to lunch, asking: “And is it just Irish artists you’re assembling for your exhibition?” I answered impolitely: “Why would I be doing that?” He was obviously pleased with the answer and became an active supporter of my work, both on this large exhibition that first featured HCE Redux and smaller ones afterwards. For Joyce’s Artistic Effects at the Tolstoy Museum, Yasnaya Polyana, Russia in 2010, he gave me instructions to copy the beginning of Finnegans Wake, cut the words apart, spread them on a surface, pin them down and “re-connect” with thread: a suitable and transportable work for this (and following) suitcase exhibitions.
The intensive occupation with Brian/Patrick’s work, especially while editing the Valiz book on him, curating his work,4 and occasionally meeting him and Barbara, led to a realization and appreciation of Brian’s generosity and artistic and institutional/personal approaches to grow in me that may be summarized as follows: the more art theory and my insights matured over the years, the clearer it became that he already knew what I was newly finding out—and that he had lived these insights, i.e. strategically chosen his means to work in art and society on their basis. To amend a formulation from Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, I can conclude that we (I certainly) will always continue to try to become Brian’s contemporary.
- The works are mostly borrowed from the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) and private collections of O’Doherty’s close collaborators, as well as Sirius itself. At the opening, I discussed the work with Brenda Moore-McCann (Trinity College Dublin) and Sarah Wilson (Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London). http://www.siriusartscentre.ie/visual-art/brian-o-doherty-reading-time Photographs by John Beasley. Courtesy Sirius Art Centre, Ireland, and the Estate of Brian O’Doherty.
- We, Sirius director Miguel Amado and I are partners in an EU-funded research project: https://www.spacex-rise.org.
- Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, Joyce in Art: Visual Art Inspired by James Joyce, foreword Fritz Senn, envoi James Elkins, design Ecke Bonk, Dublin: Lilliput, 2004. Subsequent writings and editing on him are: Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes (ed), Brian O’Doherty / Patrick Ireland: Word, Image and Institutional Critique, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017. “Future-Oriented Systemic Thinking: Effects of Beuys, Duchamp, Joyce, O’Doherty … Yours and Mine”, Beuys & Duchamp: Artists of the Future, Magdalena Holzhey, Katharina Neuburger, Kornelia Röder (eds), (English, German) Exhib.Cat. 8 October 2021-6 Jan 2022, Kaiser Wilhelm Museum Krefeld, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz 2021, pp.354-368.
- The Sirius exhibition was preceded by two earlier small solo shows I curated in 2019/20, one at RongWrong, Amsterdam (Attending to what is necessary), and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven. The latter was a library exhibition with the title: Institutional Work / Institutional Critique. https://vanabbemuseum.nl/en/programme/programme/institutional-work-institutional-critique/
‘‘Doors to Good and Evil and the Windows to Heaven”: Curating Brian O’Doherty
The summer of 2018 was an all-Ireland homecoming for Brian O’Doherty, stretching from Dublin to Cork to Roscommon. In Cobh, County Cork it was the celebration of the revelation and restoration, twenty years on, of his immersive painted Ogham cycle on the walls of Sirius Art Centre overlooking the harbor. Entitled One Here Now, the words, in Ogham script coded in the geometric forms of the paintings, memorialized that waterside site of departure for generations of emigrating Irish people, including Brian himself in 1957 to the US. The long voyage home was given a distinctly personal note when the artist’s social, cultural and artistic achievement were cause for celebration, as Brian was conferred with the Freedom of Roscommon, the county of his birth, in a ceremony conducted by Roscommon County Council on location at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin.
In 2018 IMMA presented from the collection an exhibition of Brian O’Doherty’s work that explored the dualisms, echoes, linguistic wordplay and relational approaches that have characterized the artist’s lifelong exploration of the self, of language, place, movement and time in the ongoing formation and reformation of our manifold senses of self. This persistent theme has surely been underpinned by O’Doherty’s training and ethics as a medical doctor, his unwavering interest, empirical observation and testing, combined with his knowledge and understanding of the forms, senses and processes of the physical and psychological aspects of what it is to be human.
Brian’s 2018 return also coincided with the anniversary of his performative artwork in 2008, The Wake and Burial of Patrick Ireland (1972–2008), in the formal gardens of IMMA. This was a symbolic burial of the artistic persona ‘Patrick Ireland,’ adopted in November 1972 as a protest in response to the bloodiest year of the Northern Irish Troubles, and which, he pledged, was to stay in place until such time as the British military presence was removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens granted their civil rights. 2008 marked the tenth anniversary of The Good Friday Agreement which signalled the end of large-scale violence in Northern Ireland, and laid the grounds for peace.
It was characteristic of the gestural politics of The Wake and Burial of Patrick Ireland that there was no dress-rehearsal. As well as curating and stage-managing it with my team at IMMA, Brian generously asked me to participate as a chief mourner in the performance in which the funeral party wore white, in recognition of the new era in Ireland. As often happens at Irish wakes, a note of levity was struck when Brian and Barbara jovially referred to how a few days prior to the performance, I had the grave moved when it was mistakenly dug in the wrong place in the grounds at IMMA!
Brian’s goodbye to Patrick Ireland was followed by his last farewell to Ireland in 2018. Since then, our communications were by phone and our last was a Zoom call facilitated by artist and friend Mark Orange, who had been working with Brian and Barbara during and since COVID. I greatly miss our trans-Atlantic phone calls. Right up to the end Brian was always caring about how you were doing in your life, in and beyond the reach of art. I know I share this with so many colleagues and friends that came within the circle of warmth and provocation in Brian’s field of vision, and who benefited from his enduring encouragement, care and advice.
My first meeting with Brian and Barbara was in 1999 when I was expecting my daughter Giorgia and we began to work towards his retrospective Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O’Doherty / Patrick Ireland at the Hugh Lane Gallery, where I was working at the time, and which traveled in 2007 to Grey Art Gallery, New York. The exhibition was the inaugural show for the Hugh Lane’s new wing which was still a building site, requiring hard hats and high-viz jackets, and was freezing cold when Brian and Barbara came over in early Spring 2006 to install the “Rope Drawing” Golden Door, and the wall painting Song of the Vowels. To counteract the cold and dust, I booked them into a well-appointed hotel, which was something to look forward to at the end of each grueling day and where meetings took place around the breakfast table the next morning accompanied by a Samaras-like box filled with every conceivable vitamin liberally shared to keep the show going.
Another curatorial opportunity, shared with artists Joe Stanley and Fergus Byrne, arose with the staging of Hello, Sam, a work by Brian in response to a commission by Dublin Contemporary in 2011. It is a performative work, with eight “walkers” circling an effigy suspended in a rope drawing; around the room were recordings on headsets of phone “conversations” with Samuel Beckett, a writer not known for mythical Irish loquaciousness.
The show attempted to engage with the aura of Beckett’s persona and the mystery of his work by calling on the viewer’s imaginative participation and willing suspension of disbelief in telephone “conversations” with the writer. This work later enjoyed further iterations when it was presented in London and Boston in the context of director Judy Lovett and actor Conor Lovett’s Beckett-inspired theater production Here All Night.
A new Rope Drawing for IMMA in 2015, The Doors to Good and Evil and the Windows to Heaven: Christina’s World, Rope Drawing #124, played on a famous painting by Andrew Wyeth and arose out of precious time spent with Brian and Barbara in their apartment on W67th, when Brian was recuperating from a near-death experience in Berlin the year before. Our conversations and plans were filmed by Irish artist Louise Ward, as were exchanges during the installation at IMMA, which caught much of the loving repartee and provocations between Brian and Barbara.
As IMMA Head of Collections, one of the greatest honors for me was to be the conduit for seventy-six pieces of art and archival works donated by Brian and Barbara in the Novak/O’Doherty Collection of Post War American Art and archives to IMMA. Having experienced Ireland in the 1940s and ’50s, which had few connections to international twentieth century art, Brian’s long-standing ambition was to donate a collection of American art and archives to Ireland.
The collection was formed mainly through friendships and their interactions in the New York art scene from the sixties onwards, through artists’ swaps and exchanges. Since the early sixties, their original small apartment on 13th Street, and later the larger apartment and studio in West 67th, were a gathering place and hive of artistic and cultural activity by artists, writers, poets, and composers. The collection was, in a sense, part of their biography as well as signifying key moments in art developments of the day and is a social history. The accompanying book which I edited also includes commentaries by Brian and Barbara which provide invaluable first-hand accounts of key art developments in the New York art scene, and the individuals they knew well such as Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner, Sol LeWitt, Morton Feldman, Mel Bochner, Joseph Cornell, and Marcel Duchamp.
I warmly recall the weeks spent visiting Brian and Barbara in New York and at their home in East Quogue during 2009 and 2010, where we looked at the archive of pieces and works given by, or shared, with artists close to them. I recorded them both on a voice recorder (which formed the basis for their reminiscences in the book), and their reminiscences from their earliest days in New York, ranged from one artist to another. There was Marcel Duchamp, who lived down the street in No. 33, on West 67th, prompting the memory of a dinner invitation to Duchamp and his wife Teeny, with Barbara cooking, and the electrocardiogram taken by Brian, the former doctor, of Duchamp’s heartbeat—a conceptual portrait of the father of conceptualism. There was Peter Hutchinson whom Brian and Barbara greatly admired and who, in their opinion, occupies just as important a place in the history of art as Hutchinson’s peer and friend Robert Smithson. Romare Bearden also came to mind, and the Robert Blackburn studio of artists, whose printmaking workshop was so important to African American artists and Black American graphics. Stories were related to the friendly competitiveness between Brian and John Coplans, then editor of Artforum, for the attention and writerly contributions of Mary Josephson, Brian’s female alter ego.
One indelible memory I have is of a fast car ride with Brian and Barbara to their house on Long Island. Brian liked to put his foot on the pedal, and we passed Utopia Parkway where Barbara said Joseph Cornell (creator of the beautiful boxes, a miniature one of which features the donation to IMMA) had lived, she recalled the quality of blueness in Cornell’s “sorcerer’s cave” in the basement where he kept all of his treasures and collections of items. Brian wrote about Cornell in American Masters which pushed him forward. Brian and Barbara reminisced on how he had lived with his mother and had cared for his disabled brother Robert.
When we were returning to New York City after one memorable weekend on July 27, 2009, news came over the radio of Merce Cunningham’s passing, which prompted Brian to recall Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Marcel Duchamp’s rapt attention at a lecture that Barbara was delivering. On another occasion he described Rothko’s response to a film on de Kooning presented by Barbara in Berkeley: “She’s so intense!” Brian’s pride in Barbara’s achievement was immense: “Barbara’s teaching at Barnard College is legendary. One of her former students has funded an Endowed Chair, The Novak Chair, the only Barnard Professor to be so honoured.”
Throughout, Barbara has been by Brian’s side, a bond caught in many evocative photographs, including by Arnold Newman of Brian and Barbara accompanied by their dog Flann O’Brien; by Dan Budnik of Brian and Barbara in Green Street (site of Brian’s first Rope Drawing); by Lucy Hilmer of Brian and Barbara at Edward and Jo Hopper’s grave, with gallerist John Clancy and Lloyd Goodridge, director of the Whitney, and taken during Brian’s filming of his award-winning documentary Hopper’s Silence. IMMA now holds these mementoes in trust for the nation as part of the National Collection of Ireland and for all our global visitors, in person and online.
Brian has left a legacy of extraordinary breadth and range through the intellectual and artistic brilliance embodied in his various identities and selves but, like his rope drawings, his presence also extended into the lives of all those who spent time with him, and had the pleasure of his company. The labyrinths that so preoccupied him were part of his personality, which meant that layer yielded constantly to layer, adding to the enigmas of both the artist and friend I was privileged to know over many years.
Remembering Brian O’Doherty
Although I had known of Patrick Ireland beforehand, my knowing Brian O’Doherty began over lunch in Washington, DC nearly thirty years ago. I was visiting Georgetown University on a Fulbright and was then Chair of the Arts Council of Ireland. Brian was working for the National Endowment of the Arts and invited me to lunch, a long convivial one peppered with conversation about Ireland and the arts.
We discovered that we shared not just a background rooted in a fast-changing Ireland, but also a curiosity about ideas of a kind that simultaneously respected elements of tradition but then wished to reform them into new, and more imaginative kinds of cultural alloy.
The resulting friendship was enriched by Brian’s intriguingly diverse ideas which tended to elude easy categorization. There are few artists whom I have known whose imaginative life was scaffolded by as rich an intellectual life as was Brian’s.
Ideas anchored his art, his writing and his commitment to enabling others. No surprise, then, that the movement towards conceptualism that he met when he settled in New York was perfectly suited to his highly distinctive cast of mind.
For those writing about Brian, the “list” as a tool comes handily to mind. He was a doctor, artist, critic etc., etc. But that listing, though well-intentioned, can work to his disadvantage memorially, as though, perhaps, he spread himself too widely.
He himself coined the neologism “slotting” to describe artists’ tendency to be trapped in the moments of their greatest achievement. In contemporary marketing-speak their ‘style’ becomes their ‘brand’. Brian was wary of that, though also conscious of the fact that, without such brand-recognition, general recognition for one’s work might become more challenging.
In his case there was a coherent intellectual unity to the manifold of his work. Coming from a newly autonomous Ireland, shaped by romantic ideals and visceral violence, he was deeply suspicious of romanticism, and of orthodoxy, while actually being quite a romantic!
Exploration rather than expression was what appealed to him. It was the web of life in all its diversity that stole his attention, rather than the myriad self-obsessed nodes of individualism that are the particles of that web.
We shared an interest in what Brian called those “fictions of self,” and the associated elusiveness of reality. His recognition of the nature of “reality” as “hallucination,” of the sensorily-constructed world “out there” as being somehow “artificial”—an idea he thought of as having germinated in his Irish Catholic upbringing and schooling in Dublin—is presciently in tune with the contemporary neuroscientific science of consciousness.
Perspective is all-important in our construction of realities, and Brian’s many fictional alter egos in his writings, performances, installations and visual art reflect his own method of exploring and materializing time, selfhood and meaning, whether inherited (as in his own deeply ingrained “Irishness”) or newly minted (as in his own unique contributions).
The metaphor of perspective as prism would have appealed to him, I think, not least given his own deep pleasure in the vibrancy of colour.
How do I think of Brian now, as I look at my own “Rotating Vowel” print, a gift from him that I deeply value? Leave aside the feelings of affection and admiration for a man who has now left the stage–though having left it all the richer for his having been there—and search for a phrase, as he would have done, for what he was?
I like to think of Brian as a synaesthete of ideas. Who else has visually elaborated the significance of how a rotating vowel might look across time from stony gray Oghamic lines to inky chromatic dots!
Tribute to Brian 22.3.23
In 2011, I had the honor of representing Ireland at the Venice Biennale. That privilege was greatly enhanced by Brian O’Doherty’s essay written specially for the exhibition catalogue. I had known Brian and Barbara since I was a child, when they used to visit Ireland regularly and come to our house for dinner that my mother had prepared. Both my parents, an art critic/curator mother and an architect father, were strong advocates of Brian’s conceptual works, his writings, his generous mind. And they cherished his company around the dinner table. Many years later, when I had moved to New York, I was thrilled to visit their home off the park and meet some of the world’s most extraordinary people all in one room. When Brian came to my studio in the runup to Venice, I felt almost embarrassed to talk about my work in front of this artistic giant and philosopher of the twentieth century. He scanned over a few pieces, models, drawings and bits and pieces and didn’t say much. He didn’t need to. He had in mind what he wanted to say very succinctly about my complicated process and respond to my attempts to what it was I was trying to achieve. I could not have asked for a more magnificent evaluation of my work, beautifully formulated by his words:
Transparency and reflection, the light-trapping density of glass, its ultimate opaqueness when stacked, are properties so insistently appropriated by Walker that they have become his emphatic signature. The gallery was dissolved into a wilderness of reflections. One of the most daring exhibitions of the year, it was obsessional and relentless, an act of will without being willful.
In this, as in other works, Walker’s revisioning of accepted norms is as sharp as the edges of his glass. He bends the spectator to his will. This aggression is dissembled, but it is there. Walker’s revised scale is not a humorous ploy to be indulged; it is deadly serious. How this is enacted in his work through his modular repertory of glass and mirror—incremental rotation and reversal of planes—is easily read. It is done without rancor, which rhymes with Walker’s amiable and optimistic temperament.
–Brian O’Doherty, 2011
Of all places to meet the author of Inside the White Cube, I had the honor and pleasure of first encountering Brian O’Doherty at Walden Pond. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it was in a beautiful Victorian hall in Concord, Massachusetts, in the company of County Sligo-based painter Nick Miller, whose exhibition I had organized at the New York Studio School, and of Barbara Novak. Barbara and I bonded over shared obsessions with John Ruskin, our banter buoyed along by the incredible erudition and insight of Brian who was as informed as a man could be in any subject of intelligent interest. It seems symbolic to me, in retrospect, that Walden should have been at hand as a living and potent riposte to the implied sterility of the white cube, in relation to which Brian’s unique genius was equally at home inside and beyond.
A singular kindness, avuncular Irishness, generous curiosity and polymathic appetites made Brian an instant great friend even to this casual acquaintance. I loved chatting to him about subjects that were invariably distant from his own work or scholarly concerns. One of the great marvels of New York to those of us who arrive from elsewhere is the way people in one scene, perceived to be the non plus ultra of a particular way of doing artistic business, have real and meaningful connections to historically or geographically proximate milieus that would seem to be cultural or intellectual incompatibles: for instance, an echt and foundational conceptual artist, like Brian, and resilient homespun American Realism in the person of Edward Hopper, whose confidante and trusted acolyte Brian proved himself to be. Of course, this is as much testimony to the breadth of Hopper’s personality as Brian’s, but it allowed for an unlikely connection which gave enormous pleasure to this casual witness.
I can’t claim to have truly understood or loved Brian’s work but I’m proud that, according to Brenda Moore-McCann, my magazine, artcritical, gave her definitive account of Brian’s work, its most sympathetic, intelligent review, by the redoubtable David Carrier.
The boundlessness of Brian’s career could have been intimidating to some, but observing his charm and modesty one realized that willingness to try anything was symptomatic of modesty not arrogance, a playful “why not” attitude to a new means of expression for an artist who had, after all, already trained to be a doctor. For someone considering his options at a turning point in life, Brian provides significant inspiration. Recently turning sixty, I note, from the Times obituary, that Brian O’Doherty was sixty-four when he published his first novel. His oversized personality beckons from beyond.
2008 marked the centenary of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and to celebrate that year, a box set of contemporary artists with long associations with the museum was commissioned by its director Barbara Dawson from Stoney Road Press. Brian O’Doherty was one of the invited artists.
James O’Nolan—co-founder and director of Stoney Road Press worked closely with Brian on his contribution for the centenary box set.
Brian greatly admired the work of Flann O’Brien—the novelist, playwright, satirist, and uncle of James O’Nolan.
Both enjoyed each other’s company and an easy working relationship soon developed between them despite the distance that separated them—Brian living in New York, and Stoney Road Press based in Dublin.
Between 2001 and 2018, Brian made over fifteen projects with Stoney Road Press, the final one being his Structural Plays which was launched at IMMA during his show, Language and Space in 2018.
Stoney Road Press has been exhibiting at the New York Print Fair every October for many years.
Every year, during our time in New York , James and myself would be invited to Brian and Barbara’s wonderful apartment off Central Park West for supper.
As talented an artist as Brian was, and as wonderful a host, a talented chef he was not.
He seemed to have just one recipe in his repertoire—and that was lemon chicken.
I dreaded it as my stomach would lurch and twist into contortions after eating it.
And there were always seconds—Brian made sure to make a huge tray of the lemon chicken so we could take some home with us for the following day.
Barbara looked after the desserts for the evening, and always made sure to order the most elaborate plates of meringues and other sweets from their favorite New York restaurant .
As a result of the lemon chicken, I had to pass on having dessert, leaving James with the task of sampling all the different sweet plates that were proffered. Unfortunately, and this was never revealed to either Brian or Barbara, James was diabetic.
One year, the discomfort was so great that I had to lie down on his couch in the other giant room which was his studio. Above me dangled the top of a coat stand—tied off with rope. An early Duchamp—of course (according to Brian). I must have passed out, because I woke to Brian holding my hand and taking my pulse. I recalled that Brian had an unfortunate reputation—at least two of the sitters for portraits by him died shortly after—Marcel Duchamp and Jack B Yeats being two that came to mind. Brian assured me that there was a third but could not recall the name; it was a relief that he didn't have a pencil in hand.
Our evenings with them both were always relaxed and full of laughter with stories and anecdotes.
I recall one night when I told them about a visit to Portland where I was treated to a traditional Portland night’s entertainment by critic Richard Speer and artist Dorothy Goode: an evening of food and entertainment at Mary’s bar—Mary’s bar is a strip bar and has been operating since 1933.
Not to be outdone, Brian recalled being in a similar establishment with Sol (LeWitt) and Mark (Rothko)—Brian always used first names—and while the dancer performed and twirled around the pole above their upturned heads—Brian asked Mark if he was enjoying the performance. Mark declared unfortunately not, due to his thick spectacles having fogged up!
Brian lived an astonishing long and fruitful life. He will be missed by those that were lucky to have known him.
Stoney Road Press
I loved and admired Brian O’Doherty. He was a terrific artist, a patient teacher and a loyal friend. He was a supporter of my work as a young journalism student turned video curator and later as a museum director—he was someone who saw something in me that others didn’t—someone I could turn to when I was in trouble (as I often was). He knew how to keep secrets and how to work systems.
We first met in 1972 when I was organizing video art exhibitions at the Everson Museum. Somehow (probably because of Nam June Paik) I had been invited to participate in a junket to Stockholm organized by EAT artists and the Moderna Museet’s director Pontus Hultén organized to celebrate a remarkable collection being donated to the museum by a group of American anti-war activist/artists as an act of solidarity with the Swedish people and their government, which had broken diplomatic relations with the United States in opposition to what the Vietnamese and the rest of the world called the American War.
My friendship with Brian (and Barbara Novak) began on that trip as they took me under their collective wings, ensuring that I met the right people. I recall Brian’s high regard for Rauschenberg’s extraordinary work Mud Muse, how he explained this wonderful sculpture to me, and how both he and Barbara were delighted by the front-page publicity afforded Jill Johnston’s friendship with a Swedish Princess.
For many years, Brian (first at head of the NEA Visual Arts Program and later as the head of the NEA media arts program), was among the most important funders and supporters of artists working in experimental film and video. He worked for the NEA for decades, but without an employment contract so that he could walk away freely if he ever felt in conflict with his government position. He was an activist/artist working within government to help all artists in every way he could. In many ways, Brian’s active support of artists and institutions (along with that of the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts) were the only source of financial support for the early years of these activities.
But knowing the full Brian O’Doherty meant learning of his past as a medical doctor, how as a postdoc at Harvard he met and fell in love with the great art historian Barbara Novak and how that changed the direction of his life, about his extraordinary range of talents as a documentary filmmaker scoring the last filmed interview with Marcel Duchamp from his role on WGBH TV and the MFA Boston’s “Museum Open House.” I was not surprised that the soundtrack from Hopper’s Silence, his revealing documentary on Edward Hopper, was used brilliantly in the Whitney Museum’s recent Hopper exhibition. Of course he was a wonderfully witty novelist, a truly modest yet seriously gifted sculptor/Conceptual artist, and most important, he was a fierce and lifelong advocate for Irish independence. It was a great privilege to be present in Cobh at his first exhibition in Ireland following the peace accords, and to share in his satisfaction in the figurative burial of Patrick Ireland, the exclusive artist-identity he had used in his work as an artist until the peaceful resolution of the Troubles.
Rest in peace and power Brian. You’ll long be remembered for your kindness, your intelligence, your humor, and your boundless creativity.
David A. Ross
Brian O'Doherty was a giant of a human being, and for most of my life, one of my best friends. Brian was one of those people who seemed to be able to clone themselves, and was everywhere at once. Both in Washington, New York, and Europe. At one point, he was the director of the NEA and was able to distribute money towards the causes, most of whom were friends whom he knew. I first heard Brian on the radio when I lived in Provincetown, around 1973. He was broadcasting from Boston. Subsequently he came to New York and we seemed to share many of the same friends. Brian was both a prolific writer and artist. His studio was on West 67th Street near Central Park, and was double storied with a skylight. Somehow, he had inherited Stuart Davis’s easel and worked from it constantly. His disappearance from life is a lump in my soul. His devoted wife Barbara Novak never cooked which I found very interesting. She taught at Columbia and was always very busy. His death seems like such a waste doesn’t it? I shall always miss him. I’m including an essay which he wrote for a catalogue for one of my exhibitions and, from this I say, you can feel our friendship.
Brian O’Doherty on Dorothea Rockburne:
“Shapes of Desire”In Dorothea Rockburne’s remarkable compound work, Group/And, (1970), six vertical falls of paper and chipboard tumbled slowly down from each top board unambiguously nailed to the wall. The natural declension of the eye identified with the process of falling. The paper falls, reverses, momentarily climbs and, in one segment, rolls onto the floor. The board is suspended, trapped, offered. Its weight is exactly estimated and felt. Surface, material and density become nouns. Falling becomes a verb. The work’s parts articulate similar sentences saying—through relocation of subject and object—the same thing, but differently. A linguistic virtuosity is restrained by a passion for precision. Though language seems to have generated structure, the words have been filled in with blanks. What remains is the syntax of process now staring at its own point of arrival.
This and other works were very new then. Of course they were read according to the zeitgeist—as conceptual, serial, minimal. When work recedes into the past we have three contents to deal with—the intrinsic content of the work and the content donated to it by context then and now, a matter much confused by the interfusion of all three. As the context changes, the work travels into other frames of reference. Work trapped by its content looks period—indeed that is the definition of period. Strong work, looked at now, contributes to a redefinition of its period.
What was masked in the early Rockburnes was the emotional impetus of the work. The nature of that emotion lies in an implacable fusion of will and desire, which builds intensity by setting limits and then rehearsing the actions taken within them. Rockburne’s rotations, extensions, relocations, interruptions—had very deliberate character exactly mirrored in the completed work. The emotion is in the certainty, not the search. To that degree it is choreographed. Speaking of a dancer, Jerome Robbins said that when she danced, you could see every step—each step was clarified. In the early Rockburnes you could see every step.
Process is of course the finished work’s memory, and the way in which these early works “remembered” themselves was in dialogue with their point of arrival, their present state. This is a painterly characteristic, to some degree an expressionist one. So that Rockburne’s work has implicit in it a kind of expressionist paradigm, though the paradigm lessens as a process is turned into procedure. It is always surprising how constants renew themselves in disguise. Back then, Rockburne’s work in its daring, its intensity, its balance of sensibility and will, its sense of all or nothing seemed to have studied closely the generation of the fifties.
In Scalar, rectangles of paper and chipboard rotate from vertical to horizontal; papers, soaking up oil so that each develops its own geography, resolve a process that is elegantly spare in idea and rich in frugal substance. Set against the wall and resting on the floor, the work mobilizes these two coordinates into its internal dialogue. The wall is bared in two unequal internal pillars, the edges thrust into the wallspace like buildings. Within the papers the arbitrary stains talk back to and across their confining edges. Scalar embodies so many issues of the day (gravity, materials, process, set theory, walls and floor) and survives—indeed buries—them. In their lulls and progressions many of these early works look as classic as Poussin. In Group/And the white paper glows in the light; the dark chipboard painted with graphite and oil, then polished, absorbs the light. The blooming and contradiction of light inscribes yet another theme on the slow downward roll of these formal certainties. There is a hard will at work that seeks resistance and with ruthless politeness forces it into what is desired. Back then, materials had a nature, a natural resistance to anything outside their own intrinsic substance. Process put them through the desired shapes, indeed the shapes of desire.
The defining characteristic of the early work was the insistence with which it explained its mode of arrival, the “How it got this way.” The clear-headedness about a matter easily obscured by period mystiques made her work stand out then. It arrived fully certain of itself and its rational argument about its own strangeness gave it an unmistakable stamp. You would know a Rockburne anywhere. This early work was impermanent, or at least situational; like much work of this order, it is haunted by the shadow of its artificer who can make it happen again. This impermanence did not seem to me to issue a challenge to history’s false gods. It was simply the only way you could make it. This early work looks better than ever now.
When Rockburne began to fold paper and canvas into overlays, doublings and triplings, the work became more hermetic about its own history. However complex the results, all are based on a simple origin—the square and rectangle of the golden section, the reciprocal directions which tuck into each other is a kind of conceptual folding. Folding all available axes generates a profusion of shapes. A key to this lies in where the incisions to allow further foldings are made. In one series, The Egyptian Paintings, the square is placed in the center of the rectangle, mobilizing further possibilities. The resulting shapes in this all white series are then loosely folded and secured so that delusions of color may infiltrate pools of shadow. Folded into their own past, the works begin to obscure it. The process is as logical as before in that the steps taken are as distinct as a series of doors slamming in an empty corridor. The results begin to look illogical, somewhat arbitrary, unless you trust the authenticity of the process and its issue has changed. Where once the steps were clear, or decipherable, they are now partly lost in the clenched knuckles, angles, and violent flattening of the folded layers. Process becomes a murmur, then a silence, then an object. The color alters the densities of each shape, introducing another system which both confuses and partly reveals the reading of shape as it over and underlaps itself. These works, with their jagged edges and complex layerings, lie a little uneasily on the wall as if they had peeled off part of its surface and then returned it folded into a conundrum.
What does all this mean? The formalities of process in relation to shape, material in relation to process, color in relation to edge and plane, over in relation to underneath, shape in relation to wall, are informed by a common factor. It is something pungent, unyielding, irritable in the sense that when you look at these works they argue, and the argument is one that wants to win. For all its frequent sweetness (the color sometimes pretends to be nice) there is a combative streak here that in the context of the geometric art (that limp category) doesn’t let the work settle down. This is legible in work’s obstinacy, relentless pursuit of its own logic, disgust with easiness, strange harmonic contrasts. This work does not advertise emotion; it disguises it, and sends it out to be deciphered. It is thus in the classic tradition of modernism—art conceived as a matter of intensely felt difficulty resolved by the requisite formalities. The disguises include the sense of process, the deceptive calm of the color, abstraction itself. The sixties discovered and the seventies codified how emotion could present itself in cool dialectical disguise. To achieve this the means must first be modified into areas of paradox and contradiction—a major achievement of the best post-war American abstract painting. Rockburne’s work often appears luxe, calm, but it ultimately, I believe, violent.
It hasn’t been read that way, but it is no more about geometry than a Malevich is. As Rockburne herself put it: “I thoroughly want the experience of this paint, this structure, this feeling to be known to me before I make this painting. Then when I begin again so much is known to me that I can ‘stand outside myself’ and enter a state of ecstasy.” Nothing illuminates more clearly that the process must be thoroughly clarified by trial and error and then passed through a series of moves in a labyrinth while the detached spirit, above the pattern, “supervises” the unimpeded run. The empirical is sweated into the transcendental, the absent self is rehearsed, the work executes itself as the emotion—ecstasy, if you will—is deposited as planned. I emphasize the intensity of Rockburne’s work because it is often missed, thus forestalling as much writing as it has stimulated. This art is not tractable to language, indeed is antagonistic to it—disarming, since a lot of good art solicits its artwriting shamelessly.
In a remarkable recent work, Interior Perspectives; Discordant Harmony, the structures arise out of the unusual foldings. Square, rectangle, triangle, organize themselves on different levels. But now the surfaces are painted in frankly dragged brushstrokes. “Careless” bands of red and greens against white fusing with a membranous pink travel diagonally across each square. Rockburne’s surfaces have shown signs of restlessness since about 1980, as if paint would not take the surface lying down. At first glance, this rough painterliness disrupts the expectations of several years. New art is read according to what it is trying to escape, and thus is often thought to be moving backwards when it’s moving forwards. But while this paint is discomforting, it does not break faith. It now comments on the structure, manifest and and hidden shapes are extended, echoes, indicated but illusionistically. The “memory” is partially painted back in. The work keeps going forward even when it is uncomfortable. Teleology comes out of the sweat of making it new, of constantly renovating what one is doing.
Elizabeth C. Baker
Brian O’Doherty, a Who’s Who
Brian O’Doherty was a conspicuous presence in the art world as I knew it, first in Boston, then in New York, for a long time before we ever met. When I was in graduate school in 1960, he was lecturing on art and interviewing artists for Boston’s public TV station, WGBH. His talks with well-known artists—Josef Albers, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Ben Shahn, Walter Gropius—drew attention among some of the students in a Harvard art history department pretty much fixated on the past. A young Dublin-trained doctor, Brian came to the US in 1957 to undertake further medical studies at Harvard. He was an artist, too— he had exhibited in Dublin and London under an assumed name—and for him, as time passed, art was eclipsing medicine. Seeking an art-related job, he approached WGBH. Leaving the position for which he was applying, Barbara Novak, a young, already renowned art historian, was headed for New York to begin a teaching job at Barnard. She recommended Brian to replace her and he was hired.
Brian’s TV work attracted interest beyond the Boston area; before long the New York Times invited him to write for them. As it happened, Brian and Barbara had married. He followed Barbara to New York in 1961. He wrote criticism for the Times and then Newsweek, discussed art on NBC-TV, and taught at Columbia. (His undergraduate seminar in art criticism hatched the short-lived but influential avant-garde magazine known as Art-Rite [1973-78], invented, with Brian's encouragement, and edited by Walter Robinson, Edit de Ak, and Joshua Cohn.) In the late sixties Brian was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts to head its Visual Arts program. Somewhat later, he took on the NEA’s Media Arts program.
Having moved to New York, I found a job as a junior editor at ARTnews in 1963. Brian and I became vaguely acquainted as our paths crossed at art events. In September 1970, ARTnews published an article about his austere, abstract metal sculptures incorporating forms from the medieval Ogham alphabet, on view later that month at Betty Parsons (“Brian O'Doherty Whispers in Ogham,” by Jerry G. Bowles). Brian had received a brief notice in ARTnews's review section for a solo show (his first) at the Byron gallery in ’67. That year was also memorably marked, for him, by a double issue of Aspen (issues 5+6), an eccentric magazine-in-a box, that Brian guest-edited; to this day it’s a collector's item. Its contributors, of critical essays, recordings, small art objects, films, and more, were a mix of intellectual superstars and cutting-edge young artists, among them Roland Barthes, William Burroughs, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Samuel Beckett, Susan Sontag, Alain Robbe Grillet, Robert Rauschenberg, Dan Graham, Mel Bochner, Eva Hesse, and Sol LeWitt.
In early 1971 Brian became the editor at Art in America; his issues cover exactly three years. His Aspen project had become famous and likely played a part in his selection, since until then he was known for many things but not necessarily for being an editor. The top position at Art in America was open because in 1969 the privately-owned magazine was purchased by a corporate entity, Whitney Communications, headed by John Hay Whitney, wealthy publisher of the New York Herald Tribune before it folded, and a significant art collector. Post-sale, Art in America’s very longtime editor Jean Lipman remained for a couple of years, then was out. Under Brian’s editorial guidance, starting in ’71 the magazine took a new direction.
Shortly thereafter, ARTnews changed hands as well; the Washington Post, which acquired ARTnews in 1962, sold it in ’72 to Milton Esterow, a cultural reporter at the New York Times. The entire ARTnews staff was sent packing except for me; as managing editor, I was kept on for practical reasons through the following June. In mid ’73, Brian left Art in America to devote more time to his other careers. Whitney Communications looked around for yet another editor; I was hired in late fall 1973.
Brian and I suddenly had a great deal in common, given the coincidence that we both were editors, in quick succession, of the same magazine. We started to have friendly conversations. The corporate situation at Whitney Communications was somewhat disconcerting. Art in America shared premises with several other publications in a corporate magazine division that included Interior Design and Retirement Living (soon to be rechristened 50 Plus). The company was also buying sports publications—Gridiron News, Basketball News, Hockey News, Boating Industry. Some ill-conceived efforts were brewing to homogenize aspects of this oddball, utterly disparate assembly of periodicals. Brian and I sometimes swapped stories about our corporate adventures; his tales were instructive. At one point, forewarned by a long-distance phone call from his staff, he flew back from a far country to defend the rather voluminous but crucial footnotes of a scholarly two-part essay by Linda Nochlin “The Realist Criminal and the Abstract Law,” Art in America, September/October and November/December 1973), when it was decreed at the corporate level that footnotes would no longer be permitted. The showdown was, Brian told me, vociferous. In the end Brian rescued the footnotes and the article appeared as intended.
Brian O’Doherty was still at Art in America when he took on the identity of Patrick Ireland in 1972. The alter ego applied only to his art career. He was making a political and moral point, in the wake of Bloody Sunday, a terrible episode in Derry, Northern Ireland, where fourteen civil rights demonstrators had been killed by British troops, and many more wounded. The Patrick Ireland identity lasted for thirty-six years (more on this below). For a long time, however, it was not known that Brian had, since his youth, quietly made use of other aliases in his layered professional life. Fairly recently, his multiple identities have been revealed and extensively discussed. Fifty years ago, at Art in America, I encountered one of these aliases without knowing what it was.
Mary Josephson, Lost and Found
When I arrived at Art in America as its new editor in late 1973, Brian O’Doherty had restructured a magazine that was a joy to inherit. As I examined the wealth of material he had brought together, I was struck by several contributions with the byline Mary Josephson. Her pieces were complex and thought-provoking. There was something uncommonly independent, unpredictable, even contrarian in the subjects she chose, and the way she approached them. It was hard to pin down either her sensibility or her vantage point. How could one place a critic who produced an acerbic, politically inflected commentary on Morris Lapidus’s hotel architecture, subtitled “the pornography of comfort,” soon followed by an astute essay on Andy Warhol, examining the Warhol persona as a fictional construct? Then came an article steeped in rock-and-roll lore, “Joplin and Hendrix: a note on the rhetoric of death,” in improbable juxtaposition to several lengthy exhibition reviews, on artists as different as Richard Tuttle (warmly positive), Ray Johnson (a brushoff), Richard Artschwager (more negative than not), and Paul Waldman (minutely observed and appreciative), along with a double (and doubly curious) review that paired de Kooning and Raphael Soyer and was quite scathing about de Kooning’s recent works.
I thought it would be interesting to work with Mary Josephson. There was no trace of her in the magazine’s office, however—no address or phone number, nothing in the correspondence files. Brian was no longer coming in, though his final issue (January/February 1974) was being wrapped up. In addition to the demanding job in Washington at the NEA, TV art talks, and teaching at Columbia, he was pursuing his art career as it drew increasing and well-deserved attention. He was also finishing a book, American Masters, the Voice and the Myth. Knowing all this, I hesitated to ask for his help in locating Mary Josephson. When I finally telephoned him, Brian avoided a direct answer, saying, “She travels a lot and doesn’t have a fixed address—good luck in finding her.” I decided, regretfully, to put my search to one side.
I’m not sure when I found out that Mary Josephson was Brian O’Doherty. Long before that information leaked out in certain art-world quarters, Brian had begun to exhibit his art under the name of Patrick Ireland, a deliberately public alter ego. Patrick Ireland was “born of rage.” In a performance in Dublin, Brian announced that he would make and exhibit his art as Patrick Ireland until the British military withdrew from Northern Ireland and civil rights were restored. That finally happened in 2008, at which point Patrick Ireland was given a ceremonial funeral at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and Brian O’Doherty resumed showing his art under his own name. Perhaps the Patrick Ireland double should have made it less surprising that Mary Josephson, too, whose professional “birth” had preceded Patrick Ireland’s by a year, was one of Brian’s aliases. But she was a well-kept secret for a surprisingly long time.
Mary Josephson’s byline was first seen in the March/April 1971 issue of Art in America, immediately after Brian took over as editor. Why did he invent this, the longest running of his hidden aliases? In retrospect, it seems evident that Mary Josephson was conjured up when Brian wanted to have his say about a lot of things in a voice other than that of the magazine’s editor. He wrote regularly under his own name, of course. Did Mary embody a rebellion against Brian’s thoughtful, speculative editor’s voice of that same year? His topics included “A new conservatism in the seventies?” and “What is post-modernism?” along with his well-timed scrutiny of the dilemmas facing museums torn between scholarship and entertainment. That essay introduced a special issue about museums, which subsequently came out as a book.
Mary’s identity did not go public until 1998. After twenty-seven years, she was officially outed, along with two earlier, previously undisclosed aliases, in conjunction with an exhibition called Patrick Ireland: Language Performed/Matters of Identity at the Orchard Gallery in Derry. Sigmund Bode (Sigmund Freud meets Berlin museum director Wilhelm Bode)—as far as we know Brian’s first pseudonym—was invented during his medical studies in Dublin when he was also making art and exhibiting it in Dublin and London. William Maginn came a bit later, conscripted for various specialized writing jobs. Bode and Maginn were there for Brian to hide behind. Patrick Ireland, on the other hand, was a public statement, a pseudonym used consistently during a major phase (1972–2008) of O’Doherty’s art career. These alter egos were chronicled by Thomas McEvilley (“An Artist and His Aliases,” Art in America, May 1999).
In 2006, Beyond the White Cube: A retrospective of Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland, at Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane, featured the identities again. The catalogue cover bears a photomontage of four aliases, each posed by a variously costumed Brian, who also stands beside them as himself. Mary occupies a chair in front of the others, wearing a wig, a broad-brimmed hat, a bright purple jacket, and a skirt, with shapely crossed legs bare to the knee. The show traveled to NYU’s Grey Gallery in spring 2007. An article by Saul Ostrow provides a comprehensive account (“Decoding O’Doherty,” Art in America, December 2007). In an interview with Phong H. Bui in the Brooklyn Rail (June 2007), Brian discusses many background details, including the fact that his pseudonyms are derived from historical characters. As for Mary Josephson, he notes his Catholic upbringing: his middle name is Mary; his confirmation name is Joseph; and -son, “It’s my revenge on the Holy Family,” Brian told Phong. Brian further described the various origins of these pseudo-personages in a 2011 lecture, “Divesting the Self: A Striptease,” at the American Irish Historical Society in New York (subsequently published in the society’s journal, The Recorder, Spring 2012).1
Mary Josephson occupies a complex position in relation to her creator. She co-opts some of his critical territory. Was he ever jealous of her? Did he ever regret not being credited for that ambitious Warhol essay? It takes the lead in a twenty-page section with four articles on Warhol, to which readers are intended to be drawn by the magazine’s striking silvery cover (May/June 1971), a close-up detail of a photo of Andy that appeared on the New York Post’s front page right after he was shot.
Brian seems to have set Mary up for him to compete with. “She’s smarter than I am,” he said more than once. This means, I think, that he gave her lots of latitude. He has commented that writing as Mary Josephson, he felt the greatest freedom he’d ever experienced as a writer. He also spoke of his interest in assuming a female persona, and of course Mary surfaced during the initial heyday of art-world feminism in the early ’70s.
It seems to me that Mary’s fictional presence in a way prefigures aspects of O’Doherty’s three absorbing novels. The first of these, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992), draws heavily on Brian’s specialized knowledge of historical medical lore. Franz Anton Mesmer, a doctor sometimes described as a proto-hypnotist, well known around the eighteenth-century Viennese court for his obsession with “animal magnetism” which spawned controversial curative techniques, is a principal character. He works to restore the sight of an eighteen-year-old blind girl (also on record historically as a patient of Mesmer). She is attractive and musically talented, and is protected by the Empress Maria Theresa, but her social and musical skills diminish as she learns to see. In The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), a character bearing Brian's early nom de plume, William Maginn (again a historical figure—Maginn was a mid-eighteenth century Irish author who at times wrote under the pseudonym O'Doherty), opens and closes the novel, the center portion being an Irish priest's harrowing account of a nearly deserted mountain village during a terrible winter; all the women die except one who’s very old. It's close to modern times (reports of World War II come through on an ancient radio until it conks out). Father McGreevy chronicles desperate circumstances surrounding a second devastating winter; destruction is followed by disgrace. (This novel incorporates lengthy informative footnotes.)
The Crossdresser’s Secret (2014), again set in the eighteenth century, is the longest and, in my view, the most fascinating of the three. The protagonist, based on a figure known as the Chevalier d'Eon, is a man with identities both male and female. In one role, he is a spy in the employ of Louis XV. At other times he sometimes dresses and lives as a woman. Interestingly, his official activities are not compromised by the fact that his crossdressing is known by some. Two of these novels deal extensively with issues of female identity, and each is tied to themes of deceptiveness or concealment that propel Mary Josephson’s short stories. One of these, “The History of X,” appeared in Artforum in 1988. It's a twisted tale in which an art-history scholar sets out to remove all traces of a minor artist from the historical record. As far as I know her other stories are unpublished. Mary Josephson’s several short stories, published or not, presumably functioned as warm-ups for the Brian O’Doherty novels.
For a few years, Patrick Ireland seemed, as far as we knew, the final manifestation of an O’Doherty alter ego. After a long spell of inactivity, however, Mary Josephson re-emerged momentarily in the March 2014 issue of Art in America with a brief text introducing a portfolio of Brian O’Doherty’s work, published to coincide with a pair of his exhibitions in Manhattan.
- Mary Josephson's criticism has been published as a small book: A Mental Masquerade: When Brian O'Doherty was a female art critic, Mary Josephson's collected writings, eds. Thomas Fischer and Astrid Mania (2019).
Brian O’Doherty and I were brought together by our mutual admiration for Samuel Beckett. We first met over a decade ago when Brian, and his wife, Barbara Novak, joined me and my wife Tona, for dinner in Monkstown, a suburb of Dublin, and our friendship grew in strength over the years. Brian O’Doherty lived most of his life in New York, where he established an international reputation as an artist and critic. However, his formative years can be traced to Baggotonia, an area of Dublin that is now renowned for the artistic movement it nurtured. He was tutored in medicine at University College Dublin (UCD), then based in Earlsfort Terrace, and received practical clinical instruction in St. Vincent’s Hospital, then overlooking St. Stephen’s Green. He qualified as a doctor in 1952. Newman House, where James Joyce had studied some years earlier, was home to the Literary and Historical Society, where he listened to lively debate from many colourful personalities on diverse subjects that included a dissertation from Alexander Fleming on the forthcoming era of antimicrobial therapy. The artist Jack Yeats persuaded him to abandon medicine and devote his life to art.
In 2014, The Crossdresser’s Secret was published but received little attention as a result of inept publishing. It is a remarkable book which, in my opinion, surpasses his earlier novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000. In the same year, Brian reviewed my book The Weight of Compassion and Other Essays, which is revealing, not for what he says about me, but in that it identifies values and ideals in medicine that he espoused. For example, he deplored the loss of cultural appreciation in doctors:
Have doctors lost their culture? … I remember sophisticated cultural chatter over the operating table; occasional visiting physicians who knew more than a bit about music … If your surgeon reads Proust, does that mean he’ll operate on your gallbladder better than someone who doesn’t? Not necessarily, but at least you have something besides your missing gallbladder to talk to him about when convalescing.
Brian identified early influences that encouraged his future life: “Bethel Solomons, a remarkable Dublin Jew, whose sister, the painter Estella and her husband, Seamus O’Sullivan, bridged my divided loyalties (to the two trades, medicine and art) around 1950.”
In September 2015 I visited The Painted House (La Casa Dipinta), a house Barbara and Brian have in the small town of Todi in Tuscany. Throughout the house Brian created rope drawings and innovative paintings in vibrant colour paying homage to favourite themes, such as the ancient Ogham alphabet. La Casa Dipinta is a popular tourist attraction and visitors can apply for a guided tour. The citizens of Todi had affection for Brian and Barbara. When I joined them for coffee in the town square, a polite queue formed at the table so that the town’s residents and some passing tourists could shake their hands. This process, which took hours, exuded reverence and affection. During my visit to Todi, I appreciated how much Brian and Barbara loved each other. I cherish many photographs of them, imagery that transcends prose in portraying this love.
Brian was an accomplished choreographer who could direct complex enactments from faraway New York. The most telling was the burial of his own alter ego, Patrick Ireland, in IMMA on May 20, 2008. At the interment site, a modest pine coffin holding a death mask of the artist was lowered by pall-bearers into the ground. The somber services included orations and poetry readings by prominent art world figures, culminating in a haunting recitation of keening, the traditional Irish mourning wail, by artist Alanna O’Kelly. “We are burying the hate in a ceremony of reconciliation celebrating peace in Northern Ireland,” Brian stated. This “joyous Wake and Burial,” as the invitation and program declared, was an unexpected coda to an event that took place thirty-six years earlier. On January 30, 1972—a day now famously known as Bloody Sunday—a group of unarmed civil protesters, several of them teenagers, were shot down by British troops during a march in the Northern Irish city of Derry. Brian explained to me the creation of Patrick Ireland, the most famous of his many pseudonyms:
My mother’s family were very much involved in the War of Independence and I suppose I am a Republican at heart but when the Derry massacre took place in 1972 and the paratroopers shot down those innocent people, I was in New York and I said, What can I do? … I said I can change myself, I can give myself an identity change and I can become a living person whose very existence is a rebuke in the witness to what happened back then. So I took the name Patrick Ireland. Patrick because when the young man went for construction work in Britain, they’d say, “Alright, Paddy. How are you, Paddy? Hey, Paddy.” It’s not unaffectionate but it is ethnic. And the other thing I said is what do the British not want to hear? What’s the last thing you want to hear about if you are English? It’s your dark side, your bad conscience, it’s that blot, out there on the left so I said I will call myself Patrick Ireland.
In 2011, Brian phoned me from New York and asked me to participate in a piece of theater he was writing, Hello, Sam. I sent him a text message written as though I was having a short posthumous conversation with Beckett. I met Brian with Barbara in the National Gallery of Ireland, where I read this piece into a tape recorder. Some days later, hooded figures assembled in the Campanile of Trinity College. Accompanied by a large following, this procession marched through the campus to join a busy and bewildered multitude of rush-hour Dubliners at Lincoln Place and to the National Gallery. Brian’s choreographed performance around a bog-embalmed figure suspended by ropes was enacted over several days according to a finite rhythm. In a dimly lit corner at the periphery of the central room, the audience could listen to recordings by me, Anthony Cronin, Jota Castro, and Michael Colgan talking, as it were, to Beckett.
When the Hume Street Hospital closed in 2006, its inner-city premises were sold, and part of the proceeds were used to establish the Charles Institute of Dermatology in UCD. A feature of this imposing building was a large, windowed foyer that begged for a statement. Accordingly, Brian was commissioned to install a rope drawing entitled The Arrow of Curiosity, the Curve of Conciliation, and the Line of Inquiry, in keeping with the scientific mission of the Institute. During the installation on June 21, 2011, I interviewed Brian about his past associations with his alma mater, UCD, and how he had been influenced by John Butler Yeats, whom he had visited frequently in the Portobello Nursing Home, where the artist spent his last years, and about the many alter egos he had created. Brian’s reminiscences of the artistic milieu that was Dublin of the time and the influences that led him to abandon medicine provide intimate details on this important period in his life.
In the competitive milieu of Manhattan, Brian challenged the conventions of modernism to become one of the most respected leaders of postmodernist art, or as one commentator put it: “Few artists since Marcel Duchamp … have pushed us so hard or given us so much to digest.” The renowned artist George Segal hailed his work as “the greatest oeuvre of drawings by any post-War American artist.” This statement exemplifies the fate that seems inevitably to befall our exiled artists—the land of their adoption claims them often for no other reason than the land of their birth forgets them. If ever there was truth in the aphorism of a prophet not being acceptable in his own land, Brian is an example par excellence. I proposed him for the Ulysses Medal, the highest academic honour that UCD can bestow on those whose work has made an outstanding global contribution. My application was declined, not once but twice. Perhaps even more surprising was my failure, along with other supporters, to have him awarded the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, an honour reserved for Irish people living abroad who have achieved distinction to the credit of the country. None of this has dampened Brian’s affection for Ireland. He returned to his homeland often and always with generosity, as is exemplified in the magnificent gift to the nation of the Novak/O’Doherty collection of post-War American art to IMMA, named jointly with his wife, Barbara Novak.
Brian and Barbara were inseparable, with one giving to the other in art and life. Since their marriage in 1960, after he succeeded her as television lecturer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she has selflessly sublimated her career to propagate his, believing his art to be more valuable than hers. Barbara continues to paint beautiful flower studies and wrote not only the art criticism for which she is renowned, but drama and novels, one being The Ape & the Whale, in which her fascination with Melville is apparent. They reserved a plot beside Melville’s grave in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. When Barbara told me about this arrangement, by which she will be close to the shades of the two men she admired, I couldn’t help suggesting that the achievement might lend itself to posthumous promiscuity, to which Brian quipped, “but I will always be on top.”
Brian O’Doherty died in New York at the age of ninety-four on November 7, 2022.
We met outside the door of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin as I turned up to work as a technician on the Joyce in Art show (2004). Luckily I was appointed to work with Brian (still Patrick Ireland at that time) on HCE Redux (2004), a rope drawing to be installed in one of the two side galleries. Had I been assigned to another detail that day, it is unlikely I would be writing this today. I got on well with both Brian and Barbara and next saw them in the offices of the Hugh Lane Gallery in 2006.
I had written to the curator Christina Kennedy in advance about working on Beyond the White Cube at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. The show presented a retrospective of his career to the Irish audience. The Siege of Limerick ogham sculpture (1970) and the Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1966–67) both needed much attention. The rope drawing, Golden Door, Rope Drawing #110 (2006) was an epic undertaking in the final room of what was then technically still a building site in the new wing of the gallery. In hard hats and Hi-Vis we hammered nails into the oak floor to secure rope lines that carved the space into planes. He often referred back to the huge scale of that room and the challenges it posed. The rear wall had in fact not been concluded when Brian and Barbara had to return to New York. So we exchanged ideas over the phone and tried a couple of treatments before he felt it right.
Brian could make everybody feel part of the endeavour. At the Grey Art Gallery in New York University, where Golden Door underwent a chaotic reimagining as Talking with Bramante, Rope Drawing #111 (2007), he had the interns helping to mix some of the colors. I recall a green as having proved elusive until finally the right hue emerged. One intern noted that of all the artists passing through those offices he was the one who said hello and asked their names. The gallery had insisted to Brian that their crew would be well capable of completing the install, but he insisted in turn on bringing me over for the job. He was, of course, opening the gates of New York to me. I walked endlessly from 67th Street to the Grey Art Gallery until the immensity of the blocks of Manhattan crushed my stamina that was more familiar with the shorter distances of the village of Dublin.
I have worked on a few other rope drawings since this time. The execution of them in an efficient manner appealed to me while also working by eye, as was Brian's tendency. Reliance on spirit levels and measuring tape was not his style. Though in doing them myself I did sometimes wonder about the inevitable disparities between our eyes. Of course he tended to employ an optimal viewing point slightly lower than his own given that he was relatively tall. This allowed greater access to the magical alignment of colours and ropes that could be experienced at certain points in the space.
One of Brian's works that fed into my own research for a time was An Experiment with Chess (1969) and his idea of “the residue of pure thought, a diagram of mind”—which I chose to equate with feats of wrestling/grappling as an activity involving “anticipation, planning, spontaneity, spatial imagination…”. I tend to see these movements in space as being momentary drawings or sculptures. No doubt one reason why the execution of the rope drawings appealed to me.
When doing them, I was immersed in the process. I remember that Brian used the term “a great performance” when he was sent the final image of the last one I made in Roscommon Arts Centre. For he understood more than anyone that the work was the outcome of an involved and committed process to the end result. He had also allowed me, for that one, to pursue the idea of a triple flip of what had been Flipped Corner (2017) as Triple Flip.
Working in the Irish Museum of Modern Art on The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven – Christina’s world, rope drawing #124 in 2015 with Christina Kennedy, I worked at a pace outside of the standard timetable of tea-breaks. This was me adopting an identity beyond “technician” in the work, while aware that I was not in fact the artist. Maybe tricking myself in order to get it done. And Liam O'Callaghan and Maria McKinney also worked on that install. Again it was a team effort.
When in Roscommon I asked their technician a few times for his opinion or for his eye to view certain lines as I held ropes in position (as was necessary). As I adopted Brian's approach, that technician may have wondered if I knew what I was doing.
Logic and chaos and the short distance between the two fascinated him: the gridded system of the ogham drawings juxtaposed with their utterance as a series of arbitrary vowels. He recalled with great amusement the times in the 1970s when he had vocalised the drawings.
At a certain point in the Christina’s World rope work he said (via phone from New York) that it was time for some moment of madness in the work; something that broke its relative symmetry. The choice was to repeat the motif of the upper yellow segment. In its new location it fell away from top right to form a diagonal along the side wall. It reminded me of Harold Lloyd swinging wildly on the hands of a clockface. Lloyd did not in fact climb that building. We see him in close-ups on the clock but a stunt double by the name of Bill Strothers featured in the long shots of the escapade.
On a more terrestrial, indeed sub-terrestrial level, I was twice cast as a body by artist Joe Stanley; first as the body in the coffin of Patrick Ireland (Charles Simonds cast the face of Patrick Ireland) and latterly for the effigy in the work Hello, Sam Redux, Rope Drawing #126 (2011/2016), made for the Dublin Contemporary exhibition. Apparently Brian found the feet too long. So Joe cast a set of his own feet and replaced the culprits. It is not uncommon for an artist to include a self-portrait within a work.
There is a story that Brian told on at least one occasion of a time he participated in a panel discussion on the artist Jack B. Yeats. It tells much about him. He had known Yeats personally and spoke in this capacity. Hilary Pyle, a Yeats biographer also spoke of his life and work. The third speaker was an academic who proceeded to tear apart Yeats’s work and deride his artistic quality. “Why,” Brian asked us, somewhat rhetorically, “would you do that? Why accept an invitation to speak and come out with such negativity?” He was a positive man and the notion of wasting one's time to take hacks at an artist appalled him. It's a story I like to remember if ever a chip is forming on my shoulder.
If you have read this far, I will say that you should set this aside and read Brian’s novels. These are less known in the visual art community but an excellent way to enter his thinking. Or choose the marvelous essays of “American Masters: The Voice and the Myth” that combine his ease of communication with the most perceptive commentary. His voice shall endure in these texts as will his presence in my memory.
When artists who are acknowledged as great pass on, tributes tend to center on their creative achievements. In the case of Brian O’Doherty these achievements were so numerous as to be enough for individual greatness across his five public identities: artist, critic, innovator, thinker, filmmaker, editor, novelist, a practicing doctor; and yet such evaluations leave out a crucial part of his life. Because Brian O’Doherty not only changed what art looks like, and how we think, talk, and write about it; he also changed lives.
Quite simply, Brian O’Doherty was an incredibly kind and generous man. He was also possessed of a deep earthy laugh and an ever present, irreverent sense of humor. He could be quick to anger, but the occasional intense flash would evaporate almost as soon as it appeared. Underlying it all was his kindness. We had been introduced by Anna O’Sullivan at an event at PS1, a brief conversation in the thick of an opening crowd. It was undoubtedly one among very many for him that day, but it stayed with me; so much so that when I later went on to edit a book about the architecture of art spaces, I knew he was the only person I wanted to write the preface. I didn’t think for a minute he would agree, but taking my courage into my hands, I sent an email.
He replied almost immediately, not only would he write an introduction, he would also introduce me to all sorts of people he felt could help. It was the beginning of a twenty year friendship with both Brian and Barbara that has meant the world. I also realize that I am not alone in this. Barbara has said that after Brian died, letters, cards, and emails would come daily, from people remembering how much he had assisted them—to jobs, to exhibitions, to new ways of working, to new levels of insight or achievement.
Friendship with Brian and Barbara was always a question of “why not?” Why not write a book? Why not try harder, think deeper, face the tough stuff and do better work? Why not come and meet in Italy and explore Pompeii? We went during a memorable thunderstorm where lightning flashed over Vesuvius. The hotel was isolated by a sudden flood, and we thought we would have to survive the night on the contents of our shared minibars, until the waters abated and we could wade across the road for pizza. Brian loved pizza.
You had to be careful what you might suggest to Brian, because before you knew it, it could be on the way to a reality beyond your imagination, and an entire team would need to be assembled to get there. Brian mostly didn’t think small, although he was also adept at the tiny gesture, the infinitesimal tweak that turned good into great.
I asked him if he would he come and look at Charles Fort. The seventeenth-century star fort sits on the water’s edge in Kinsale, Co Cork in Ireland. Thanks to Mareta Doyle, it had become a site for artistic commissions at the annual Kinsale Arts Festival. Brian immediately loved the location, as well as the intriguing coincidence of it sharing an architect (Sir William Robinson) with the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. The Royal Hospital Kilmainham is home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, where a year prior Patrick Ireland had finally been laid to rest. Brian came up with a plan to build The Lookout: Fort Within a Fort for the Festival in 2009, and Mareta assembled the team.
Another crucial part of friendship with Brian was trust. He trusted people he loved, which led to leaps, which in turn could become wonderful things: such as a brand new structure, echoing the ghosts of a much older building, right at the edge of Ireland. “Now that I’ve got less permanent, I appreciate a little permanence in the work,” he said at the time. It may have been more permanent than some of his “Rope Drawings,” but The Lookout was essentially temporary too—although, for those who saw it, it still lingers.
“There are three concentric squares: it’s a rather neat design, if I say so myself,” he added. I was interviewing him for the Irish Times, and we were sitting in July sunshine within the space The Lookout had created. What the newspaper article didn’t say was that this latter point was accompanied by a wry smile and a mischievous wink. “It confines a kind of madness with these plunging and rising contours, leading from viewing points to triangular entrances,” Brian continued more seriously.
That point about confining madness is not to be trifled with. In another conversation, for a different article, he spoke about the “hysterical regularity” of Georgian Dublin. Buildings contain, architecture attempts to define; picture frames, galleries, and art writing try to shape ways of thinking. Brian wanted to open things up again.
While he said at the time he wanted The Lookout to be a departure from the “Rope Drawings,” it was actually more a continuum. The angles and shapes described by ropes here were filled in by wood painted white, blue, and red. Like the “Rope Drawings,” The Lookout invited you to step inside, to become an active viewer, rather than a passive observer, and if you were lucky, and your viewing was active enough, you would emerge with your perspectives on everything subtly shifted. “That is one of the prime things you want art to do,” Brian said that sunny afternoon. “It can make everything around it look different, be experienced differently, or work to make the surroundings yield something they didn’t before.”
Many years previously, in 1985, my mother, Gill Tipton was working at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, when Brian, then Patrick Ireland, was over for the installation of his Purgatory: Rope Drawing No. 74. The gallery walls had to be painted a grayish blue. My mother tended to take a dim view of artists who wanted the gallery walls to be painted a different color. She, as well as anyone who has ever worked on installations, knows that galleries take a lot of paint, and that spaces grow subtly smaller with every fresh layer.
“He sat at a desk in the space, like he was conducting an orchestra,” she recalls, describing how Brian directed the gallery team to move the ropes around. She was right, he was conducting, and orchestrating space. After that it was entirely up to you if you wanted to confine, or fully experience a sense of the liberating madness within. Many years later, in 2016, I joined Brian and Barbara at the installation of another of his “Rope Drawings,” this time at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York. We stepped into Parallax City (Rope Drawing #125). “Do you want to dance?” Brian asked, suggesting a waltz. And so we did.
That same visit we went to their house in Long Island. It was one of those days when April had a hint of spring, and, turning back, I was lucky enough to catch a moment that I think encapsulates the best of their lives together during the years that I knew them. Brian and Barbara always had time for friendship, and their shared expansive generosity touched so many lives, both through direct acts, and as the ripples they created spread into the world. But what they had together, contained in the world that was held between just the two of them, was more than anything that words could ever say.
Brian O’Doherty. Simply unforgettable.
Lynn and I met Brian and Barbara soon after moving to Todi in the mid-seventies. They had bought a house just up the road from ours. We would see each other over dinners several times a year and they were always occasions of great fun. Elevated conversation along with good laughs.
As we all know, Brian was a brilliant thinker, a great artist, a great writer in both fiction and nonfiction, but also a great doctor! We called on him over the years and marveled each time at his medico’s memory. Both of our children, now adults, loved him as much as we did and found occasions to visit him in various parts of the world. We shall all miss his elegant ways, his sharp, witty mind and his deep and gentle voice.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dhílis
I first met Brian O’Doherty virtually—wrapped up in words—in two articles written before he emigrated to the United States. He was a student of medicine when he wrote them, but greatly interested in art, and especially in the art of the aging Jack B. Yeats. To me the first article (published in The Irish Monthly in May 1952) came as an exciting surprise. This was the only critic I had encountered so far who had explored so deeply into what he was seeing so as to reach a true understanding of Yeats. The article also exposed the writer’s own inherent skill as a critic. He advocated not only looking, but seeking to find the original creative impulse inspiring a work, in order to establish the necessary rapport with an artist.
Brian described Yeats’s canvases as lightning conductors, along which “his emotion flows white-hot.” The more complex compositions, which required long continued inspection, he likened to games of “painterly hide-and-seek.” While this was essentially an intellectual process, he reckoned that Yeats counted on the sensuous appeal of color pattern to draw in the average observer. Some ideas and phrases in his writing resound: “colour is to Jack Yeats’s painting what wheels are to a cart, without them neither moves,” and, in the later paintings, he detects “a rhythmic singing line, almost as subtle as, but more vigorous than Botticelli’s.”
The later article in The University Review of summer 1955 is more seriously analytical, tracing tendencies in Yeats’s themes over the previous decade (which was when Brian had become interested in his work) towards nostalgia for vanished youth—the nostalgic ache “stretched to a thread, unbroken by sentiment.” This was then succeeded by “an intense awareness of the sensory continuance of existence,” to which he added a “conquest” of personal experiences which turned them into national and international, rather than individual, happenings.
Brian loved Yeats not only in his canvases on the wall, but also as a man, and he visited him during his last days, “on the edge of the immensities,” in Portobello House, by the canal. Sitting beside him, as a doctor observing proper decorum, he drew a small but very accurate likeness of the artist in pencil on the inner cover of his checkbook.
So Jack B. Yeats had introduced us remotely, and, when I met Brian in reality, years later, in New York (at one point he hadn’t been sure whether I was a girl or a boy), I felt I knew him already; and he greeted me as an old friend. He had written of Jack Yeats as being essentially an Irish painter, “a product of an Irish environment,” as he himself was with his warm, friendly, scholarly personality. He had rejoiced in the Irishness of Yeats as a painter, and had never abandoned his own Irishness.
And thinking about it, much later again, when Brian was well launched as a Conceptual artist (though he craved no labels), and one of the leaders of the new art, he had learned much from Yeats about grounding his art. Yeats had reached the verge of abstraction, but knew where his feet were, and left it at that. Brian recreated the amazing writing on the ancient standing stones of his own country as a new artistic language, visual metaphors. With a nudge from Duchamp, he stole the tough ropes from an Irish barn to draw virtual buildings, to trace out unknown spaces. Like Yeats, yet quite unlike him, he reveled in strong pure color, as in his Casa Dipinta.
One of the last times I saw Brian was at the burial of Patrick Ireland in 2008. Two elderly men with sticks—as in a late Yeats painting—Louis le Brocquy and Patrick Scott, sat relaxedly talking in the shadow of IMMA’s garden wall—both artists were loved nationally and internationally: and I remember thinking how their presence at such an amazing occasion expanded and spelled out brilliantly the heights to which the contemporary Irish art we were experiencing had risen.
James W. McManus
In memoriam: Brian O’Doherty (aka Patrick Ireland) 1928–2022
“Dr. O’Doherty’s ‘ HeArt Machine’: A Portrait of Marcel Duchamp”
Years ago, after many readings of Inside the White Cube I screwed up the courage to contact Brian O’Doherty. The man I met was warm and extremely interesting; a polymath possessed of a rich and complex wit. A great friendship developed. By way of paying him tribute I offer a tale of his relationship with Marcel Duchamp’s HeArt:
On April 4, 1966 Brian O’Doherty began work on what, over the course of the next year and a half, would become his sixteen part “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.” Three are boxes where the kinetic portrayal of Duchamp’s heartbeat is represented. They are accompanied by associated studies and drawings. “Portrait” is neither an homage to Duchamp or a desecration of him, instead it serves as a critical analysis of the position that the artist had assumed, especially its effects on the art world and artists (personal, as well as in a more global sense) by the mid-1960s. Events leading O’Doherty to undertake this portrait are important to telling the work’s story.
By the mid-1960s tumultuous events (the arrival of Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, among the directions that art would take) within New York’s art world were leading to the unseating of Clement Greenberg and the hegemony of his critical theory. In its place a clamorous cacophony, a frenetic pattern of dissonance, emerged with often overlapping and competing attitudes and practices regarding art’s function, production, and reception. Conceptualists counted among that number, Brian O’Doherty among them.
The boundaries were drawn. Greenberg’s weltgeist had effectively cordoned off access to an art world to those alien to his inner circle. Visibility or invisibility for artists, critics, and curators depended upon their relationship with (acceptance or denial) Greenberg’s doxology. To subscribe often meant the loss of the self—becoming members in a disciplined army at Greenberg’s command.
As Greenberg’s castles of sand began to crumble, Duchamp’s began to rise—his reputation revived by a series of important publications and exhibitions dating from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Against the backdrop of the arrogant and aggressive Greenberg, the seemingly benign Duchamp, who advocated an erasure of questions regarding boundary and quality (the diametric opposite of Greenberg’s position), presented a welcome opening for those previously excluded.1 Observing Duchamp’s ascendancy, O’Doherty, who admired him, wrote in 1965 that the artist’s career “had been totally confirmed” and that by the end of the century he would be counted among its most important figures.2 Not addressed in that essay was something else observed by O’Doherty—something very disturbing to him. He saw a new generation of artists losing themselves to Duchamp, becoming what he labeled “Duchampettes.”3 Contributing to the problem was that many of the emerging attitudes and practices were seen to have historical roots in Duchamp, including those of the conceptualists. How one could distinguish one’s self from this specter and not fall under Duchamp’s shadow became a serious question for O’Doherty. The situation was clear: abandon yourself or defend yourself. As he put it, using a chess metaphor, “I was very clearheaded that to be influenced by Duchamp was to lose your Queen.”4 Wanting no part of this loss of self, O’Doherty acted through the making of his “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” it standing as a clarion call against the hazards of submission to Duchamp—the loss of one’s Queen—the loss of one’s identity. Not only did he have to defend his queen, employing a combination of offensive and defensive strategies, he had to capture his opponent.
Two incidents appear to have helped give shape to the solution—taking Duchamp’s portrait in the form of appropriating his heartbeat. One was Duchamp’s statement about the lifespan of a work of art:
So I applied this rule to all artworks, and they after twenty years are finished. Their life is over. They survive all right, because they are part of art history, and art history is not art. I don’t believe in preserving, I think as I said that a work of art dies. It’s a thing of contemporary life. In other words, in your life you might see things, because it's contemporary with your life, it's being made at the same time as you are alive, and it has all the requisites of a work of art, which is to make, and your contemporaries are making works of art. They are works of art at the time you live, but once you are dead they die too. 5
O’Doherty questioned, “why did he say that? Did he really believe it? How about his own artifacts, and artifacts they are? Their artistic ‘quality’ often negligible, but they shine in the light of converging ideas and mythology.”6 He was determined to refute Duchamp’s statement.
The other was born out of Thomas B. Hess’s vicious attack (masked by the thinly veiled guise of neutrality) on Duchamp, in the essay “J’Accuse Marcel Duchamp,” published in the February 1965 issue of Art News. Hess opined that Duchamp “disastrously has confused art with life … He has tried to turn himself into a masterpiece, and through his example, has been a corruptor of youth.” 7
A third component wants to be considered as well, and that is O’Doherty’s training as a medical doctor, which predates his ultimate career choice as artist, critic, and arts administrator.8 Insights into the marriage in his mind of mutual exchanges between art and science were revealed in a lecture, “The Politics and Aesthetics of Heart Transplants,” given to the University College Dublin Medical Society, three years after the completion of the “Portrait” series. In that talk he observed, “Perhaps we can identify the interaction of the mechanical and the organic in modernist art as an extended and recurrent comment on the location of consciousness, the lability of identity, and a debate on, or anticipation of, its loss.”9
Wanting to refute Duchamp, and disagreeing with Hess, the basic ingredients for O’Doherty’s building his defense against the loss of his queen were falling in place. If Hess believed that Duchamp was turning himself into a work of art, and Duchamp thought that the work of art died with the artist, O’Doherty only needed to transform Duchamp into a work of art—one through his control that could be made to live indefinitely. Now it was a question of means. A portrait seemed a good possibility. Portrait painters and photographers had long been recognized for their potential at capturing the subject’s identity and being.10 Following the long tradition of portraiture, providing an image of Duchamp’s physical features was not the answer. O’Doherty had to try something else.
At that time he was giving much thought to body parts, informed by his training as a medical doctor as well as his interest in French symbolist poets and writers—posing himself the question, “what do body parts stand for?”11 Areas for inquiry included issues of identity, the location of sentience, and questions of consciousness. If a body part was to stand for Duchamp, which body part? The human heart has long been thought to be our most important organ. Morphed into a symbol, referring to the spiritual, emotional, moral, and, at one time, the intellectual core of a human being as the seat of the human mind, the human heart has, from ancient mythology to contemporary literature, been granted a privileged position—ruling over the ritual of human existence. In recent decades, with advancements in medical practice and technology, the locus of control over the heart has been shifted from the metaphysical realm to the physical. The timetable of one’s life can be altered, extended, through practices of modern medicine supported by a vast range of technologies, displacing the order of natural selection with outcomes informed by scientific/technological intervention. To control one’s heart was believed (and is still held in some circles) to control one’s existence. O’Doherty could portray Duchamp using his heartbeat. 12
But in making that, let me say this, that it was never a trivial act. It was fully aware—that having witnessed many and participated in many physical operations under anesthesia, this was an aesthetic operation under a somewhat dangerous context in that you are really stealing somebody's heartbeat. You are stealing an aspect of his person. And that has, to my mind, dangerous and magical connotations, which have been leeched out of it as time goes by. But I deeply believe in the power of art and I deeply believe in the dangerous nature of art. 13
When, on April 4, 1966, Dr. Brian O’Doherty began work on his sixteen part “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” transforming and “transplanting” his subject’s heartbeat into a series of still and kinetic images, he knew exactly what he was looking for, claiming:
I felt that taking his heartbeat and making him live again, if you tackle this in terms of the [film]Metropolis and the mad scientists—from the danger of the matter—because science was dangerous. And there was a time when the scientists in all these horror movies is a figure of profound danger and that we beware because they are going to affect something that is transgressive to our nature and dangerous to it.14
And, that something was turning Duchamp’s heartbeat into a work of art—a living heartbeat—mechanomorphed and boxed—a heartbeat that would continue indefinitely. Like the fictitious Edison in Villiers de l’Isle–Adam’s Eve of the Future Eden whose android Hadaly replaced Alicia Clary, O’Doherty had to fashion his android, his replacement for Duchamp, having it assume his identity, the feeling of his being, and a sense of consciousness.15 It was more than just taking his heartbeat.
There is a certain primitive quality to it that I feel is implicit in it because one of the things that's lost in art in my view in the current trivialization of what art is—which is, I think, pretty well all around us—is the magical and dangerous qualities of art. I think art—making comes from someplace that is connected with a very deep and profound psychological matrix and we know in so—called primitive societies, it has a very specific function to stabilize the world and to determine certain fates and rituals and hostilities at times. 16
It would serve as a means for his taking control over Duchamp— he could defend his position as a Conceptualist and not lose his queen. He would have Duchamp alive and in his hands, refuting the artist’s claim that his works would die with him. O’Doherty set out to take Duchamp’s portrait.
That evening Marcel and Teeny Duchamp were dinner guests at the home of O’Doherty and his wife, Barbara Novak. Barbara, with guidance from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, planned and prepared the meal. Brian planned and prepared for something else, recalling that after dinner he asked Duchamp to come into the bedroom where he attached him to an electrocardiographic machine (rented for the occasion).
He lay still, clearly unperturbed … The machine unfurled its long ribbon. I switched from lead to lead. Everything worked perfectly. The needle was steady, the heartbeat regular … He said “How am I?” That startled me, for I was after my record of his heart beat, and hadn’t given a thought to potential pathology. I said it looked good to me. He stood up and said “thank you from the bottom of my heart.” I said thank you for letting me take your portrait.
Duchamp knew O’Doherty had been a doctor and asked that he sign the self-portrait, “Brian O’Doherty, M.D.” O’Doherty recalls, “I wasn’t going to let him participate in the creation. His heart had done its work.” 17
Had O’Doherty simply taken Duchamp’s portrait or had he done something more? Had he gathered the necessary materials with which to build his android, one that would assume Duchamp’s identity, the feeling of his being, and his sense of consciousness? Here, we need to turn our attention to Dr. O’Doherty. I can’t help thinking of the fictitious Edison gathering all the information necessary to replace Alicia Clary with the machine of his making. Also, contributing to my image of the mad scientist working in his laboratory are two figures from Fritz Lang’s classic film Metropolis—C. A. Rotwang, the inventor of the machine-human Maria (strains of Julien Offray de la Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine are evident here) and Grot, supervisor of the “Heart Machine,” controlling the flow of electrical current to the city.18 The three are melded into one science fiction-like figure, Dr. O’Doherty—who gathered his necessary data and would then set out to transform it into his machine, one under his control.
Medical history does little to record that it was Dr. O'Doherty whose “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp” represents the earlier successful transplant of a mechanized heartbeat—“not a record of a heartbeat, but a heartbeat, the very signature of life.” (Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human heart transplant on December 3, 1967; Dr. William deVries implanted the Jarvik-7 artificial heart on. December 2, 1982.) Duchamp's heartbeat would become his portrait. Dr. O’Doherty’s “heart transplant,” in contradistinction to those performed within the realm of the medical/scientific community, whose products can be understood to elucidate absolute truth, subscribing to absolute method, signals an attachment to its author’s maintenance of mystery over science.
In each of the sixteen parts that make up “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” we see him represented by his heartbeat. Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Uncut Cardiogram (1966) and Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Mounted cardiogram, 4/4/66 (1966) record the performative aspect of the portrait while providing clinical data. Each of the three boxes, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads (1966), Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, lead 1, slow heartbeat (1966), and Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, resting heartbeat (1967), with their kinetic portrayal of his heartbeat challenges us to believe that we are witnessing that heartbeat and that somewhere nearby he is alive.
With “Portrait” O’Doherty did not want a record of a heartbeat but a heartbeat, the very signature of life, and that posed a problem—one for the artist and not the medical doctor. He wanted to animate, to bring to life, the images produced by the first three leads of the electrocardiogram. How to create a kinetic image of the heartbeat like that seen on an oscilloscope was the problem. The artist took over, the solution for the first of the kinetic boxes (Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, three leads ) coming when O’Doherty saw a sign advertising beer—its bouncing dot of light produced by rotating a cylindrical sleeve with a vertical slit operating behind a stationary front panel. In the design of his machine, a carpenter’s spirit level with three windows found in a shop on Canal Street would serve as the stationary front panel. On each of its windows he etched images of one of the three leads in proper sequence, linked by the calm horizontal line. Inside the box on which the spirit level is mounted a cylindrical, motor-driven celluloid sleeve, painted black and inscribed with vertical slits, that moves in a clockwise direction around a central fluorescent light bulb creating, through the etched patterns on the level’s windows, what O’Doherty saw: “the heart began to beat, inscribing perfectly the course traced by Duchamp’s heart. I had him, alive and in my hand.”19 The heart not only began to beat, but O’Doherty took control of it. The trajectory of the image of the heartbeat in Portrait of Duchamp, 3 leads is important. Traveling right to left it reverses Duchamp’s life cycle, time travels backward. O’Doherty was in control, and like Grot he could dictate the direction and pace of his “Heart Machine”—Duchamp’s heartbeat.
In late 1966 O’Doherty had an exhibition at the Byron Gallery in New York City.20 Included in that exhibition were elements from the not-yet-completed series that by mid-1967 would comprise the completed “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.” Among the works shown were Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Mounted Cardiogram, 4/4/66 and the first of the boxes to be completed, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads (1966). Reviewing the show for Artforum, Dennis Adrian was quick to recognize a key ingredient in the artist’s intention, calling to our attention the question of Duchamp’s mortality. Later in the same review he praises O’Doherty for moving the portrayal of Duchamp beyond likeness. In its place the heartbeat acts “without the interpretive interferences that inevitably cloud the truth in any ordinary portrait … the Portrait of Marcel Duchamp breaks new ground. Accurate monitoring of the numerous highly specific bodily functions of any notable person now offers to artists the fulfillment of an oft-expressed dream, that of ‘getting inside the sitter.” 21
Marcel Duchamp also visited that exhibition and reportedly spent considerable time contemplating the Portrait, with special attention to the 3 leads piece. Elsewhere I have written about Duchamp’s interests in automatons, including his own representation as such.19 Here, I am left with the sense that he easily recognized and was likely amused at being transformed into a machine, an automaton.22 O’Doherty observed, “He spent time looking at his heartbeat, which gave me an eerie feeling – looking at him looking at his heartbeat which would survive him,”23 Known only to Duchamp was that he always carried a small folded piece in his pocket on which was written (what would become his epitaph), “besides it is always the others who die.”24 The text of this note reads at odds with his statement regarding the death of the artist and his work. Was he exempting himself from the fate that he prescribed for others? And, had O’Doherty trumped him, imposing the burden of immortality on him
The piece clearly made an impression on him. According to O’Doherty, after that when he encountered Barbara Novak on the street he would inquire (quite anxiously), “is it still beating?”25
The following year with Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, lead 1, slow heartbeat (1967) and Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, resting heartbeat (1967), O’Doherty continued his effort at transforming Duchamp into a living masterpiece, one with an infinite lifespan.
After all, his heartbeat was a readymade that I had, in an ironic—indeed scathing—refutation of his own practice, denoted as an artwork. More than that, I could make him live out several lifetimes by slowing the heartbeat to fifteen or twenty beats a minute, which I did, thereby, giving him an extended life before he used up, as Joe Masheck put it, “his earthly allotment of beats.” And after his death, I did calculate, on the basis of that cardiogram, how many times his heart had beaten. Depending on the frequency of the pulse chosen, I could make him live indefinitely.26
Accompanying the boxes are thirteen other components. Two are “flip books.” These small books can be held in the hand. When manipulated by the operator they can cause Duchamp’s heart to beat fast or slow, forward or backward. A group of studies done in 1966 and 1967 completes the “Portrait.” Study for Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads (1966) serves as a preparatory drawing for the finished box. Others like Study for Second Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, lead 1, mounting increments (1967) are ends unto themselves. With this study O’Doherty arranged twenty images, in four registers, that suggest an appropriation of a nineteenth-century mathematical theory, the “Dedekind cut,” itself appropriated decades earlier by Duchamp as a means for creating distinct plane fields. In Study for the Second Portrait, lead 1, mounting increments as well as with Study for Second Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, lead 1, isolated increments (1967) each circle suggests a lens (recalling Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads) through which we can witness Duchamp’s segmented heartbeat portrayed in a manner reminiscent of Marey’s chronophotography. Slowed by the process of “cutting,” each segment is “delayed” on its own plane field—capable of generating the next successive field (an infinite lifespan). O’Doherty had assumed control of Duchamp’s heartbeat, rupturing a continuous and linear pattern of progression, making it function in a manner of his choosing.
More than fifty years after his death, Duchamp’s “heartbeat” continues under O’Doherty’s direction. In an interesting way, “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp” offers us insight into understanding his persistent, ghostly presence, having been transformed into a “living” masterpiece, one that parodies Hess’s complaint while trumping Duchamp’s assertion that works of art have short and relatively fixed life spans. O’Doherty seems to have had it right when he questioned Duchamp’s single-mindedness, authored in the aforementioned statement about the life of a work of art. A study of his statements, made over the course of time, reveal contradictions in his thinking. However, O’Doherty was not about to let him off the hook.26 With “Portrait” aspects of Duchamp’s own oeuvre are turned on him. Mechanamorphing, the transformation from the organic to the mechanical, being most apparent. Inferences to Duchamp’s use of boxes are readily seen as well. The heartbeat serves as a readymade ingredient which O’Doherty appropriated, making the artist into a form of his signature contribution to twentieth-century art—a readymade—remade.27 He wrote:
By exhibiting that artwork, in gallery and museum, his theory of the death of artworks ran directly into his own heartbeat. If he insisted that my artwork, his heartbeat, was losing esthetic value by the second as it hung there on the wall—on its way to becoming an artifact, an antique for the future—would his theory suffer a little death? It was certainly at risk, as was my aim.28
Brian O’Doherty has constructed a bridge between the corporeal and the spiritual worlds—his “spirit level” a double entendre, on the one hand the tool appropriated, on the other a Duchamp, who Dawn Adès, writing in the last paragraph of Marcel Duchamp, concludes as having haunted the second half of the twentieth century.29 Shortly after Duchamp’s death, Man Ray declared, “His heart obeyed him and stopped”—or did it?30
Its beat is very visible in Dr. O’Doherty’s “HeArt Machine.”
Duchamp, around the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s, found himself, unwittingly, situated between the jingoistic interests and expressions of two cultures—French and American. In both he was the subject of admonition and admiration. His having left France during World War II along with his becoming an American citizen in 1955 did not bode well in the minds of many Frenchmen. The exhibition, “Narrative Figuration in Contemporary Art,” held at the Galerie Creuze in Paris featured the eight panel suite of paintings entitled Live and Let Die, or, The Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp by Eduardo Arroyo, Gilles Aillaud and Antonio Recalcait. Their intent reads as the opposite of the one pursued by O’Doherty. Through the morbid symbolism portraying his interrogation, torture, murder and burial can be read (as Jill Carrick in “The Assassination of Marcel Duchamp: Collectivism and Contestation in 1960s France,” in The Oxford Art Journal, 31.1.2008, 1–25.) a marker of anti-Duchampian and by extension, anti-American sentiment in 1960s France.
And, those in the United States who were busily propagating the notion of an American born modernist tradition rejected his presence and influence. The likes of Hilton Kramer, Clement Greenberg, and Robert Hughes sought to douse his revival in the cold water of their criticism.
Conversely, he had admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. In France men like Robert Lebel worked hard in his support, as did the likes of George Heard Hamilton, Walter Hoppes and John Cage in the United States.
See also, David Hopkins, “re-Thinking the ‘Duchamp Effect’.” In A Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945, Amelia Jones, ed., (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006), 145 – 163. In this essay Hopkins offers a good summary of the cultural drama of the 1950s and 1960s into which the Greenberg/Duchamp is inserted.
- Aided by a sequence of events and publications dating from the late 1950s, by the mid-1960s Duchamp had moved from the shadows, garnering considerable critical attention and beginning to be understood as one of the major figures of the twentieth century—an assessment offered by Brian O’Doherty in an essay submitted to Newsweek in January 1965. The essay was rejected. In 1967 he published it as “Marcel Duchamp” in O’Doherty, Object and Idea: An Art Critic’s Journal, 1961–1967 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 44–47.
- Brian O’Doherty, letter to Alexander Alberro, December 10, 1995, and repeated conversations with this author.
- Quoted by Stewart Home in “Art is dead: Burn the Museum” (http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/level2/burn.htm) . The statement has a curiously declarative quality to it, one that seems alien to Duchamp’s carefully constructed strategy of indifference. Thomas McEilley examines the origins and operation of this strategy in his essay, “Kant, Duchamp, and Dada,” in The Triumph of Anti-Art and Performance Art of Post-Modernism (Documentext, Kingston, NY, 2005), 15–35. The reader is also directed to Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Man a Machine, (The Open Court Publishing Company, LaSalle, Illinois, 1953). In this text, which Duchamp is credited with reading early in his career, La Mettrie discusses the Greek philosopher Prryho at length.
- Regarding the question of the age of a work of art, and its “dying,” Duchamp seems to have softened, if not contradicted his thinking about the lifespan of a work, when in 1967 he was interviewed by Phillipe Collin. In that interview Collin posed the question to Duchamp regarding his reaction to the first readymades from 1913, “What effect does that have on you? Fifty-four years for, well, a work to endure?” In response Duchamp offered his feelings, not only about the readymades but other works from early in his career, “It’s not so bad. You have an impression of freshness. It has aged of course, but it hasn’t aged in a bad sense” (Collin, “Marcel Duchamp Talking About the Readymades,” in Marcel Duchamp, exhibition catalogue, Museum Jean Tinguely, Basel, 2002), 40.)
- Thomas B. Hess, “J’Accuse Marcel Duchamp,” in Joseph Masheck, ed., Marcel Duchamp in Perspective, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 119. This article originally appeared in Art News 63, no. 10 (February 1965): 44–45, 52–54.
See also, Francis M. Naumann, “Duchamp’s Detractors,” in aka Marcel Duchamp: Meditations on the Identities of an Artist, Anne Collins Goodyear and James W. McManus, eds., Smithsonian Scholarly Press, 2015. 225–253.
- In 1952 Brian O’Doherty earned his medical degree from University College Dublin. This was followed in 1957 by study at Cambridge, UK and the Harvard School of Public Health.
- This author worked from an unpaginated copy of the text given him by Brian O’Doherty. The complete text of this lecture, “The Politics and Esthetics of Heart Transplants,” Brian O’Doherty, was published in Art International, May 20, 1971, 26–27.
- For extended discussions regarding expectations of portraiture see Richard Brilliant, Portraiture, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) and Shearer West, Portraiture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
- Alberro letter, December 10, 1995.
- Excerpt from Archives of American Art, Oral History. Interview of Brian O’Doherty by James W. McManus, November 16 and 17, 2009
- Op cit.
- In Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Eve of the Future Eden, the fictitious Edison creates the perfect android, Hadaly, to replace Alicia Clary, the no longer desired mistress of the disconsolate Lord Celian Ewald. With Hadaly Edison not only captured Alice’s identity, he located sentience and created consciousness.
- Excerpt from Archives of American Art, Oral History. Interview of Brian O’Doherty by James W. McManus, November 16 and 17, 2009
- Alberro letter, December 10, 1995.
- Fritz Lang, Metropolis, 1927. See Wikipedia for a good synopsis of the movie. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolis_(film)
- Archives of American Art, Oral History. Interview of Brian O’Doherty by James W. McManus, November 16 and 17, 2009
- In a letter to Alexander Alberro, dated December 10, 1995, O’Doherty wrote that soon after its completion, he placed Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads, on a wall in their apartment. “Barbara found it miraculous. Having that heart beat away, through the night, in sync with our own in the next room, was rather eerie.” Unpaginated.
- Lang, Metropolis.
- Archives of American Art, Oral History. Interview of Brian O’Doherty by James W. McManus, November 16 and 17, 2009.
See also: James W. McManus, “Mirrors, TRANS/formations and Slippage in the Five-Way Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” in The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914–1945, Volume 4:1, 2008, 125–149.I see an interesting similarity between O’Doherty’s Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia’s 1915 portrait of Alfred Srieglitz, Ici, c.est ici, Stieglitz, that appeared on the cover of 291 magazine. Picabia substituted a representation of Stieglitz’s physical features with images of machines referencing his subject. Easily misread as an homage, Picabia’s careful choice, and integration, of elements translates his portrayal of Stieglitz into a critical reading of his subject. The dominant image, a camera, features a broken bellows suggesting a disconnect between the subject’s eye and brain. A further mechanomorphing of his subject can be seen with the images of the automobile brake (set in the on position) and the gear shift (posed in neutral).pointing to Stieglitz’s failure to inspire Americans toward self-discovery through art and photography.
- Following the initial showing at the Byron Gallery, in 1968 Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads, 1966 was included in “The Obsessive Image, 1960–1968” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. In 1974 all sixteen parts of Portrait were shown in, “Patrick Ireland: The Duchamp Portrait 1966/67” at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC. Selections from the group were included in the 1994 exhibition “Patrick Ireland Gestures Instead of an Autobiography” at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. Eleven of the elements were listed in the 2006 exhibition catalogue, “Beyond the White Cube, a retrospective of Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland” shown at the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane in Dublin, Ireland. (eight were actually exhibited) When the retrospective was shown at the Grey Gallery, New York in 2007 six parts were shown. Three parts, including Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, 3 leads, 1966 were included in “Inventing Marcel Duchamp: the Dynamics of Portraiture,” held in 2009 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.
- Dennis Adrian, “Brian O’Doherty,” Artforum, January, 1967. 61.
- See note 19.
- Email from Brian O’Doherty to this author, October 28, 2008.
- In an email dated September 23, 2008 Jacqueline Matisse Monnier informed this author that Duchamp had written his epitaph in the 1950s and always carried it with him in a little envelope.
- The story of Duchamp’s questioning Barbara Novak whether his heart was still beating is recorded in a letter by Brian O’Doherty to Alexander Alberro, dated December 10, 1995, unpaginated. On a number of occasions Novak repeated, with this author, her exchange with Duchamp.
- In a letter dated August 17, 1952 to his brother-in-law Jean Crotti. Duchamp advised that immortality of one’s work was not guaranteed. Instead, posterity is a “bitch who does away with some, revives others, and, to add insult to injury, changes her mind every fifty years.” Jean Crotti, Cordier & Ekstrom exhibition catalogue, April 15, May 9, 1970, translation Cleve Grey, unpaginated.
- Alberro letter, December 10, 1995.
- Duchamp’s readymades assumed a variety of forms. Some were unaltered objects such as Fountain, 1917. Others, where alteration of the original object or objects are integrated into a single composition, like With Hidden Noise, 1916 and Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, 1921, are classified as assisted readymades. I would put Portrait in the company of the assisted readymades.
Considering O’Doherty’s actions of remaking Duchamp as a readymade it is useful to consider Duchamp’s own remaking of his earlier readymades when in 1964 he editioned them in collaboration with Arturo Schwarz. Instead of substituting the earlier versions with newly found like objects Duchamp elected to meticulously recreate, and manufacture in a limited number, each object. Remade, these readymades raise questions regarding identity, mimic their predecessor’s feeling of being, as well as their sense of consciousness—concerns central to O’Doherty’s efforts.
- Dawn Ades, Neil Cox, and David Hopkins, Marcel Duchamp (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 211.
- Neil Baldwin, Man Ray, American Artist (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1988), 343.
Brian was a great friend. He was so generous, supportive, and kind. Whenever I had the smallest achievement I would get an email saying “Bravo” or “You are a wonder.” He read everything. Never missed a beat.
My most poignant memory of Brian is from a beautiful early Summer day in 2008 when he had so graciously invited me to be a pallbearer for the burial of Patrick Ireland in the grounds of IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The day of the rehearsal Robert Ballagh was unable to attend, so Brian took his place. Myself and Brian were opposite each other, carrying the coffin which hosted an effigy of his body and face. We were tickling each other's tummies under the coffin and laughing.
Brian was so witty, so bold, so erudite, so talented. I miss him deeply. My thoughts are with Barbara. Brian and Barbara were such a devoted couple and so palpably in love.
Remembering Brian O’Doherty
I first met Brian O’Doherty via email around 2006: I had invited him to be the respondent of the back-page questionnaire of Frieze magazine, of which I was co-editor at the time. He generously agreed to my request, but kept the correspondence going. How was London? Was I a writer, too? And if so, what was I working on? This was, I learned, typical of Brian: he was interested in everyone. What ensued was the beginning of a dear friendship. We met in person in 2008 when Brian invited me to Dublin to attend the funeral of one of his four alter egos, Patrick Ireland, which was taking place in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. I felt a little shy meeting the author of Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, which we had studied religiously at art school, but I needn’t have worried. Brian greeted me like a long-lost friend with a shout of joy and a bear-hug and immediately introduced me to his glorious wife, the art historian, artist, and novelist Barbara Novak. Over the following years, the three of us met in New York for dinners which were so filled with rich conversation, fascinating anecdotes and great humor that I never wanted them to end. Brian and Barbara were the most adorable, brilliant hosts: to say goodbye to them and fly back to London always filled me with melancholy.
Brian was the most inspirational of friends. His extraordinary multi-faceted career was devoted to what might be summed up as the mining of possibility: he, more than anyone, explored to the fullest what Mary Oliver describes as our “wild and precious” lives. Over seventy years or so he restlessly resisted categorization: a doctor who became an art critic and an editor (he commissioned both Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The Death of the Author” and Susan Sontag’s “The Aesthetics of Silence” for Aspen magazine in 1967), he was director of the film, radio and television section of the National Endowment for the Arts, art critic for the New York Times, editor of Art in America, and the author of a slew of dazzling poems and novels, including The Deposition of Father McGreevy (2000), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and The Crossdresser’s Secret (2013), about the eighteenth-century French spy and court celebrity, the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived as both a man and a woman. During all of this, he somehow found time to make films, such as Hopper’s Silence (1981)—a meditation on the life and work of his friend, the artist Edward Hopper—and art, which bloomed in myriad directions: paintings, drawings, installations, sculptures, sound-pieces, environments and more. I’ll never forget sitting in the dark and listening to Marcel Duchamp’s heartbeat, which Brian had recorded in 1966 for his sixteen-part Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.
In 2013, I commissioned Brian to write a feature for Frieze on his life, work and influences. Titled “Strolling with the Zeitgeist,” its publication is one of my proudest moments as an editor. Over a few thousand sparking words, Brian outlines the evolution of his thinking. “I won’t talk,” he declared, “about the construction of identity. I prefer the deconstruction of identity, whatever expands the limits of the ever-fluid self.” As ever, he asks more questions than he answers. They’re as urgent today as they ever were—but few people can express them as wonderfully as Brian did. Here’s an excerpt:
The vast world is reverberating outside, like the double-decker buses shaking Oxford Street in the hot summer. We know the art bubble because we live in it. But what is the art? When you ask that question, bells and whistles go off, buildings shake and fall and the dead generations stir underground. Is it an entity or a function? Can you decline the word ‘art’ socially and assume it has a grammar? Is aesthetics to art – as Barney Newman used to say – as ornithology is to the birds? […] Does art do something? If it does, what does it do? Is it for pleasure, a higher form of masturbation? For spiritual enhancement and purchasable transcendence? Is it an instrument for political action? […] Has it a moral, even ethical, component? But in relation to what? It is entertainment? Spectacle? (Movies are better.) Is it a conundrum wrapped in obscurity, an aesthetic fortune cookie or a complex of cultural signs? (Hello Jacques Derrida!) If it is a language, who speaks it?’
He concludes by observing: “What I do know is that we’re all in a flotilla of large and small craft, rafts, canoes, accompanied by numerous individual swimmers, crossing from here to somewhere, and that this is a good place to pause.”
I’ll pause here, too. I have no idea how to sign off remembering, mourning, celebrating such a life, such a friend. I can hear Brian’s voice as I struggle to come up with a final line. He’s laughing, egging me on, giving me hope. He trusts, I know, that I’ll find it, eventually. He always believed in the joy of discovery—and even more importantly, he delighted in the way each new discovery had a habit of prompting the next question.
I first got to know Brian O’Doherty while working for him on The Burial of Patrick Ireland at The Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2008.
His wit, warmth and kindness made it a pleasure. His generosity knew no bounds, particularly with his time and encouragement of young artists to go out
there and make work. For me a true gentleman and inspiration who is missed by all who knew him.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Judy Hegarty-Lovett and Conor Lovett
Brian O’Doherty and Gare St Lazare Ireland
In 2013, Gare St. Lazare Ireland (GSLI) developed a music and theatre piece called, Here All Night with composer Paul Clark and musician Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, which was based on the writings of Samuel Beckett. With musicians, a chorus of six, a soprano, and actor Conor Lovett, the next step was to find a strong visual element. Co-Artistic Directors of GSLI, Conor and Judy Hegarty Lovett, had seen Brian’s Hello, Sam installation at the National Gallery in Dublin as part of the Dublin Contemporary exhibition and immediately knew the floating bog body in this work would tie Here All Night together and hold open the possibilities of interpretation that Beckett’s work offers.
We enjoyed an email correspondence with Brian seeking permission to incorporate this work into a live performance of Here All Night. We invited him, and his wife Barbara, to see a version of this show at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in New York in 2016. The doors swung open and a wonderful friendship with Brian and Barbara began. Brian connected us with the wonderful Christina Kennedy, Brenda Moore-McCann and Fergus Byrne as collaborators in bringing this work to the stage. We were embraced by Brian and Barbara as fellow artists and as friends with such grace and generosity. We dined with them in Cork, Dublin, Paris, and of course, in New York. We visited Casa Dipinta in Todi, Italy, and shared our visit by sending photos to them in NYC.
Brian’s response to including his work in a live Beckett performance was so beautifully handled, measured and inventive. He re-titled the work, Hello, Sam Redux, Rope Drawing #126, and we went on to perform Here All Night in Boston, London, The Abbey Theatre, Dublin and on six stages around Brian’s beloved Ireland.
In November 2022, while playing The Beckett Trilogy in upstate New York, we popped in to NYC with a date to see Brian and Barbara for lunch during the week. Brian however had made other plans—he went the way of all things. It was an honor to be able to see him off and to share that farewell with Barbara.
It was a privilege to have collaborated with this great artist and a true pleasure to get to know him. We weren’t surprised to discover that Brian and Beckett had of course already corresponded on the Aspen project and it wasn’t lost on us that within the wonderful web of art making come meetings, and if lucky, the brilliance of lasting friendships.
Soundings On A Hill
The Political Troubles in the North of Ireland drew a committed response from Brian O’Doherty. His Name Change is testimony to this and was provoked by the Bloody Sunday shootings of fourteen civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972 when, by way of a performance work, he stated that he would sign his work “Patrick Ireland” until such time as the British military presence was removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens were granted their civil rights. The performance itself involved the artist pacing and sounding out an archaic vowel sequence to register a language/trauma/identity shift. With the Good Friday Agreement in place, he buried Patrick Ireland and reclaimed Brian O’Doherty.
I first saw Patrick Ireland’s drawings at the David Hendricks Gallery in Dublin in the 1970s. I was impressed then by the elegance of their notation and their ability to bring the music out. Since then I worked with him on a number of projects. In 1989, as Director of the Orpheus Gallery in Belfast, I invited him to create a rope drawing Big H (1989), which engaged with the so-called dirty protest at the Maze prison outside Belfast when Republican prisoners sought political status. Later at the Orchard Gallery in Derry in 1998 I curated a mini retrospective of his work. As part of the exhibition I wanted to pay homage to his seminal text Inside the White Cube by physically constructing a white cube inside the grotto-like space near the gallery entrance to act as a capsule of self awareness, in contrast to the planned open public performance of Vowel Grid (1970) at a Celtic fort in Co. Donegal. More recently in 2018 I edited his collected essays, published by University of California Press.
Grianán Fort, an ancient Celtic monument, is set on a hilltop in Donegal, some eight miles from Derry. Located at the entrance to the Inishowen peninsula, it affords commanding views of the surrounding countryside. This circular (75 feet in diameter) dry stone temple is entered through a passageway in its 13-foot-thick walls to its interior grassy arena. The walls rise 17-foot-high to a tiered parapet. From this parapet or terrace the visitor, on a typical day, is exposed to the toxic swirl of wind, sky, and rain.
In this preserved pagan fort, rituals, most likely related to sun worship, would have been performed. Traditionally it has always been designated a royal site, associated as it was with the O’Neills, Kings of Ulster. Myth has it that ancient warriors reside underneath the site, poised for a command to battle again, in a last effort to expel the English for the final time. The Numen of this place resides on an axis between earth and sky. When one stands in the middle of this ancient circle of stones there is no reference to the surrounding landscape; the sky is pulled in, infused with a restless light thrown back from the nearby, lower-lying estuary. If Mediterranean light accentuates form, Irish light dissipates form and is forever changing. Grianán is always on the move.
Patrick Ireland had family connections with Co. Donegal, and my curatorial impulse was to bring Patrick Ireland’s Vowel Grid back home for a workout with those elemental forces—its surroundings primed to echo and call. In this performance/installation work Vowel Grid, Ireland sets out in iconic form a color-coded representation of Ogham vowel sounds. The Ogham script was based on the Latin alphabet and was the first experiment in literacy by the Irish. These linear inscriptions cut in parallel (horizontal/oblique) markings are found on the edge of standing stones and are an expression of an archaic form of the Irish language. There is a seductive, tactile, and satisfying visual rhythm in their clipped geometry. The stones commemorate the dead.
All Patrick Ireland’s works (“Rope Drawings,”, “Structural Plays,” et al.) deploy an urgent, tense geometry which invites participation/actuation. The viewer/performer is compelled to “actuate” (i.e. bring into life) the framework geometry by bodily movement/involvement. His series of Rope drawings (as with Big H) remain merely visual concepts, dormant until a critical positioning of the viewer ‘actuates’ and energises the installed spatial geometry. At Grianán, the grid became vocalised by movement.
Two performers, locally chosen, took up their positions on the grid platform, which was placed in the center of the arena and watched by an audience on the parapet walls. One working a North/South—South/North axis; the other an East/West—West/East axis, they, in turn, paced out and sounded out each vowel sound. They “actuated” the silence of the iconic into soundings, delivered guttural-hard in an Ulster accent. The echo and call of this dual performance reverberated on the earth/sky axis. The inclusive, circular form of the fort became a natural soundbox, an enclosed garden for this petitioning of the earth. The sky, conspiratorial as ever, completed the scenography. This “Ogham” performance at Grianán laid down markings. It can never be said, however, that it laid them to rest because, like all things Celtic, it remains circular, illusive and infinite; there are only intervals, interludes along the way.
Vowel Grid’s origins are to be found in a unique hybrid of sixties New York Conceptual/Minimalist art and the twilight world of fourth and sixth century Ireland.
Patrick Ireland has described the years between 1967 and 1970 as an exhilarating time in New York when with Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, Dan Graham, et al., he was in “a fever of new ideas.”
Conceptual art marked, in its shift from the visual to the realm of ideas, an emphasis on the structure of language. Writing of the deployment of the grid by avant-garde artists of the period, Rosalind Krauss draws our attention in her essay ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde” to the anti-narrative nature of this elemental device; its inaccessibility to language and its engendering of a state of silence.
The absolute stasis of the grid, its lack of hierarchy, of centre, of inflection, emphasises not only its anti-referential character, but—more importantly—its hostility to narrative. This structure, impervious both to time and to incident, will not permit the projection of language into the domain of the visual, and the result is silence.1
Lucy Lippard has argued in writing about his related “Ogham” drawings that they are at the service of language, memory, and time. In Patrick Ireland’s work the serial grid is arrived at by way of his rediscovery of the Ogham rather than by reductive reasoning: his art is about the senses. She states:
Although he uses what he calls a “model T form of aesthetic”, irrationality slides through the interlacings of his logical structure, illustrating LeWitt’s dictum: Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalist. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.2
Ireland’s grid geometry is indeed referential, grounded as it is in time and place. Among the resonances/correspondences raised up by Vowel Grid there is a series of potent binary relationships and contrasts—two perambulating performers; the circular fort/the orthogonal grid; North/South borderlines; the two tribes—the rational/intuitive. Seamus Heaney, in discussing his poem “Hercules and Antaeus” with Seamus Deane, comments on the dichotomy of the respect for the rational and the pull of tribal emotional attachment with regard to the North of Ireland.
There is always the question in everybody’s mind whether the rational and humanist domain which produced what we call civilisation in the West should be allowed full command in the psyche, speech and utterance of Ulster.3
While Vowel Grid was being performed in Donegal, across the border in Northern Ireland, the Orange marching season was reaching its annual apogée in another kind of guttural “actuation,” again Ulster-hard. Vowel Grid is an open-ended pacing out, it is orally demonstrative, invoking the past and petitioning the earth. In his review of the performance for Art in America, Thomas McEvilley observed: “Witnessing Vowel Grid, one felt as if something as yet unnameable was about to emerge from antiquity into the present, something long held back and out of play.”
- Krauss, Rosaline, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1986.
- Lippard, L, Patrick Ireland Drawings 1965-85, published for Natural Museum of American Art by Smithsonian Press, Washington, DC, 1986.
- Deane, S, Crane Bag, Vol 1, No 1, Spring 1977.
The Ingenious Multiplicity of Brian O’Doherty
A few days after Brian’s death, I dreamed about a bookcase, lined with white books, whose spines bore black printed titles spanning several disciplines. From afar it looked impressive and beautiful but also somewhat conventional, like an art movement tamed by art history. When I reached for a book, however, I found that this object was not a book at all. Made of wood, its back had been cut into a staircase-like shape that slotted in turn into the backs of three other “books,” each of different widths and weights and cut into a unique form, so that together they clicked into place like a traditional Japanese wood join. It struck me that one could not just take a book out and replace it anywhere, at will. Rather, its position was significant and had to be remembered, with respect for the nature of the entire constellation.
On waking, I understood this bookcase to be a metaphor for Brian O’ Doherty’s life’s work, which we might think we “know” from that black-and-white book, Inside the White Cube, which transformed how we think about the gallery space, creating the armature for Institutional Critique. But the dream invites us to look beyond the familiar and recognize that Brian’s vast creative output as a critic, an artist, a novelist, a filmmaker, and a poet is interlinked. It shows us the need to approach his practice as such to fully unpack its significance. This task is beyond crediting Brian as a polymath or listing his various activities side-by-side. It is about recognizing how Brian’s work forges new genres as its functions across and between existing disciplines. As one takes any element of Brian’s work into one’s hands, one must look and re-look, read and re-read, until little by little, one unpacks the radical experimental nature of every aspect of his practice.
Brian was of course a beautiful and prolific writer, who turned over words as easily as an oar turns a wave. To read Object and Idea: An Art Critic’s Journal or Brian’s Collected Essays is to encounter his warm, erudite, and poetic brilliance as he veers seamlessly between Conceptual art and Lee Krasner’s paintings, between Orson Welles’s films and LA culture. Yet the dream image reminds us that his writing and artmaking were one practice, not two. Arguably, none of his critical insights could have been made without his up-close-and-personal experience of being an artist. Notice how one’s understanding of even his most familiar Inside the White Cube essays
shift, when we realize that they were written when Brian was in the process of climbing up and down ladders making his first “Rope Drawings” in space and, in the process, starting to think in embodied ways about the gallery.
In the same period, Brian made a wooden book, painted white with acrylic, its title, Book: Art Since 1945, pressed in type onto its surface, which surely inspired my dream image. With the support of a lawyer, he submitted it to a publisher to fulfill a no-longer-wished-for contractual obligation to produce a book. This was a playful, even humorous gesture, yet it manifests Brian’s deeply-felt refusal to separate art and writing. Like The Critic’s Boots, a sculpture made when he left his position as art critic at the New York Times to focus on his artmaking, it highlights the performativity of the artist-function and the writer/critic-function alike. It invites us to reimagine an art world with always-changing roles that better reflect human creativity.
Brian saw the performance of self as being inherently tied up with language, and he created a series of language-oriented performance works entitled “Structural Plays” (1967–70) to further explore this. Enacted on grids, they share the visual vocabulary of Minimalism and Conceptualism, but remarkably, they center the precolonial Ogham language, challenging modernist paradigms. He acknowledged the decolonial impetus of this gesture in our discussions around re-enacting these early works in 2021. Having grown up in postcolonial Ireland as the son of a native Gaelic speaker, O’Doherty approached language with a sense of its doubleness, breakdown, and failure. In Vowel Chorus for Five Voices (1968), performed live for the first time at the end of Brian’s life, the vowels (“primal utterances”) are performed gutturally until language erodes, returning sound to the body.1
Some of these performances extend into questions of identity and gender in ways that feel especially resonant in the current moment. While Brian is often credited for his crucial early support of performance and time-based arts as director of the Visual Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, he also worked to support LGBTQ artists’ movement from the fringes of the artworld to its center, and to “eradicate gender and racial disparities in the distribution of grants, drawing ire from government officials and NEA staff alike.”2 His youth in a repressive Ireland fueled this advocacy of equality and freedom of sexual orientation and gender expression.
Indeed, Brian adopted five additional artistic identities, including a female art critic persona, Mary Josephson, who was created to overcome “limiting malehood.” Publishing “her” work in “his” role as editor of Art in America in the 1970s, Brian staged a covert dialogue between these gendered selves, with Josephson an outspoken feminist. His second novel, The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), set in an Irish village, is a piercing reconfiguration of this sexual, gendered social order that duly earned him a nomination for a Man Booker prize. Brian investigated gender fluidity in his stunning novel The Crossdresser’s Secret (2014), which centered on an eighteenth-century spy, the Chevalier d’Éon, who lived his life as a man and a woman. These are still under-examined aspects of his work.
Brian’s insistence on fluidity and multiplicity means that things are never as they first appear in his work. His drawings have dual functions as scores; his seemingly abstract paintings can be read through the strokes of Celtic Ogham writing and are, in this sense, texts. One of his adopted identities, borrowed from a nineteenth-century Irish poet, returns as a character in his second novel. It requires some effort to take any one of these works and turn it over in one’s hand until one recognizes its playful interconnection with other aspects of Brian’s work, inevitably finding some kind of radical subversion in the process. If games are being played here, they are serious ones aimed at deconstructing an art world infrastructure that still upholds rigid role-playing and categorization of creative output. When I shared my personal struggles with this policing of creativity, Brian was reassuring but unwavering. “Embrace your many selves,” he said. And in the silence of his absence, those words echo back. They point us to the task ahead, to embrace his many selves, and in doing so, perhaps find our own.
- See Undoing Language: Brian O’ Doherty Early Performance Works 1967-70, The Kitchen, New York, 2021 https://vimeo.com/720113513
- Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, ed. Word, Image, Institutional Critique: Brian O’ Doherty, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2017, p. 87.
Brian O’Doherty was an important artist and an Irish trickster. His alter ego Patrick Ireland shared his talents, his smarts, and his charm. This longlasting activist “performance” and its culmination proved the power of the “personal is political”; the artist merged his very identity with that of his beleaguered homeland.
I knew Brian primarily during the Minimal/Conceptual days, when he made a number of important contributions to the ideas surrounding these trajectories in images, texts, and exhibitions. His “White Cube” article shone a bright light on a dominant space that worked well with these two styles, but not for everything. I always wondered how his training as a medical doctor fed his art and writings (that is, until today, when I read an article on the subject by Brenda Moore-McCann, also a medical doctor in art).1
- Brenda Moore-McCann, “Art Matters: How art and medicine Intersect in the art of Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland,” Journal of Medical Biography, 2020, Vol.28 (1), 46–51.
Ogham on the Range: Brian O’Doherty, Art, and Ireland
“I was surrounded by the labyrinth idea as a kid in Ireland, where you never get straight answers.” — Brian O’Doherty
When Jorge Luis Borges described Citizen Kane as a “labyrinth with no center,” he could have been speaking of one of his great admirers, Brian O’Doherty, except in this case the labyrinth had many centers. County Roscommon in Ireland, where O’Doherty was born in the town of Ballaghaderreen in 1928, happens to be one of these, and when he was awarded the “Freedom of Roscommon” at a reception in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2018, it brought together many of the Ariadne’s threads—or rope drawings—interwoven in Brian O’Doherty’s life as an artist, writer, critic, and curator.
Even Borges, in far-off Buenos Aires, was aware of O’Doherty’s native county: one of his most famous stories begins: “Herbert Quain died recently in Roscommon.” In another story, “The Shape of the Sword,” set during the Irish revolution (1916–1923), the wounded Irish nationalist hero, John Vincent Moon, takes shelter in a temporarily vacated Big House, owned by one General Berkeley on colonial duty in Bengal, while his “men stormed a barracks and avenged, life for life, our sixteen comrades fallen to the machine guns at Elphin,” another town in County Roscommon.
O’Doherty’s familiarity with the work of Borges prompted him to remark on one occasion: “Reading Borges recently, I came across a phrase, ‘I would have an attack of unreality.’ That pierced me like an arrow. When I was a child, I remember thinking ‘How can I prove the world is there?’ I was convinced it was a fiction produced for my benefit. I suppose all children go through that at some age.” The young O’Doherty must have been reading Bishop Berkeley (no doubt he was, as a precocious young child) for in the Irish philosopher’s theory of “immaterialism,” the world lacked external material substance and was dependent for its existence on the perceiving mind.
It is striking that a modern version of this conceptual turn was recreated in the New York art scene in the 1960s and 1970s in what Lucy Lippard termed the “dematerialization” of the artwork—to which O’Doherty added, the dematerialization of the white cube of the art gallery. O’Doherty’s The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne (1967–68) engages with Berkeley’s philosophy, re-interpreting his famous pronouncement “esse est percipi” (“to be is to be perceived”) as the condition of art itself, but giving it a twist by insisting on address to a material spectator, and an awareness of the physical and social surroundings of exhibition space.
For Berkeley, there was no access to reality outside the senses and if the world persisted when we were not looking, that is because it is held in the gaze of God, suspended in the supreme mind. Lacking this universal vision, perception for humans could only be through a veil of signs like language, at most signifying things at one remove, but never providing transparent access to reality: “Signatures of all things I am here to read,” as James Joyce renders it in Ulysses. That the world only existed in the eyes of the Lord—“the author of Nature”—was used by Berkeley to combat the emerging threat of a new secular Freethinking, as expressed most forcefully in the writings of his radical compatriot, the Donegal-born John Toland (1670–1722). In his History of the Druids (1726), Toland looked to the paganism of the pre-Christian era, and to its Ogham alphabet based on trees, to make the case for his own ecological “pantheism” (a term he invented). The cryptic language of Ogham survives mainly on standing stones dotted around the Irish countryside, including a stone at the caves of Rathcroghan in Roscommon which carries the inscription, “Fráech, son of Medb,” alluding perhaps to Queen Maeve and Fráech, the son in a cattle-raid story of the ancient epic the Táin.
The language of Ogham—at once graphic and abstract—became an abiding signature of O’Doherty’s work, from the sleek mirror sculpture Anseo (Here) (1970) to the monumental was mural One Here Now (1996, 2018) in Cobh, County Cork, and to the recent display of Ogham on Broadway (2003) in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. For Berkeley, language itself was immaterial but when O’Doherty converted visual signs into the physical strokes of Ogham in Five Senses, he was, in effect, removing the center from Berkeley’s cosmos by reinstating the materiality of the sign. The famous query attributed to Berkeley, whether a tree falling in a forest out of earshot would make a sound, takes on a new resonance when trees themselves speak, as in the arboreal language of Ogham. The book itself became an object in the landmark double issue of Aspen magazine, Aspen 5+6, edited/curated by O’Doherty in 1967, in which the materiality of the contents was such that not only the “Author of Nature” but authorship itself disappeared, as announced by Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author,” first published in the issue.
The main source of our modern understanding of Ogham is the fourteenth-century manuscript Book of Ballymote, which O’Doherty consulted in the Royal Irish Academy while a student in Dublin in the 1950s, at a time when it was barely known outside specialist Old Irish and medievalist circles. O’Doherty’s last novel, The Crossdresser’s Secret (2014), is set in eighteenth-century France, Britain, and St. Petersburg, and deals with the non-binary life of the extraordinary French diplomat, spy, and champion fencer, the real-life Chevalier d’Éon (1728–1810), who lived multiple lives as both a female and male character—a signature trait of O’Doherty’s own artistic personas, and his capacity to anticipate future trends through a sideways look at the past. With a narrative turn characteristic of Borges, except it actually happened in real life as well as in O’Doherty’s novel, a secondary character in the story, Thomas O’Gorman (1732–1809) from County Clare, exiled in France, married the Chevalier’s sister to become known as the Chevalier O’Gorman. Further attesting to the labyrinth of history, it was the Chevalier O’Gorman who, with the scribe Muiris Gorman, first cracked the code of Ogham outlined in Book of Ballymote for the purposes of translation. In this, O’Gorman was helped by the greatest Gaelic scholar of the eighteenth century, Charles O’Conor (1710–1791) of Belanagare, County Roscommon, a short distance from O’Doherty’s birthplace, Ballaghaderreen. As a young scholar, O’Conor had the Book of Ballymote in his possession for three years when it was “removed” from Trinity College Library early in the eighteenth-century and placed with the Roscommon literary group based in Dublin, the O’Neachtain Circle, before passing subsequently into other Irish hands and the Gaelic cultural underground.
The Chevalier O’Gorman ended up purchasing the Book of Ballymote, and presented it as a foundational manuscript text of the Royal Irish Academy in 1785. Much of the speculative linguistic work on Ogham and Old Irish in the eighteenth century sought to relate Celts to Carthaginians/Phoenicians, on the basis that Gaelic was descended from the language of Phoenicians, who had the distinction of inventing letters centuries before the heyday of classical Greece. The importance of Ogham, accordingly, for eighteenth-century Gaelic scholars lay in its confirmation that the world of the Druids could lay claim to civilization in Ireland before the coming of Christianity and, more to the point, before the later “civilizing” mission of British colonialism.
The “Freedom of Roscommon” is, of course, no more than an honorary title but not least of the ironies of history is that at the time of the award to Brian O’Doherty,
the freedom of the county became a profound reality for several hundred Syrian refugees who have made the town of Ballaghaderreen their home in the past decade, and for which the town was honored in the 2018 “People of the Year” awards broadcast on Irish television. In 1985, in honor of the distinguished artist, James Coleman, who shares his birthplace, O’Doherty gave a lecture at the Renaissance Society of Chicago entitled (half in jest) “Language in the Work of the Ballaghaderreen School.” It is difficult not to see in the real-life odyssey of present-day migrants, language itself being brought home to a corner of Ireland that is forever “Phoenician.” Even at its most avant-garde, Brian O’Doherty’s open-ended aesthetic and artistic vision embodied this spirit of cultural interaction and international hospitality, the walls of the gallery indeed opening up like a labyrinth to let in those with no center, the outcasts of the world.
Maarten van Gageldonk
A Minimalist Mini-Museum: Brian O’Doherty and Aspen Magazine 5+6
In 2008, while looking for a topic for a master’s thesis in American Studies some midnight internet ramblings landed me at a digitized version of Aspen Magazine, the loose-leaf magazine edited by Phyllis Johnson between 1965 and 1971.1 Since no real history of Aspen existed at the time, I somewhat foolhardily convinced my supervisors that I should write it and set out to interview Aspen’s various guest editors, of which in the end I was able to speak to seven. One of these editors was Brian O’Doherty.
Aspen was a bold attempt to rethink the idea of the magazine: subscribers, of which there were never very many, would receive a box with a variety of contents, from booklets and posters, to flexi discs, flip books, and in one case a reel of 8mm film. As was often the case for little magazines, Aspen’s publication schedule was erratic, and its concept changed often. By 1967, when Brian O’Doherty became involved, Aspen had published four issues, each guest-edited by a different person, of which Andy Warhol, who together with David Dalton had put together the third issue, had been the most famous. While innovative, so far Aspen’s issues had been a kind of compromise between Johnson’s interests and those of the various guest editors, turning them into odd amalgams of at times discordant contents. This changed when David Dalton brought Brian O’Doherty on board in 1967.
As Dalton remembered it, O’Doherty “got on board like Long John Silver” and immediately set out to rethink the magazine’s concept.2 He envisioned his issue as a monument to what he saw as a “crucial moment in the 1960s”: the shift from Minimalism to Conceptual Art. As he observed in 2009: “I was laser-focused. I knew exactly what the issue should be: a summary of my[self] and some of my colleagues and […] Modernism’s ancestors as a platform on which I perched my colleagues and myself. […] I was aware, perhaps before the others, that we were inserting a hinge into history on which it would turn.”3
In O’Doherty’s hands, the issue bloomed into the only double issue Aspen would ever publish. Housed in a white monolith of a box, Aspen 5+6 became a multi-tiered labyrinth characterized by numerous interconnected contributions and centered around the three themes of time, silence, and language. It included thirteen booklets, five flexi discs, one miniature sculpture in eight parts, and a spool of 8mm film. It also sported an impressive roster of contributors, including Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Marcel Duchamp, Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg and many others. Of the contributions, in particular Barthes’s “The Death of the Author”, which was commissioned for the issue, has gained widespread appreciation. As O’Doherty told me, Barthes’s essay held special significance for him:
I should say that for me new pastures had opened when I realized that art need not, was not about myself. The idea of finding yourself and making art from that fiction was not something I wanted to pursue. It reeked of romantic agony, and was not for me. All of us at the time were very much against emotional excess. Barthes responded very well to the ideas I put forth, saying “I may have something for you” or some such phrase. In time, [The] Death of the Author arrived. I saw it as high[ly] explosive. [I] was thrilled to get what I knew was game-changing and historic.4
What struck me when working on the thesis, was that it was really O’Doherty who saw Aspen’s full potential. While Phyllis Johnson had waxed confidently about Aspen not needing to “be restricted to a bunch of pages stapled together” in an editorial letter included with Issue 1 (1965), so far the magazine had only exploited the loose-leaf format in a narrow way.5 O’Doherty was the first guest editor who offered readers complete freedom to seek connections between the various elements presented in the box. Thus the reader was at liberty to discover similarities (Marcel Duchamp’s recording of “The Creative Act” from 1957 seemed to prefigure Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”) and oppositions (Alain Robbe-Grillet’s minimalism in a fragment from the novel Jealousy (1957) was counteracted by William Burroughs’s maximalism in a fragment from the 1964 novel Nova Express). At the same time, readers could spot historical parallels, for instance between Sol LeWitt’s contemporary art and Naum Gabo’s “The Realistic Manifesto” from 1920. Sometimes, the parallels were also visual, such as between Hans Richter’s pioneering abstract film Rhythm 21 (1921) and Robert Morris and Stan VanDerBeek’s 1964 film Site, which employ similar visual strategies. As such, there was an educational quality to the issue, but one that never became pedantic and that professed great faith in its readers’ intellect.
In its freeform approach, O’Doherty’s Aspen issue paved the way for further experimentation afterwards. Later issues edited by Dan Graham, Hetty MacLise, and John Kosh would exploit the loose-leaf format in their own ways, although none would achieve the scope of Aspen 5+6.
Looking back now, nearly fifteen years later, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak to Brian about his editorial process. I remember his kindness and patience in answering pesky questions from an at times ill-informed student from halfway around the world. While little magazines have a tendency to be forgotten, I hope that Aspen, and specifically O’Doherty’s issue, will continue to spark interest in readers as it did—and still does—in me.
- Still to be found online here: https://ubu.com/aspen/index.html. I am indebted to Andrew Stafford for his efforts to digitize the magazine and open it up to a wider audience.
- Interview with David Dalton, January 16, 2009.
- Email to the author, June 26, 2009.
- Email to the author, June 28, 2009.
- Phyllis Johnson. “A Letter from Phyllis Johnson”. In Aspen no. 1. New York: Roaring Fork Press, 1965.
Inside the White Cube: a polemic, an excoriating takedown of the commercial gallery system, a passionate call for alternatives. Or so I keenly anticipated, as an art student in Belfast in the 1990s—a time and place in which scant art market existed and white cubes, such as they were, remained reliant on fragile public funding. Here was a potential manifesto, a clearing of the ground for a post-gallery contextual art…
On cracking open the University of California Press anthology, then, I'll confess to having been a little confounded by White Cube’s steady rollout of its argument, its responsible establishment of art historical precedent, its sophisticated milieu of an abundant (yet then remote to me) New York gallery world. O’Doherty’s finely modulated thesis is, of course, an uncannily insightful X-ray of the mechanisms and motivations circumscribing the exhibition and reception of art. But it also manifests a clear-sightedness as to the sometimes-necessary limits of platforms, the need for a multiplicity of approaches, the realpolitik that surrounds the process of making art work visible.
Having latterly had the privilege of working with Brian, and of coming to understand his remarkable career in more detail, all this makes more sense. The contextual wisdom gained by approaching the discipline from other fields (medicine and experimental psychology, in Brian’s case); the hours spent tramping around the galleries as a critic for the New York Times et al.; the in-on-the-ground-floor work at the NEA that facilitated countless projects and boosted numerous careers: Here was bigger-picture intelligence at work, the broader project of an artist who understood the complexities, the contradictions, the flows, and the energies that it takes to make things happen. Brian’s constant refrain of “What can we do for you my friend?” was more than just a reflection of his innate courtesy and generosity; it was a practical guiding principle.
Brian O’Doherty was an artist of extraordinary multiplicity. Among his many contributions to the art world, he changed how art was viewed and experienced in the context of the gallery space. I first met Brian when I proposed to restore his magnificent floor-to-ceiling One Here Now murals at Sirius Arts Centre in County Cork, Ireland, where I served as Director. The murals were, at the time, covered over by twenty years of white emulsion and hidden from view. His response was jubilant, enthusiastic, and supportive; a resounding “yes!”
His legacy of an incredible life, well-lived, which spanned almost a century, will live on, long after we are all gone. He was a brilliant and bona fide polymath, but he was also personable, generous, thoughtful, sharp as a tack, and very, very funny. If you were to meet a person like Brian, you would find yourself, ever so slightly, changed. He himself was not a man to limit himself to any one identity, so I think he would enjoy that concept.
He leaves behind his wife, partner in crime, and soulmate of many years, the equally remarkable art historian Barbara Novak.
Days with Brian and Barbara
In February 2011, aware of their stellar contributions to the world of art, I approached Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak at the opening of a great Jack B. Yeats retrospective, The Outsider, that Brian had curated with The Model in Sligo. I had read Barbara’s writings on the Transcendentalists and American landscape painting, and was interested to talk. In a rash moment I invited them to sit for me before they left town. By the end of the night, to my nervous surprise, they agreed and arrived early the following morning for breakfast at my studio, situated under Benbulben, Sligo’s iconic mountain. All of us were tired and slightly unsure what we had committed to—but we talked and I painted them at speed on the studio sofa, simultaneously for just two or three hours, under the time pressure of their return train to Dublin. The portraits, cursory as they are, hold more memories for me than my mind. But, my lasting sense of Brian was of a man so agile and able as to inhabit not just the multiple personas and creative threads for which he is known, but also a generosity for the work of others in the world, while being secure in his own.
Maybe Brian’s openness to me reflected certain life parallels; approaching art from other disciplines, and a commonality of having the good fortune of foundational friendships with much older artists of strongly independent attitude—in his case I’m thinking of both Yeats and Duchamp. I remember him pondering with wonder the nature of our reverse youthful journeys into art: his from bleak Co Roscommon in the 1950s to the vital center of the art world in New York, and my own from the Brit Art emerging in London of the mid 1980s, eventually to Co Sligo; an unimaginable choice in the Ireland of his youth—to try living an artist’s life in the peripheral northwest of Ireland.
Later that year they again both extended more generosity, when Brian moderated a public conversation between Barbara and myself for a show, Treehouse 360˚, that I undertook in Concord, Massachusetts, with work from a 2009 residency at the Anni and Josef Albers Foundation, dovetailing that public talk with the annual Thoreau Festival in July 2011. My abiding memories though are of free time spent with them both, wandering with knowledge, curiosity, and fun—paying homage, as tourists, to the relics of the American Transcendentalist movement amongst the historic houses and graveyards of Concord. So despite their individual extraordinary contributions to art and history, my mind holds something more of their joint human presence, a partial view, but one I had the grateful opportunity to encounter and to paint.
Labyrinth as a straight line
Dancing between place from here to there, the eye and the tongue, the mark and the word: the poetry of vision.
Trans Atlantic Americas cosmopolitan, a big world at the center of things, but with roots from an indigenous small island culture at the edge of Europe.
A practice as broad as it was long, both as doer-dweller and matched as critical observer, writer and artist pushing boundaries and notifying the whys and the wherefores along the way.
A journey in time we shared that on occasion met us up through making work or talking together. About many things, the political or cultural undercurrents, or the archaeological then in the now, or Duchamp and conceptual frameworks. Just what bounded being and then doing.
Not similar workings ours but somehow a meeting of minds with conversations and observations that were always seeking to excavate meaning and with an urgency of understanding.
At first as artist-to-artist, then he as guide and compass, as critic and writer, and above all as a friend.
We met making work, then continuing our dialogue about subject.
So supportive always and from the best place, that of working to understand the whys and the hopes of meaningful possibilities. He so generously brought me to the table of the very great and the good with all there established and considerable. In at the deep end, sink or swim, none suffering fools gladly.
His was a generous probing mind, sharp but never cynical, giving and not taking away from the possible. This made it easy to be lucid and open up discussion. With avenues of thought otherwise and before closed off and unavailable.
Stepping forward being given a considered push of most significant encouragement.
Art of course of any bearing is about something other than itself.
Insight into how this is generative most often understood artist to artist, by those who share makings potential and how to fail better.
This qualified his critical acumen in that he understood the doings of it from inside the house.
Ours a workshop of the insides of work making, what it is for and what it is about. An understanding shared as significant parts of both practices are found in making fugitive and ephemeral works which by their impermanence are mortal.
He embraced performance in the visual arts as not seeking a different and outside position but more-so an equivalent one alongside other ways of making work. What marks its difference however is its modus operandi in the here and now and not the there and then. To witness and experience what is caught by the gaze in the living moment, the making that is seen to be done.
It is front facing and before your eyes. It is here and now, but then it is gone, its essence unable or unprepared to be held or fixed.
The process of stepping across to this space before the eye carries somehow the demands and risks such exposure brings. Humanly both fragile and vulnerable. Invested as it is not in self promotion, but one’s body or persona as a vehicle. Beyond itself for other uses, for images being shaped and sought.
From Ireland this has particular resonance and is qualified perhaps in a republic founded by its own struggle to escape the constraints and shackles of an imperialist past. A people’s culture always emigrant, prepared to risk and fail to step beyond for change. A call to resistance where freedoms of expression are defiant and determinedly so. Agency is founded not by doing what you’re told to do, but by stepping into the unknown. Being instructed by no other, in one’s own gift and responsibility.
With Brian O’Doherty deep thinking was a form of resistance.
With the unique position he held in theory and practice at one and as one, outside critically, meanwhile yet inside as a working artist. This balance cross-pollinating, discreetly managed and refined, always intellectual and sophisticated. Somehow each enabling the other. Envisioning the framing terms and theory for subject and continually extending his own makings and doings, an artist so to be.
“ The worst labyrinth is not that intricate form that can entrap us forever, but a single and precise straight line.” — Jorge Luis Borges
The first time I met Brian O’Doherty he was preparing to bury his alter ego, Patrick Ireland, in the magnificent grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) where I work in the Communications Team. I had read his ground-breaking collection of essays Inside the White Cube as a student of Art History in University College Dublin and was slightly awe-struck at the prospect of meeting him and his wife Barbara Novak. When we met my nerves were immediately dissipated by his warmth, generosity of spirit, his willingness to share his knowledge with someone following behind him in the arts world and his trust in me to promote The Burial of Patrick Ireland ceremony at IMMA.
Through my work at IMMA, I was lucky enough to spend time getting to know both Brian and Barbara over several years. They generously donated their collection of postwar American art to IMMA. Brian had an exhibition of his “Rope Drawings” here and he took great joy in receiving the Freedom of his native Roscommon in a celebration of his life’s work.
On one occasion I asked him the question “Have you ever wondered how Ballaghaderreen [the small town in Co Roscommon where both he and artist James Coleman are from] came to be the birthplace of Conceptual art?” He replied that growing up in the Irish Midlands was very good for developing your imagination and we shared a great laugh. We had Irish Midlands childhoods in common so I immediately understood!
I consider working with Brian, and getting to know both him and Barbara, to be one of the highlights of my working life at IMMA. When I reflect on the time spent in his company, and the conversations had, I cannot quite believe the privilege of the experience.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Celebrating Brian O’Doherty
Fractured Notes, Memories, Rants and Raves
Brian O’Doherty had several identities, multiple guises, characters, and he lived many lives. Brian was an artist-as-writer-as-artist-writer. Brian O’Doherty was the artist Brian O’Doherty, but between 1972 and 2008 he was also the artist Patrick Ireland. And between and among Brian and Patrick, Brian was more. Brian was also the editor of Art in America in 1971–74, while also being the Art in America critic Mary Josephson, publishing many early 1970s reviews. Brian was also the artist Sigmund Bode, as well as the writer William Maginn. Brian was many. Brian was also a friend of many artists and inspirational thinkers, including Marcel Duchamp, himself no stranger to being more than one.
Brian published and exhibited across forms. A series of essays in Artforum’s March 1976 issue, taking up space on the inside and on the front cover would become one of the most significant texts analyzing art, the rituals that surround it, and the ideological power of the gallery space, collated in the book Inside the White Cube (1986).
I remember laughing a lot with Brian, who tended to make me laugh even when he was being serious and smart. We hung out for the first time of an evening at an opening in Paris in 1996, where we both lived at the time. I was amazed he wanted to hang out all evening. I remember us being Francophiles at the time, loving all things French. We tended to agree to disagree until we didn’t much anymore.
Brian had so many agenda-setting, mind-blowing, game-changing art and curatorial ideas. He realized so many influential works, projects, and other things. Brian was also a real-life doctor: he was an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Brian was an artist-curator, educator, activist, filmmaker, writer who moved across disciplines, territories, and generations.
Brian made you want to listen more because he was intoxicating, full of stories and tales. Brian was bursting with originality, with rants and raves that were spiralling, funny, and lucid. Brian’s talks and utterances were always unforgettable.
I remember when, in spite of feeling frail and out of sorts, Brian gave one of the most inspiring artists’ talks to a jam-packed room at CCS Bard College in 2015. After his voice seemed to collapse into a whisper, Brian succumbed to a pause and ended his formal talk, but stayed to talk quietly with students and then accompanied us to enjoy a single celebratory drink with Barbara, me, Prem Krishnamurthy, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. He continued to expand on his talk, knowing all we all wanted was to hear more. We were so full of admiration and wanting to be near, with such admiration, love, and childlike giddiness.
Brian became Patrick Ireland during a performance at Project Art Centre in Dublin in 1972, “until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights.” Brian kept his word: Patrick Ireland was buried ceremoniously in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2008. Patrick’s gravestone remains.
As artist(s), Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland made incredible rope drawings, labyrinths, dizzying spatial painted environments, colorful wall paintings (much copied), and Ogham sculptures using his own linguistic version of an ancient Celtic translation of the Roman alphabet into a writing system of twenty linear characters. Brian developed his own use of this system, creating a form of linguistic poetry.
I remember when in 2005 Brian gave me a long invitation card he had designed for his show at Betty Parsons from September–October 1970. At the time I asked him if I could see the wall-mirrored works from then. He said they might be lost but he would have a look. It took many years but he found them in the deep recesses of his studio storage, so in 2016 Brian allowed me to show the mirrored sculptures, which first appeared in the early Parsons show. They hadn’t been seen since then. Brian thought there were three, but when we opened the packaging, there were four glistening, colorful bars with Ogham engraving along their shining surfaces. I called Brian immediately and he couldn’t believe it, and was beyond excited. Inscribed on the wooden rears of the mirrored sculptures were the titles: Golden Vowels (Cry) (1968), Places (1969), Minus Yellow (1970), and Meribah (1970). They are now such significant works. Alongside were the artist’s names Brian O’Doherty and Patrick Ireland, and Betty Parsons, all in thick hand-written permanent marker—time, transition, change, and history captured in bold black letters. When installed, we faced them in amazement together, a time warp on the white walls of the Hessel Museum, works being viewed and shown for the first time in almost fifty years. It was moving, overwhelming, and bewildering. Works forgotten and out of sight, having gathered significance over time.
Brian got Susan Sontag to write “The Aesthetics of Silence” (1967). Brian got Roland Barthes to write “The Death of the Author” (1967). Brian put these two still relevant texts in dialogue with one another in 1967 as part of his Aspen 5+6, launched by Roaring Fork Press publisher Phyllis Johnson. Brian curated Barthes and Sontag together in a box, accompanied/surrounded by pieces by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, and John Cage, among other friends. Brian presented Super 8 films by Hans Richter, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Morris, and Robert Rauschenberg alongside these. Brian set up this theatrical score and placed his cast of characters in a strange polyphony. Brian convinced Merce Cunningham and Naum Gabo to contribute. Brian convinced Marcel Duchamp to read “The Creative Act” and some texts from À l’infinitif. Brian made sure all these were written, printed, recorded, composed, and placed in the box-as-book-as-exhibition-as-novel-as-concept–as–art. Brian made this time capsule, derived from six “movements” (Constructivism, Structuralism, Conceptualism, Objects, Tradition of Paradoxical Thinking, and Between Categories), arranged around three “themes” (Time, Silence and Reduction, and Language) possible. Today, it is still “Wow!”
I remember artist Martin Beck excitedly showing Brian his installation The Details Are Not the Details in 2016, when they showing with one another for We are the Center… exhibition and them both laughing, chatting, and joyfully hovering over Aspen 5+6 as Brian spun his magic as he recounted how it all came together. A picture of happiness. A reason for doing what we do.
I remember a much-cherished audio recording we made in 2005, when Brian said: “I think The White Cube has been seen as a counter in the game. It is not an unperceived constant within which you’re unconsciously confined. It is perceived as a unit of discourse in itself, and the huge influence of installation art since the seventies has treated it very roughly. It has become anything you want it to be, it’s become a movie theater, it’s become an unnatural paradise, you bring in all sorts of junk from the outside. It has become a studio, people bring in their studios, and if we’re talking about the idea of the cube, so-called, which isn’t a cube of course, I just called it that because […] I knew it would be conceptually assimilated. You could swallow “the idea of a white cube”[…] you see it in your head, you see a cube in your head, a white cube in your head.” Just then Brian gave me a signed copy of Inside the White Cube inscribed with “For Paul who will write the next chapter.” Such encouraging and impressionable words. What to do?
Dearest Brian, your generosity and support towards my small part in all things curatorial will always be cherished.
Brian, you were a friend, a keeper, an influencer, a mentor, a peer, a generous soul, a wonder, and as funny and smart as they come. Brian you were so many things and more to many others.
Goodbye dearest Brian, you Irish treasure. The sound of your beautiful radio voice will stay with me. Your works, lives, texts, and loves will glisten forever. An immense pleasure to have known you and spent time together. Working with you, and knowing you, was a dream come true. Safe travels and remember to say hello to some friends for me.
My memories of Brian O’Doherty are as elusive and quixotical as the man himself. I first met Brian in 1990, at the Charles Cowles Gallery on West Broadway. Elegant, well-dressed (but never in an ostentatious way) he had the good looks of a film star. With slip-on leather boots, jeans, and a light suede jacket, he was the epitome of art world cool. From the outset, O’Doherty struck me as a person of extraordinary courtesy and good conversation, sharing whimsical tales of 1950’s Dublin when he was a medical student at UCD. During this time he also studied at George Collie’s art school, in the aptly-named Schoolhouse Lane, off Molesworth Street. Given that his installation at the Charles Cowles Gallery was formed of lengths of string stretched from floor to ceiling, with colored geometric shapes painted on the walls, I was impressed to hear him speak with such respect of Collie, a Realist painter from Co. Monaghan who had studied at Colarossi’s in Paris in the 1920s. In time, I came to understand that he was responding to the honesty and integrity at the heart of Collie’s canvases. He had less respect for other Irish Realist-style painters, whose work he felt was meretricious. He championed Patrick Collins, from Sligo, and Nano Reid, who pursued her independent artistic career in Drogheda. With O’Doherty, it seemed, Ireland outside the Pale and metropolitan New York were closely aligned, his eye all the more informed by his experience of these places. We chatted for a time and he invited me to call to their home on the Upper West Side. He and Barbara Novak lived near Central Park. Inside their apartment were artworks, many stacked against the wall. A professor of art history at Columbia University, Barbara collected Hudson River paintings; works by artists such as Thomas Hotchkiss, whose view of Taormina in Sicily was a delight. In contrast with these Corot-like paintings were Brian's Conceptual and Minimalist artworks. In addition, there were works by friends they had made over the years: Edward Hopper, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Larry Rivers, and others. In one corner was a table and chairs, set up in readiness for a tea party. These parties were distinguished by large teapots and good humor. Brian and Barbara lived with art, and for art. His early training as a medical doctor stood to him. Each morning he would assemble a variety of vitamins, supplements, and meds. “These are what keep me going, Vitamin B complex, soya protein, it’s a great pick-me-up.” He offered me one.
Brian was born in the village of Ballaghaderreen in the west of Ireland in 1928. Throughout the nineteenth century, the village had been in Mayo, a county that experienced the worst of the Great Famine, but in 1898 it was transferred to Roscommon. Mayo people were, and are, accustomed to tapping into deep reserves, to survive in an often harsh climate and landscape. Overlooked by tourists heading to the West, and far enough away from Dublin to retain its own individuality, Ballaghaderreen was a self-contained and resilient community. Amazingly, it is also the birthplace of another leading Conceptual artist, James Coleman.
Brian remembered the fifties in Ireland as a bleak period, “like winter, the trees bare, the whole place desolate.” He was the youngest son, and his brothers were tolerant of his artistic aspirations. They said “look we’ll buy you a car and you can drive out after work to Bray” (where their mother lived), and in the attic were his paints and studio. So they bought him a Volkswagen Beetle, “all crash gears and no chrome, the most basic model but it was a new car and not too many people had cars in Ireland at that time”. Brian got a couple of friends, Healy was one, and said “let’s go celebrate.” So they drove out to Finglas to a bona fide pub and had drinks there and on the way back Healy was drunk in the back, his head lolling over, “like a deposition” said Brian, while his other friend in the front began to feel ill and then the next minute opened his mouth and got sick all over the inside of the car. “Stick your head out the window,” roared Brian, but his friend took no notice. He was too drunk. It took Brian six months to clean out the smell. That was Ireland in the 1950s. Barbara said when they first went back to Ireland in the late fifties it was so gray, the people all wore gray clothes and hats, and the houses were gray, and there was so little color. “Now it’s all changed. And the conversations that used to go on until five in the morning. The conversations were fantastic.” As a student in Dublin, Brian haunted the Victor Waddington Gallery, got to know the work of artists like Colin Middleton, Gerard Dillon. He greatly admired Jack Yeats, visiting him at Portobello Nursing Home in 1957 and sketching his portrait. According to Yeats, Waddington used to be a boxer in a carnival sideshow. His son Leslie went to London and continued the gallery there.
Walking with Brian and Barbara on the Upper West Side was an experience. There were exchanges with news vendors, greetings from doormen, and when we entered Le Pain Quotidien at Columbus Circle, everyone paused to see who had entered. Ordering coffee and croissants was theater, with smiles all round. They were the best company, Barbara gracious and knowledgeable, Brian making avuncular statements, summing up a situation, or a person. He recalled Micheal Farrell coming to the United States. “He was lauded, the way they do with Irish poets. Farrell was a painter, but they lauded him as if he was a poet. He had this tough look about him.” In the event, Farrell settled in France, much to O’Doherty’s disappointment. He recalled another Irish painter. “He hung out down in Soho. Wore black leather, studs, all that sort of thing. Did the whole thing, acted the part. But it’s different when you are the part, not acting.”
O’Doherty was perceptive in understanding how success could come in New York. “He didn’t understand the code,” he said of an Austrian artist who had moved to the United States. “The code,” he added, “is you don’t speak ill of people.” I’d heard of the “code” before. In the Ireland O’Doherty was born into, it mandated you not tell tales out of school—a difficult restriction in a land famed for story-telling. It meant if you witnessed a politician at a party, going about on all fours, barking like a dog, or a bishop on a busy street, directing traffic, you did not retell this news casually, or if you did, it was in low tones, to close friends. Of course, the code became one of silence. O’Doherty did not have good memories of the Church in Irish society. He recalled Gerard Dillon in Dublin, painting an ear on a priest, a big red ear, the priest listening to a confession. The clergy hated it. “Bob Hughes and I were inseparable twenty years ago,” said Brian. “We used to do this routine. Two Irish priests. What do you think Fr. O’Doherty? Well, I don’t know Fr. Hughes. There’s one book Bob wrote, it’s a great book, called A Fatal Shore. They wouldn’t let him back into Australia. He stood on the steps of the court and rubbished the court’s decision. They issued a warrant for his arrest.” Brian paused for a moment. “He has no moral center. I compared Pollock’s paintings to the one described in Moby Dick. Things emerging from the gloom. So he went back to the source, and started at the previous line. So cheap.” At this time, in 1995, Barbara had just published her book on Melville and Darwin, The Ape and the Whale.
In terms of his own political beliefs, O’Doherty was highly principled, and in 1972 changed his name by deed poll, in protest at the British army killing innocent protesters in Northern Ireland. His new moniker was Patrick Ireland, and he would not change it back, he said, until the political situation in the North had been resolved. They laughed at him in New York. “You’ll be waiting a long time,” advised a leading gallerist. But he waited, until it could be seen that the Good Friday Agreement was holding, and in 2008, at a ceremony held at IMMA in Dublin, changed his name back.
Around the time he did the first name change, I was studying art history at University College Dublin. The course was classic “from the caves to Cézanne,” and like many of my peers, I longed for an introduction to modern and contemporary art, and to critical theory. Such introductions never came, but we did learn about Baroque and Renaissance art, and, in retrospect, on first encountering O’Doherty’s “Rope Drawings” at the Charles Cowles Gallery, it was handy to know something about Borromini. In the early 1970s, UCD had just moved to a new campus at Belfield; not exactly concrete brutalist, but elegant neither. Essentially Lego-style, gray bricks, white concrete, and lots of glass, with everything on a grid, almost devoid of art. However, Robin Walker, architect of the restaurant building, had managed to keep some of his budget for creative artists. Pat Scott’s large tapestries, based on a fingerprint image, were impressive, as were Robert Ballagh’s moveable screens. And tucked away in an inaccessible corner garden was a mysterious structure. Consisting of a slender column of stainless steel, it bore an inscription in Ogham, a code used in Ireland some fourteen hundred years ago, to inscribe memorials to the dead. Essentially, the code consisted of parallel lines cut into stones, and when decoded could be read as letters of the Roman alphabet. The steel sculpture intrigued me, glinting in the sun, catching my attention as I carried my plywood tray to a table. Later, I learned it is called Newman’s Razor, a wry reference to the medieval philosopher Occam. But in my three years at UCD, the name O’Doherty was not mentioned. That was how it was in the sixties and seventies. If you didn't fit in, you got out. O’Doherty didn't fit in, and so had gotten out.
After qualifying from UCD medical school in 1952, he worked six months in Temple Street Children’s Hospital, six months in St. Luke’s in Rathgar, and before that he was at St. Michael’s in Dun Laoghaire, where he obtained his Diploma in Public Health. After a spell at the Psychology Laboratories in Cambridge, O’Doherty was awarded a Smith-Mundt scholarship to continue his studies at Harvard. He then headed to the United States, jumping ship in Boston, where he was taken under the wing of Dr. Kevin Malley. As he had come to the United States on the equivalent of a Fulbright scholarship, it was understood that the young graduate should return to Ireland. But he had no intention of doing so. The board accepted that O’Doherty needed to stay in the US; he had important work to do. What this work would comprise was not initially clear, but as the months passed, he realised that his true vocation lay in art, not in medicine. However, Kevin Malley was disappointed when he switched from medicine to the visual arts. Pursuing this interest, O’Doherty got to know the sculptor Helen Hooker O’Malley, who had been married to Kevin’s brother, the author and revolutionary Ernie O’Malley. (Kevin had dropped the O from his surname.) Hooker thought highly of the young medical graduate, who visited her in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut. Her son Cormac recalls organizing an exhibition of paintings by Jack B. Yeats at MIT in December 1965, and asking O’Doherty to write an introduction. Years later, in 2002, Cormac O’Malley invited O’Doherty to give a talk at Glucksman Ireland House on the subject of “Am I Irish or American?” Although initially reluctant to participate, O’Doherty agreed to tackle the theme. He prepared his talk by going through his own artworks, seeking his original inspirations, from early archaeological remains through to Irish Ogham inscriptions.
O’Doherty’s decision to settle in the United States was the prelude to a half century of intense productivity, including editing Art in America, making films, presenting television programs on art, and writing books on American painting. His ﬁlms include Hopper’s Silence and Barbara One to Three. He also produced a series of extraordinary artworks, exploring labyrinths, codes, and meaning. A few in Ireland, notably art critic Dorothy Walker, kept pace with his career, and when the Rosc exhibition of contemporary art was held in Dublin in 1971, she ensured O’Doherty was involved. He wrote a perceptive introduction to the catalogue, following the code, speaking well of Irish artists he admired greatly, such as Camille Souter, Jack Yeats, and Patrick Collins.
O’Dohert’s writing often morphed into fiction, albeit a fiction underpinned by knowledge of Gaelic poetry, the medical schools of Vienna, and other specialised areas of knowledge. He wrote well, and fluidly; The Deposition of Fr. McGreevy was short-listed for the Booker Prize and in general his books were favorably reviewed. Scenes of bestiality in The Deposition of Father McGreevy, although handled with taste, caused resentment among some in County Kerry, where the novel was set.
By the 1970s, O’Doherty had been appointed to the National Endowment for the Arts. He used his position in the NEA to introduce a new line of funding, for artists who were not painters, nor sculptors, nor filmmakers, but united these disciplines into new Conceptual art forms, often with a performative element. Retiring from the NEA, O’Doherty then taught filmmaking at the Southampton campus of Long Island University. He and Barbara now commuted between the Upper West Side and the Hamptons. Initially they rented an Arts and Crafts-style house close to the shore. I stayed there once. It smelled of mothballs and in the attic was a stuffed tiger, and an octagonal turret room, with lath and plaster falling off the walls. A telephone book had had its pages shredded by a racoon who lived in the attic. The sound of the racoon rustling kept waking me up. At one time it was so loud, and the thumping so heavy, that I thought that Brian must have gone up with a dog to hunt away the raccoon. After a year or so, finding the house too dark, they bought a modern house in East Quogue with an atrium, which added badly-needed space to exhibit art. There were six white, square windows set into the slanting ceiling. In the atrium was a vertical Ogham sculpture of polished aluminium, dating from 1969. There was also an inverted aluminium pyramid, dating from the following year. The top half of the pyramid had been inverted into the lower half. It was an open-plan house and I guess represented a high point in their lives, although when I visited during the summer, it quickly became apparent that because of heavy traffic on the two lane road, it was difficult to venture out. “I don’t want to switch on the air conditioning,” said Barbara. “In case it breaks down and we have to get someone to fix it.” I preferred to visit in winter, when the roads were free of traffic and we could explore Southampton, Sag Harbor, and other nearby townships. Brian had a black BMW coupe parked outside the house. “We keep it dusty,” he said, “so it won’t look too ostentatious.” At Sag Harbor, we went to the Whaling Museum, a Greek Revival building, but it was closed for the winter. Standing beneath a huge whale jaw framing the door, Barbara shivered. “I’m frozen,” she said, “chilled to the bone.” In East Hampton we dropped in to the Barefoot Contessa. Nothing was open. There was a small cinema. No restaurants. “Everybody in the Hamptons eats at home,” said Brian, “the dinner party is the thing. They drive like crazy around here.” “Salon society,” said Barbara.
Living in Southampton brought with it a coveted residents’ permit that allowed parking at the beach, access to which was bitterly fought over. Driving along the Dune Road beach, the cold wind blowing sand in drifts, we looked at houses built close to the sea, each different from its neighbor. “I hate that,” said Barbara. “It’s not like that in Italy. But then in America, when they have each house the same, it’s even worse. Most are uninhabited for much of the year. They spend millions on them, and sometimes one just gets washed away in a Nor’easter.” We walked out to the tip of the Mohasc Peninsula, surf crashing on the beach. Jack Rudin’s nephew had put large sandbags in front of his beach house to protect against storms. It hadn’t worked, and after recent storms, the sandbags and yellow straps were a mess, scattered, half-buried in the sand. Rudin claimed someone had cut the straps holding the sandbags. We stepped over a piece of boardwalk, I wondered if it was part of Rudin’s deck. Heading back, Brian powered the black BMW along the road, over drifts of windblown sand, passing flat wind-chopped waters. The houses on this side are more modest. We passed a trailer park. Brian applauded it.
“I want Barbara to have the space out here,” said Brian as we walked towards the bus. “She likes it out here.” They had moved to the country, both caring for the other’s needs, a close relationship. They were like the odd couple, always going on at one another but in a good-humored sort of way. “I never wanted to get tied up with a big mortgage,” said Barbara. “or have Brian tied down to a job because of the need to keep a family or a big house going. That’s why we never had a family. His work was always to come first. He needed the time and space for his own work, which was the most important thing. Even when he was in Washington, it was great to be able to help fellow artists. He worked for the Washington Post for a year but that was just to earn enough money to pay for the apartment. So we have that at least. It’s a working apartment. We got rid of the piano. At last.” They both loved telling stories. “We were at the opening of the Rothko Chapel,” said Brian. “One of de Menil’s team asked me what I thought of the chapel. I said I thought it was so-so. The lighting was wrong. At one point during the dinner, de Menil’s voice rang out imperiously. Brian, I hear you don’t like the chapel. Well, I tried to explain. We had seen the paintings in New York, in Rothko’s studio. We knew Rothko. The lighting was too harsh, too bright in the Rothko chapel. Morton Feldman, poor old Morty, he was caught in the middle. Said, it’s like what you would say about a girl. You should have seen her in New York.”
By 1994 I felt confident enough to invite Brian to come to Ireland, on a residency program at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh. The rest, as they say, is history and his mural cycle One Here Now, completed the following year, is a valedictory work, bridging a quarter of a century of his life, looking back to the Ogham sculpture at UCD, and forward to his achieving proper recognition within the Irish contemporary art world. And not before time.
In my mind I am standing in the Orpheus Gallery at The Belfast School of Art in late 1989. The gallery speaks both to a white modernist frame and through its very large glass window that fills a wall, also to the street. Within, I am standing in an expanded painting of zones of heightened color and tone and with a taut rope drawing. The work is a total environment that positions the viewer in an apex marked with an H. It offers further points of vantage when viewed from within and without, suggesting alignments and controlled zones of reference. Big H is a rope drawing by Patrick Ireland in Ireland.
The “H” of course in downtown Belfast could be clearly understood as a reference to the notorious H Blocks of Long Kesh or the Maze Prison (depending on your outlook). Or perhaps given his literary interests also the H of accent and pronunciation as a kind of vernacular code.
Big H seemed able to hold these dimensions in a schemata that spoke to art, place, and vantage where ideas could be explored within the validation of the gallery but taking a place amongst numbers of still persistent memorials. These emerged from street manifestations and emergency provisions toward now more enduring physical self-validating commemorative forms.
Fast forward further decades and the decommissioning through a funeral ceremony of the name of Patrick Ireland in 2008, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, completed an important life of another artwork over time—in this case the concluding of the arc of a work, its contribution in relation to context and legacy. The initial naming of Patrick Ireland was a response provoked by the Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972 in Derry, an outrageous and catalyzing event that has endured as a sore point for fifty years. The momentum of a contemporary art action in protest spoke to an innovative invention rather than the adoption of art languages unable to effectively “hold” what was urgent.
The wider frame of the work of Brian O’Doherty, through my initial experiential engagement is never far away as a kind of codex to unlock where my thinking is. I also recall with pleasure meeting him when he was External Examiner in the Department of Sculpture at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin for several years.
This week in March 2023 I am standing in front of a large group of art and design, science and humanities students tiered back into the Lecture Theatre. “Contemporary Art Angles” offers a series of artists’ positions and perspectives for students who are “new” to contemporary art practice. As the series unfolds we learn ongoing and expanded ways that art thinking and action can reroute possibility with that ineffable quality that makes you want to look and think again. The polymath Brian O‘Doherty is surely in the room.
Phong H. Bui
Brian O’Doherty: The Classic Fox
There have been, and there always will be, endless similar yet pertinent questions we often ask ourselves, especially in our youth, including “Who are we?” or “How do we get to discover our true selves?” as Immanuel Kant articulated best in his idea of teleology, from which natural phenomena are explained in terms of the purpose they serve rather than the cause by which they arise. In other words, how long will it take to find our true selves?
Many of us presumably have read Sir Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which many of us know was intended as an intellectual game, yet, as Berlin himself later admitted, countless academics took it seriously as a Smithian microeconomic and macroeconomic concept of specialization. As we recall, a hedgehog describes an intellectual or artistic personality or temperament for whom everything, however complex it may seem, is conceived of and judged by one single perspective, as opposed to a fox, to whom the world cannot be boiled down to one singular point of view, hence multitudes of perspective are necessary for self-growth.
Having had the great fortune to come under the tutelage of the legendary art historian Meyer Schapiro, whose community of friends and colleagues I admired for its diversity, I initially aspired to follow his scholarly path as a potential classic hedgehog, while dreaming of one day re-creating a similar community, without nostalgia, for my generation. It’s the latter that I recognized most clearly in how my role as a midwife can be useful in passing on the wisdom and intelligence from the older generation of scholars, academics, writers, poets, and artists of various disciplines to my generation and a younger one. As I continue to live and work with an endless openness to all elements of surprise, while at the same time staying mindful of the pressure to eventually identify with either the hedgehog or the fox, I knew the process of reconciliation must evolve ever slowly through a hard-won unity from a lived experience rather than a mere exercise of pure will.
It was in October 2000 the Brooklyn Rail was conceived of with a collective of a few friends, and I found myself envisioning a “Promised Land,” where artists across disciplines and writers of different persuasions could regularly meet, share their ideas, and collaborate on projects as they had done so intensely in this city, that we had read so much about, in the past. As Johann Gottlieb Fichte once stated, “We do not act because we know. We know because we are called upon to act.” I knew, even then, rather than thinking in advance of the so-called mission statement of the journal, along with envisioning a particular readership, the Rail was to aspire to artists’ arduous journeys, as well as referring to it not as a journal for artists, but rather as expressions by artists for the community. Still, as the Rail continues to grow slowly with tremendous difficulty and fragility to keep it free, I had to learn how to perform different roles differently. From being a publisher, which entails a newly-acquired skill of fundraising through constant sociability, to say, staying editorially alert to the relevance and timely nature of various contents from different sections on a monthly basis; from keeping up with the demands of being an artist, who is trying to make works that would correspond to the time of my own generation contextually; to discovering the joy of curating exhibits around town, which turned out to be a good tool for building the community; from learning how to write, to editing and training how to contextualize ideas through the disciplines of reading. Most importantly, how to be fluidly agile with generosity and compassion to our fellow beings.
Having read and admired Brian’s precious volumes Object and Idea: An Art Critic’s Journal, 1961-1967 (p. Simon & Schuster, 1967), American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (p. Random House, 1974), his famous “Inside the White Cube” essays (p. Artforum, 1976), his novels including The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P.: A Novel (Penguin Groups, 1993), The Deposition of Father McGreevy (p. Arcadia Books, 2014), among other brilliant essays he had contributed to countless artists’ catalogues, I’m astonished to this day as to how Brian never failed to mediate all of his many interests on equal terms. This is to say, each of Brian’s interests, as a physician, a TV personality, an art critic under many pseudonyms, a novelist, an artist with two names, teacher or an extraordinary impresario, whenever he needed to be, he did it with intensity, love, and passion. To my great fortune, I should admit, with blessing from both Brian, the author of Inside the White Cube, and Bob (Robert) Ryman, an artist who has committed to exploring only white paint and a square format as a lifelong vocation, I managed to interview both for the June issue in 2007. For in the former, it was a pleasure in meeting Brian many times at the late S.I. Newhouse, Jr.’s annual birthday party at his home, that led to a casual yet comprehensive interview at the Rail headquarters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. As with the latter, it was the proceeding days after the opening reception of his exhibit No Title Required at Pace Gallery that I was invited to his West Village studio for a serious and concise interview. Needless to say, being with Brian and Bob in one week was similar to having one’s left brain talking to one’s right brain, in addition to being reminded of this profound predicament that persists on the differences between the hedgehog and the fox.
However, both Brian and Bob had agreed on one thing: for the cover of our June issue, it would contain no image, no cover texts, only the empty white paper and the Rail’s logo on top—it was not until September 2011 that we began to provide multiple covers for all the featured artists each month. The cover of the June issue, a product of the author of Inside the White Cube and the creator of white painting, was the Rail’s most popular cover, as hundreds, covered with drawings, sketches, poems, notes, etc., were sent to us as original works of art, as well as providing photographic documents for our archives. What I came to realize was while both Brian and Bob are naturally polar opposites—one is a natural fox; the other a natural hedgehog—they both were happily true to their natures. As for my purpose, however hard I had tried to be a hedgehog, my inclination, after this precious experience in June 2006, is more closely associated with the fox. It’s true that I’ve learnt to apply different skill sets to different functions with a respectable degree of efficiency, which may imply that I am a hedgehog by conviction; but by nature, I am a true fox, like Brian. Unlike how Berlin perceived Leo Tolstoy as having this duality (that caused him great pain in his life), Brian seemed to have fulfilled his life, for all of his creations in different fields have proven to be products of deep joy. I therefore am most grateful to Brian for having shone a light along the path of my own journey. May your soul rest in peace, with love and admiration from your friend and mentee.
In Spring 2014 at Simone Subal Gallery in New York, I helped install a rope drawing by Brian O’Doherty for the first time. Trying to make the piece’s symmetries of twine and tone rhyme in the room, I pulled out a measuring tape and spirit level to make sure things were exact. A learned habit, a desire for clinical precision that years of graphic design had taught me.
With a semi-stern look, Brian waved away these tools: “You need to use your eyes to look at how an artwork is hung, not a ruler.”
This came as a surprise, given how accustomed I was as a curator to making sure artworks are installed perfectly. Yet Brian continued to insist: his rope drawings were meant to be measured only by the eye. They needed to respond to the room and to the viewer. If they looked straight, then they were straight. An empirical, human way of taking stock of the world. I put my measuring tools away.
This moment stuck with me over the next nearly decade of our close exchange, in which I played different roles with him: curator, dealer, writer, designer, installer, and even once as his performer. For all of the tools that he had at his disposal—from his razor-sharp mind to his far-seeing eyes to his unwavering hand to his inimitable, booming, boisterous voice—Brian O’Doherty was always eminently human. His talents seemed to require little outside of the basic organism with which most people arrive equipped.
Yet Annie Murphy Paul’s recent book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, articulates how the human mind encompasses much more than just the physical brain. Combining neuroscientific research with memorable stories, she demonstrates that cognition happens in the body and gestures, in spaces and objects, and, most significantly, through relationships with others. It’s a compelling framework for rethinking thinking itself that perfectly captures Brian’s expansive genius.
Although he may have rejected yardsticks and levels, Brian instinctually embraced outward-facing modes of thinking in the world: for example, his performances from the 1960s and ’70s tied movement to language. His paintings, sculptures, and installations encoded words and letters into physical materials and spaces using the ancient Irish alphabet of Ogham. And Brian’s “extended mind” included his rich relationships with the people around him: whether as an editor and curator, encouraging writers such as Roland Barthes to publish unreleased works, or in the implicit and explicit ways that he collaborated with others—in particular with the brilliant Barbara Novak, who accompanied him throughout life and work as a second mind and pair of eyes to help him evaluate his art, writing, and rope drawings alike (of course, Brian’s rope drawings were most often installed to line up correctly from her eye level).
Once upon a time, Brian said to me, “Every person is actually many people.” He meant this with regards to his many personae, but it suggests not only that he contained multitudes, but also that many others also carry parts of him with them. There are traces of Brian everywhere. It’s in these different extensions of his mind that he lives on with us now—in the installations that persist from Italy to Ireland into infinity; the words that wind through museums and galleries the world around; in the ideas that have shifted the very language of art; and in the ephemeral ways that his love touched countless people and changed their lives—including my own.
When I hang an exhibition these days, I usually squint first at the artworks for a long while before reaching for a bubble level. Who knows: maybe I do know better than a five dollar plastic tool.
Thanks, Brian, for all the large and small things you’ve taught me about being human. The truest measure of a person’s path is how they point others toward their own futures.
Portrait of the Artist as an Artist
Brian O’Doherty (or Patrick Ireland, the name he took as his artist persona from 1972–2008) was not your typical painter nor your typical conceptualist—something he had in common with other conceptual artists who painted, like Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, or Dorothea Rockburne. Even though these artists were associated with people who actively disparaged painting, they did not hesitate to bring it out of their artistic tool box when they needed it. O'Doherty’s practice was especially wide-ranging—from conceptually-derived objects (like the Duchamp cardiogram portrait), to performance, sculpture, installation, drawing, mural, and easel painting. The common thread for O’Doherty was concept undergirded by language. It played a role in almost all of his mature work, not least in the paintings. Not wanting to “speak modernism,” as he put it, he was drawn nonetheless to the aesthetic perturbance, displacement, and the inevitable summoning of metaphor that occurs when paint is applied to a two-dimensional surface. This effect existed independently from the underlying concept, and yet, if done properly, could still be tethered to those idea sets – putting in play a suitably ambiguous “both/and” dynamic. The resulting tension, which pushes against the niceties of logic, can yield an invigorating brashness, a willingness to forgo the formal closures and resolutions of what Duchamp referred to as “retinal” art.
O’Doherty worked with language (both as a writer and an artist) and he took special pains in his art to exploit language’s inherent abstraction as well as its nascent purity. Reluctant to employ straight English text—elements of that do appear in some works—he needed another linguistic base. After investigating an array of sign systems—pre-Columbian languages and calendars, hieroglyphs, Scandinavian runes, Greek alphabets, and more, he finally settled on something quite close to home, Ogham, an Irish written (but not spoken) form, dating to the fourth century, and consisting of a series of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines centered on a long, linear spine. As he wrote:
Here was the purest sign system ever devised, clean as a whistle, as logical in its four registers as the four sets of serial music … returning a faint echo from fifteen hundred years back, but for all purposes (except mine) buried in silence. A dead language? Yes, but what a language. It spoke to the idea of language, to serial music, and to minimalism’s reductive paradox.
Ogham’s geometry and, to O’Doherty, its musicality, became the foundation of many years of artistic work. The paintings—the “Rope Drawings,” the murals, and the later easel paintings—were able to build on his finely honed drawings, and make something bluntly emphatic, yet visually ambiguous and shifting.
O’Doherty's series of “Rope Drawings”—large, complex polychrome geometric wall paintings augmented with taut, space defining sections of rope attached to the walls, ceiling, and floor—began in the 1970s, and continued well into the second decade of the twenty-first century. They pushed abstract painting into an ambitious set of new perceptual readings, as well as a refiguring of ideas of scale, perspective, point of view, permanence, and painting’s implicit and explicit relation to architecture. The “Rope Drawings” were typically conceived of as temporary installations, although, as with Sol LeWitt’s wall work, they could be purchased and recreated. A permanent site for a group of stand-alone wall paintings and “Rope Drawings” is the Casa Dipinta, O’Doherty’s and his wife Barbara Novak’s home in Todi, Italy. The house, now open to the public, was transformed, beginning in the 1970s, by the large, intensely colored murals that fill its rooms and turn the entire living space into a work of art itself.
O’Doherty set to work on easel paintings in the 1990s after a hiatus of thirty years. The implicit gridded structure of Ogham—its focus on corners, lines, and edges—gave a linguistic rationale for a group of 6-by-6-foot square geometric paintings. Two of them—Ogham on Broadway (2003) and Ogham on Upper Broadway (2003/04) are composed of thin colored bands of equal width set on subtly toned grounds—gray for Broadway, reddish violet for Upper Broadway. The bands are oriented vertically and horizontally, with their intersections marked by squares. As with Mondrian (how can we miss the echoes of Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43)?), these paintings are not only orthogonal, but asymmetrically composed. Each band is divided into five sections (corresponding to the five vowels), punctuated by small squares, with no color repeating in a band. While a color might turn a corner, it does not continue past the square intersection. The band colors are muted, yet declarative. In Ogham on Broadway they are orange, golden yellow, sap green, dark teal, and golden brown. The small squares are black. In Ogham on Upper Broadway both the bands and squares are crimson, yellow, ochre, jade green, sky blue, teal, and light violet. In both paintings, bands run along all four of the paintings’ edges, elegantly framing them. These paintings are open and airy, filled with a sense of quiet contemplation and light. They are conceptually grounded, but this in no way undercuts their visceral appeal. The same could be said for a group of language-related paintings from 2003, 2004, and 2005—One, Here, Now, and AOU, The Broad Vowels. These four paintings, six-foot squares as well, are more somber in tone than the Broadway Oghams, with nested Albers-like internal squares, punctured by thick, mostly vertical lines. Symmetry plays a bigger role in these works and they seem imbued with an almost incantatory hum. The same could be said for Vaughan’s Circle (2004–05)—another six-foot square, marked with a wide circular band divided into pastel sectors (representing the Ogham vowels), floating on an ethereal ground of sky blue.
It is remarkable how much Brian O'Doherty accomplished over the course of his long life. Whether it was artmaking, writing about art or publishing novels, university teaching, arts administration, public broadcasting, or his first vocation—medicine—he approached everything with dedication, imagination, and immense skill. Painting was just one of his métiers, but he pursued it with a thoroughness and a productivity that would have been enough if that were all he did. But how much more satisfying it is to link the painter up with his other selves, and by looking intently at that work, get a better measure of the man himself.
I first met Brian O’Doherty in 1970 when he was spending some time in Dublin cogitating on his task as the appointed curator of an exhibition of Irish modern art.
Previously, Rosc (the poetry of vision)—an exhibition of international modern art, conceived by the Irish architect Michael Scott and the American museum director and curator, James Johnson Sweeney, took place in Dublin in 1967.
Its goal was to bring the Irish public and Irish artists into contact with development in international contemporary art. Even though the project was rooted in individualism it quickly sparked several controversies.
The principal one was the exclusion of Irish artists, so when the second Rosc exhibition was being planned for 1971 it was decided to remedy that shortcoming by staging a separate but parallel exhibition. Brian O’Doherty was enlisted as curator of this endeavor.
The resultant exhibition was a groundbreaking affair with a main survey show titled “The Irish Imagination” plus several smaller themed selections titled “The Nature Heritage,” “The Puritan Nude,” and “The Literary Tradition and the Visual Response.”
In 1970 I clearly remember discussing Irish literature with Brian O’Doherty, and with the arrogance of youth, insisting the poetry of W. B. Yeats meant nothing to young Irish people and that the social context of Séan O’Casey’s plays was more relevant to what was happening in Dublin at the time. Despite being surprised at my impetuosity, Brian instantly suggested that I paint a portrait of O’Casey. This I did and he later included it in “The Literary Tradition and the Visual Response” section.
“The Irish Imagination 1959–71” in association with Rosc 71 was staged in the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now the Hugh Lane Gallery) from October 23 to December 31, 1971 and was accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue containing four incisive essays by Brian O’Doherty. The biographies of each of the artists in the exhibition were written by critics, authors, poets, and other assorted commentators.
I found myself described by the poet Hayden Murphy as an artist “not prepared to disappear into the ivory tower closet that the bureaucracy has designed for him, but rather to paint on factory walls, public parks, and even the public house.”
In 1943 the Irish Exhibition of Living Art was established so that those modernists artists, who were consistently rejected by the conservative Royal Hibernian Academy, could publicly show their work in an annual exhibition which, over time, became a powerhouse for modernism in Ireland.
However, by the 1970s, the organizing committee, being acutely aware that the exhibition had lost a lot of its former vitality, decided to resign and hand it over to a younger committee.
This new committee, of which I was a member, in order to invigorate the 1972 exhibition, decided to invite six Irish artists working abroad, in challenging new modes of expression, to participate. Brian O’Doherty was one of those artists.
On 30 January 1972—a day now known as “Bloody Sunday”—thirteen unarmed protestors were shot dead by British troops during a civil rights march in Derry. Brian O’Doherty later recalled:
I was in New York and I said, what can I do? I can’t do anything. I can’t throw bombs. I can’t do things like that, I said I cannot make art because if you make political art, you are always preaching to the converted, but I said I can change myself, I can give myself an identity change and I can become a living person whose very existence is a rebuke in the witness to what happened back then. So I took the name Patrick Ireland.
A carefully choreographed event to realize his intention took place in the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, the venue for the 1972 Irish Exhibition of Living Art.
Brian O’Doherty chose the sculptor Brian King and myself to be his collaborators in his performance, which commenced when King and myself, also in white coats, carried the artist, on a stretcher and shrouded in white, onstage and placed him on a raised dais. We then began painting the supine figure, one beginning at his head with green paint, the other at his feet with orange. For one brief moment we had transformed the artist into the national flag, but as the pigments mingled the full figure ended up covered in a muddy brown hue. Thus the artist Patrick Ireland came into existence.
Many years later when the Irish peace process culminated in the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement of 1998, Brian O’Doherty felt that the time had come to reconsider his decision to adopt an alter ego.
In recognition of the end to violence, he decided to say farewell to Partick Ireland, so, in May 2008, a “joyous wake and burial” was planned for the Irish Museum of Modern Art. At the internment site a modest pine coffin holding an effigy with a death mask of the artist, was lowered by pall-bearers into the ground.
Later, as I reflected on the artistic obsequies, I realized that, as one of the pall-bearers, I had become the only person who had attended both the birth and death of Patrick Ireland.
I have to admit that I am inordinately proud of my involvement as I contend that Brian O’Doherty is a giant of Irish culture, not alone for the name change but as a critic, as an author, and as an artist.
Brian O’Doherty Newman’s Razor A Personal View
Brian O’Doherty’s work is familiar to anyone who attended University College Dublin at Belfield in the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, before the gradual reconfiguration of Robin Walker’s modernist Restaurant Building and the removal of its associated artworks. Now moved to another location on campus, O’Doherty’s Newman’s Razor (1972) stood outside the basement of the building, visible through the wall to ceiling windows. At this level students sat at long tables and often gazed out at the vault-like garden in which the tall thin metallic form of O’Doherty’s work stood, wondering what it was and what it represented. Once we had been told about it in Art History, we often noted that it extended below the ground as well as protruding into the air, and our growing knowledge of archaeology made us aware of its use of Ogham. It related both to the past and to the present, a private public work that seemed to have been placed there especially for us, for students to see and to appreciate.
As I became more interested in Irish art, I discovered that the maker of Newman’s Razor also wrote about Irish art with a rare objectivity and insight. He was one of the most accomplished writers on art that Ireland ever produced, perhaps combining his diagnostic medical training with a heightened awareness of the metaphysical properties of the artwork. He wrote intelligently and perceptively about the work of Irish artists before and after departing to the United States in 1957, maintaining a keen awareness of what was happening in Irish art despite his physical remove. He was self-educated in matters of art criticism, as the best art critics usually are. As a young man in Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s, he sought out the leading artists of the day, principally Jack B. Yeats, and Thomas MacGreevy, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, former friend of Samuel Beckett, and a keen wordsmith. But O’Doherty also wrote to international critics like Herbert Read and maintained a wider perspective on artistic practice and purpose. What was most remarkable about O’Doherty’s writing was its recognition that the work of Irish artists was equally deserving of the scrutiny and attention so often preserved for international artists or for Irish writers. He paid equal attention to the paintings of Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats, and Patrick Collins as he did to those of Georges Rouault or Edward Hopper. He brought the reader along with him, tracing the intricacies of their technique and speculating on the content of their work in imaginative and compelling ways. O’Doherty always took the viewer into account, explaining or convincing them of his argument. It is this desire to convince and persuade that makes Inside the White Cube such a canonical text in the history of modernist art and it is equally evident in his earlier writings on Irish art. Conscious of the contexts and boundaries that surround our engagement with the artwork, and of the role of the viewer as much as the artist, O’Doherty’s criticism releases the artwork from its conventional art historical limits and opens it up, whether Irish or non-Irish, to scrutiny and renewed attention, as if seen for the very first time.
Brian O'Doherty—Curator of Himself
I first got to know Brian O'Doherty as the author of works on the history of exhibition-making. Later, I worked with him as an artist and curator of his own art. Taking a Line for a Walk (2012) at the Atelier Amden in Switzerland was the first show that we created together; Phases of the Self at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in Vaduz followed in 2022. That was to be Brian’s last exhibition during his own lifetime, and he followed its conception from afar with great enthusiasm, as well as supplying the title.
Taking a Line for a Walk took the viewer's gaze through one of three doors into an abandoned barn in the Swiss Alps—and then out again through a window on the second floor. All that was actually visible in this space, in which I have been curating exhibitions since 1999, was a yellow rope that explored and circumscribed the floor, walls, and ceiling of every single room in the building. Brian wanted the rope to be pinned onto each of the six surfaces that conventionally form a room, but left it up to me as the curator to define its exact path, both within each room and from one room to the next. The artist himself never visited the site, and the installation was instead based on a conceptual drawing that Brian made while talking to the curator about it on a visit to Basel in the spring of 2012. The conception and execution of a work can be completely separate processes, as pioneers of conceptual art such as Brian O'Doherty have taught us.
His “Rope Drawings,” published under the pseudonym “Patrick Ireland,” are in fact installations of ropes or cords strung between floors, ceilings, and walls, as if the artist had made a three-dimensional drawing. They are often combined with non-figurative wall paintings. The “Rope Drawings” treat painting, drawing, space, and installation as equivalents, taking account of the ever greater involvement of viewers in works of art that came about as a result of the social and artistic changes of the post-war period. Here, depending on where the viewer is standing, the drawing and wall-painting coalesce to form a single entity, rendering the space complex or simple. Visually, the work disintegrates into its constituent parts only to be reconfigured according to the viewer's vantage point at any given moment. In contrast to Mile of String (1942), Marcel Duchamp’s installation for the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism in New York that actually prevented visitors entering the show at all, Taking a Line for a Walk at the Atelier Amden guides visitors through the building, activating their perception and confronting them with the present. The question we all ask ourselves in a spatial installation, or so I learned from Brian in 2012, is “Where am I?”
In October of that year I went to Paris with my daughter to meet Brian and his wife, Barbara Novak. His film Hopper's Silence (1981) was enjoying a revival as part of the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Grand Palais. We met at the hotel Des Deux Continents on October 9, 2012 to discuss the next exhibition project. Our idea was to stage a show of his works as a labyrinth. We were joined by his sister-in-law, who warned us not to wait too long with the exhibition, since for people of Brian’s age, every day counts. The planned exhibition never happened, and, though we remained friends, another ten years would elapse before we collaborated again for an exhibition.
At the heart of the 2022 exhibition, Phases of the Self, was Brian's open-ended understanding of the self and his role as both artist and individual. The distinction was one that mattered to him, especially as an artist and author—who wrote under a pseudonym—who left various trails but who also wiped clues and claimed the liberty to don masks and slip into radically different roles, not all of which—I would surmise—were eventually disclosed.
To the last, his work was inspired by his own creative curiosity, free of that fixation on the work of art as a hand-crafted or even industrially made or makeable serial product that currently holds sway on the contemporary art scene. I had since learned another lesson from my first exhibition and took this into account in my conversation with Brian about the concept of the show in Vaduz. In the 1970s he had interpreted post-war modernism with its experimental works—many of them installations—as art rising up against the dominance of painting and the white cube. Yet the rope that in 2012 had led into and then out of a barn in Amden had done more than just heighten the viewer's perception of the place. Even if only implicitly, it had also asked the question: what do we bring with us to an exhibition and what do we take away from it? I understood this question in relation to Brian's reflections on the white cube, and hence as a demand that we attach less weight to the space and more to the individual visitor with his or her lived experience.
Phases of the Self comprised spatial segments of varying sizes, each separated from the next by a textile work by the British artist Charlotte Moth from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein. The cubic room behind the curtain and its radiant white walls were of course an allusion to the white cube, whose history and function Brian had engaged with in both his writings and in his art. Phases of the Self was a solo exhibition, though not a retrospective as such. The idea was rather to allow his works to be experienced in dialogue with others that I myself had selected from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein. In other words, I had injected myself and my reading of his art into the exhibition of his works, generating a dynamic that Brian understood very well. I had also wanted to show how his entire oeuvre, which after all began in the late 1950s, is firmly embedded in the artistic, art-critical, and authorial practice of our age and hence is open to all its attendant debates.
Brian O’Doherty. In Fond Memory
In his ninetieth year, Brian gave a well-attended, much-appreciated lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, at the invitation of the Friends of the NGI. Together with Barbara, his wife, we afterwards went round the corner to the Saddle Room at the Shelbourne Hotel for a congenial late lunch. Among the guests were Christina Kennedy and Brenda Moore-McCann, both long-term admirers and researchers of Brian and his work. Barbara had recently written to me about the magnificent Francesco Granacci painting in the collection, Rest on the Flight into Egypt with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1494), with her arguments about how close its links were to Michelangelo, with whom Granacci had had a lifelong friendship. Anyone could immediately see their partnership was intimately, intricately interwoven, and how close remained their association with Ireland. Brian and Barbara had recently traveled up from Cobh, where a wall painting he had made decades before had been magnificently restored and reopened. Working under the pseudonym Patrick Ireland no more, he was with us as Brian O’Doherty and clearly relishing the fond reception he received from the arts community in Ireland. I had heard a lot about Brian and Barbara from colleagues, especially Christina Kennedy at IMMA, with whom Brian had worked closely. We immediately felt the warmth of his humorous, knowledgeable, and incisive commentaries.
Shortly before, the Gallery had made a significant policy shift. The Board followed my proposal to collect works by living artists for the first time in the Gallery’s history—commissioned portraits, as part of the ongoing national portrait collection were, of course, already permitted. Indeed, Fionn McCann submitted a photograph of Brian, Cézanne’s Apple (2018), to the Gallery’s annual portrait prize, which was subsequently acquired for the collection. Acknowledging contemporary art more fully created a bridge, from the eight hundred years of art covered in the collection, into our own times.
The omission of new art had been amplified by only intermittent representation of Irish and international art throughout the twentieth century, a gap that grew with every passing year. The exclusion of works by living artists had, at times, produced some odd consequences: Jack B. Yeats’s Liffey Swim (1923), donated in 1931, was sent on loan to the nearby Hugh Lane Gallery of modern art, returning only over a quarter century later, after the artist’s death. Living artists had always been engaged as key communicators in Gallery workshops and talks. Why then, we argued, should their works be excluded from the panorama of art through the centuries, which they, through their creativity, were extending into our own times?
We made curatorial choices about how to proceed. Brian’s work was near the top of my list, so I contacted him directly. We agreed on two paintings to purchase for the Gallery. One was a recent grid painting combining in its title—Ogham on Broadway (2003)—an ancient script and Manhattan’s geometric street pattern. The other was Portrait of the Artist as a Naked Young Man (1953) with its clear Joycean echo. The inclusion of art after about 1960, brought about by the sea change in acquisition policy, also introduced Brian’s recent painting as one of the very first abstract paintings to enter the collection. Its catalyzing effect could be seen in gallery displays that followed: Brian’s painting was joined by abstract, or predominantly abstract, paintings by Bridget Riley, Diana Copperwhite, Ilya Bolotowsky, Shirley Jaffe, Kenneth Hall, Sean Scully, and Mark Rothko. This was the first time the Gallery had ever shown a room of abstract paintings. It felt like it was looking forward, not harking back.
Part of the strategy for bringing the collection into our own times included the creation of a reference collection of Irish works on paper. One Irish print studio with a strong international presence was the Stoney Road Press, with which Brian had collaborated several times. We acquired all the works he had made with the SRP. In spite of the stop-start closure and opening of the Gallery during the pandemic, I made sure to schedule them for presentation in our Print Gallery. At ninety-three years of age it was a public mark of support, if rather late in the artist’s career. We added to the group Brian’s mid-1950s pencil portrait of Jack B. Yeats, donated in honour of Hilary Pyle, the first Yeats curator at the Gallery. Brian had met Yeats when himself a young artist, one of a multitude of extraordinary individuals Brian met over his long, adventurous and fruitful life.
This alone would constitute a long overdue recognition of one of Ireland’s major artistic figures by its national collection. I was delighted the Gallery was now in a position to acknowledge Brian’s decades-long impact on Ireland’s cultural life. We kept in touch, with intermittent calls during the pandemic. Due to health concerns, Brian and Barbara maintained a strict embargo on visitors. During one call, with Brian’s voice faltering, I picked up a sentence about pictures of his mother and father, which he wished to reunite with his early self-portrait, now in the collection. I replied in the affirmative to his generous offer and waited for the right opportunity to move things forward.
Several weeks elapsed. I suggested to Barbara that we might wait until Brian was feeling stronger. She replied that we should arrange to bring the works to Dublin anyway, which we did. I was called down to the receiving bay one day, to be confronted by several works—the usual cross-section of arrivals in their carrying frames and crates—in for consideration by the Board. They included a seventeenth century Spanish nativity scene; a calm, horizontally-banded abstract painting by Bridget Riley; and an early 1960s portrait of Samuel Beckett, perhaps the only painted portrait of him. Among those arrivals were the two early (1952 and 1953) portraits of Brian’s mother and father. His father’s portrait, the smaller of the two, was of his head, shown in profile. At the age when painted, he looked like Brian did now, in his own old age. Mother, viewed frontally, is portrayed in an austere room in three-quarter length, hands crossed on her lap, her features apprehensive, perhaps even severe.
These three wonderful mid-century paintings, early works by the artist, unite the family in Dublin. To my great pleasure, and to Brian’s and Barbara’s satisfaction, there was a moment in early 2021 when every work by Brian owned by the Gallery—the four paintings, one drawing, and sixteen newly acquired prints—were on public display at the same time. From a standing start to two-dozen works, all on the walls, was a proud moment. Public collections play a role in the recognition, validation, appreciation and interpretation of artists. Being represented in your national collection is a particular accomplishment. However, national cultural institutions are only one link in the chain of peers, collectors, dealers, critics, and curators who validate the artistic endeavours of practitioners. Many had already recognised the importance of Brian’s work, long before the Gallery acted.
A coda to this activity in Dublin came in the summer of 2022 when I made a last visit to the United States before leaving the Gallery. Its purpose was to visit benefactors and colleagues, to express my gratitude and acknowledgement for their support, and to create a bridge for my successor to build upon. Brian and Barbara had led understandably isolated lives since a bout of ill health in the autumn of 2019. Throughout the pandemic, only a carer had assisted them in their daily lives. With a note of caution and of anticipation, they acceded to my suggestion of calling by for a short visit.
Their smiles welcomed my wife and I for what we thought would be a swift cup of coffee. We found Brian in his small reading den, surrounded by books and sitting in a comfortable chair. After conversing for a while and thinking we did not wish to over-exert him or overstay our welcome, we signaled it might be time to leave. Getting up, though, was a prelude for us all to regroup around the dining table in the next room, nearby Brian’s magnificent full-height studio. Brian raised himself on his walking frame and changed spaces, enjoying two pieces of cake and making acute and humorous interjections into the conversation. We keenly felt the fragility of his advanced age and delicate condition, his voice as much an expression of spirit as body, but also his razor-sharp presence when he spoke. Barbara’s embracing kindness completed a vision of quiet contentment. They spoke about the many things they had attempted throughout their long, eventful lives, mostly achieved, and proclaimed themselves satisfied that they had done everything they had set out to do. As morning moved through lunchtime, Mieke and I left their apartment to walk across Central Park, invigorated, enchanted and enriched by our encounter. A few short months later, news of Brian’s passing reached us.
On a late summer afternoon, Marian and myself had the signal honor of driving Brian and Barbara around the countryside of North County Sligo. Brian had been a hero of mine for many years and it was a delight to see them both enjoy the magnificence of the Gleniff Horseshoe where we halted to stand and breathe in the scenery near Ballintrillick.
We had lunch in Cromleach Lodge close to the site of the Battle of Moytura on the Plain of the Pillars. The conversation was, like the wine, flowing.
We invited them back to our home in Kilmactranny, however time was pressing and the itinerary had to be followed.
I met them both again when Brian was receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick in 2018. I had brought my copy of his seminal art-critical text Inside the White Cube for him to sign.
During a lull in the proceedings I managed to have a brief conversation with him. I proposed that an Irish translation might be made of his famous collection of essays Inside the White Cube (Istigh sa Chiúb Bán) and he approved of the idea adding that his father had been a native Irish speaker.
I've often thought it was something of a missed opportunity that Brian had not been selected to represent Ireland at the 54th Biennale in 2011. It would have truly been a celebration of the great contribution over many decades that he had made to the evolution of visual culture and critique on an international level. He had certainly been fêted in his native land when he returned in 2008 to finally lay Patrick Ireland to rest but a moment of recognition like the Venice Biennale would have allowed his peers in the art world to celebrate his achievement in a way his own native land did not—they either did not understand and simply failed to appreciate just how unique and extraordinary his contribution as an artist was.
Brian O’Doherty's legacy is enormous and he has indicated myriad paths to be followed and threads to be woven and knots to be unravelled, more than enough for any lifetime as life is fleeting.
A hero of mine and a much loved man, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis!
You were never one to be at a loss for words. The richness of language and how it courses through all aspects of life infuses your art, as if you were trying to test the plasticity of words. I thought a letter seemed apt. I wanted to keep our conversation going.
I keep thinking how wonderful it would be to share another meal at Fiat Café. I always loved how by the time our lunches came to a close you had not only made us laugh uproariously with your stories but also found a way to continually charm the restaurant staff such that, without fail, dessert was on the house! These were never short affairs. There was so much to talk about, to plan, and to conceive future projects. It makes me think back to when we installed our first show, Connecting the… in 2014. It featured a magnificent large-scale rope drawing that only you saw fit to arrange. You flew up and down our ten-foot ladder and almost gave me a heart attack. You were unstoppable. Your commitment to get it just right and create an immersive experience for the viewer left me in awe and made it clear why you’re such an irrepressible, magnificent artist.
Brian, you taught me so many things, not only how to be a better gallerist but also, quite simply, a better human being. I will always treasure how you showed me the importance of not taking oneself too seriously. Even when you talked about your (many) achievements, there was always a glint of mischievousness and humility in your eyes. Isn't that why you came up with all these different personas? Your wit and curiosity couldn't be contained. There was always more to say, more to explore, more to question. Sometimes when I am stuck installing a show, I think (and will continue to think) about you and ask myself how I can surprise the viewer, shift things around so as to make the dialogue between the works less obvious, while at the same time open the pieces up to more compelling interpretations. For sure, much of this is indebted to reading Inside the White Cube while in grad school. Your text allowed me (and countless others) to approach problems differently and push for more unusual solutions. Sometimes it doesn't take much just to take a few steps aside so it becomes possible to try out a different perspective and look at a situation in a new light.
Brian, you’ve left such a profound mark on all that have known you. Your art and writing, wit and intelligence, charm and kindness, your mane of white hair and sparkling eyes are unforgettable. I count myself so lucky to have had the chance to work with you, learn from you, and spend time in the presence of your art.
Brian O’Doherty spent nearly three decades as a program director at the National Endowment for the Arts, the US government funding agency founded in 1965. At the September 1996 meeting of the NEA’s advisory National Council (whose members over the years included prominent senators, creative professionals, and philanthropists), Chair Jane Alexander announced O’Doherty's resignation:
Brian O’Doherty, who has been our Media Director and former Director of the Visual Arts program, resigned after twenty-seven years at the Endowment. Brian made the media arts program and the Endowment all that it is today, and he can be very proud of promoting and sustaining the careers of some of the most outstanding video, film, tv, and radio artists of our time…
Brian is a true Renaissance Man. Any of you who know him know that he is renowned as a painter in his own right, a novelist, a teacher, a critic, and a physician, and he plans to continue all those activities in his time away from the Endowment in the future, and I have no doubt that he will find something even in addition to do, so it is with regret that we lose Brian, but we welcome the opportunity for him to continue in other areas in his life.
During his tenure at the NEA, O’Doherty had navigated the period that came to be known as the Culture Wars, when government funding of the arts came under glaring and sensationalist attack. At a 1989 meeting of the National Council, while facing the peak of this censorship battle, O’Doherty reported to the council members:
Certainly to some extent in our department, we feel that we are on a car or a truck with the brakes gone, and it is going around curves at increasing speeds, and the public taste—it gets into larger issues about public taste, and democracy, and education, and what people want and, if they don’t want it, how do you give it to them, et cetera, et cetera, which is repeatedly the situation we find ourselves in here, which leads into these odious postures of what is good for you, which certainly I would not agree with because the arts are as raucous, as unpleasant, and critical, and raunchy, and vigorous, as I hope any other sector of life is.
While he recoiled from the notion that art is only useful if it is “good for you,” he also seemed willing to commit a little force feeding: “if they don’t want it, how do you give it to them?” O’Doherty never shied away from such moments of playful subterfuge. His steadfast belief in the multifarious, destabilizing potential of art manifested covertly in his own use of art as a form of self-examination.
Although, as Jane Alexander mentioned in her announcement of his NEA retirement, the breadth of his creative pursuits was unknown to many of his peers, in some cases they were purposefully concealed. I was fortunate to be granted access to O’Doherty's many iterations as a scholar of his work, and his receptiveness to becoming a subject of study was in some ways inherent to its meaning. The “Renaissance Man”—a painter, novelist, teacher, critic, physician, and more—was also using those same forms of expression to question and challenge himself and the milieux in which he functioned. O’Doherty created several alter egos, each with a different background, whom he utilized to scrutinize other artists, aspects of culture, and even himself. O’Doherty’s adoption of several aliases, including Sigmund Bode (a radical linguistic philosopher), Mary Josephson (a feminist poet-critic), William Maginn (inspired by a nineteenth-century Irish journalist), and, most famously and durably, the artist Patrick Ireland, attests to a self-hybridization—an active liberation of his own intellectual and creative persona. This liberation enabled O’Doherty to manipulate the figure “Brian O’Doherty,” effectively producing his own ultimate viewer. As an NEA administrator, he played master of ceremonies behind the scenes, thereby shaping the art world into an environment that he could engage from multiple angles.
In 2006, I had the privilege of hosting a symposium in Trinity College Dublin on the artwork of Brian O’Doherty, aka Patrick Ireland, as part of the Trinity Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC) program of events to showcase the achievements of Irish artists. Mounted in association with the Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, which presented a retrospective of the artist’s work, the keynote was delivered by the artist’s friend Thomas McEvilley, a perceptive critic who knew the artist and his work intimately.1
To the delight of all the contributors to the event, Brian and his wife Barbara Novak (the noted artist, art historian, and novelist), traveled from the United States to attend, and this was one of several occasions when they stayed in the guestrooms on campus. The range of speakers came from far and wide, providing so many observations and perspectives on Brian O’Doherty’s work, and demonstrating his international significance.
What I perhaps found most unexpected from my own experience of Brian was the generosity with which he gave his time, discussing so many aspects of his thinking through conversations and letters. I met him on many occasions when he visited Ireland, and these exchanges were rich with anecdotes and insights. Known for his ground-breaking art at the forefront of Conceptualism, it was fascinating to learn of his personal and creative history, how the mundane practical challenges of existence endured by his forebears informed his understanding of the vagaries of life experience, and found expression in his art and writing. The sensory and tactile was always fundamental to his work, even at its most cerebral: from the haunting aroma of hand-cut turf to the conceptualized sounds of his structured performance pieces; experience of space ranged from the inside/outside dichotomies of his early work, the enclosing webs of his rope drawings throughout his oeuvre, the geometric mazes of his architectonic sculptures, and his late, ritualized performance processions.
Brian responded to my curiosity over the agendas of landscape and environment with his customary wit and insight. His earliest work included experimental paintings of the local rural landscape. However, in a letter, he commented “I guess my real landscape painting was the ‘Rick’ of 1975.”2 Rick (1975) was not, of course, a “painting” in the literal sense, but a combination of Land art and Conceptualism, and its display was unexpected in the Irish context. The artwork comprised a full-sized rick of hand-cut turf, professionally constructed, he explained, by John Kelly, and installed as part of his exhibition at the David Hendriks Gallery, in a Georgian building on St. Stephen’s Green. Exuding the familiar and nostalgic scent of an icon to rural tradition, the artwork proposed to spark debate on aspects and consequences of social change. Land art was designed to challenge the traditional “white cube” space of the gallery, and so presaged O’Doherty’s most celebrated theoretical treatise.3
The anomaly was that a Conceptual art work, theoretically intended to be more about the idea than its realisation as an object, was effectively more “real” than a “realist” illusionistic painting of the same subject. And while illusionistic paintings were held in high regard, O’Doherty’s artwork was met with mixed responses.4
I asked Brian what happened to Rick after its display in 1975, and he explained with a chuckle that Rick was given to an artist friend who remarked that it kept her warm in the winter. Any presentation of the artwork had to be a reconstruction, in keeping with Conceptualist ethos, and in 2000 Rick was re-presented at the Shifting Ground exhibition at IMMA, to showcase selected examples of Irish art created during the previous fifty years. The conditions in the gallery caused the material to shrink, and the structure collapsed, an apt comment perhaps on the situation the artwork addressed. In 2005, it was planned to reconstruct Rick again in The West as Metaphor exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy.5 Insufficient hand-cut turf was available for its construction but, with the agreement of the artist, it was reconceptualised using commercial bales of briquettes replete with their plastic ties, to be titled Rick 1975 (2005), a notable consequence of the initial theme of the artwork.
In 2019 Rick was constructed again, at the Sirius Arts Centre, for a show curated by the then director, Miranda Driscoll. The inclusion of that artwork as well as Shannon (1949) was inspired, she advised, by an essay “The Landscapes of (Patrick) Ireland.”6 The show, entitled House Call, comprised selected work by Brian O’Doherty, alongside an exhibition of artwork by Mary-Ruth Walsh. The reconstruction of Rick was affected by restrictions on cutting peat to protect the natural carbon sinks of raised bogs; the gallery compromised by constructing a timber framework with just an outer “skin” of turf. Thus, the artwork emulated but did not replicate the original Rick. However, ironically, such a development responded to Brian O’Doherty’s concept more effectively than a simple reconstruction of the object in its original form.
It is no surprise in retrospect that Brian O’Doherty adopted a range of personas to suggest something of the plurality of identity. Apart from his roles in family and friendship, in his professional life, he was, inter alia, a medic, critic, theorist, editor, broadcaster, curator, artist, and writer—but less as a series of independent roles than in the context of interwoven, organic creativity.
Like the best work, his art was not just of his time, but referenced also the legacy of the past, and it continues to be relevant as we anticipate the future.
- My thanks to the invited guest editor, Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, who published the symposium papers with additional essays that she sought to include in Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Word, Image, and Institutional Critique, Valiz, 2017, supported by Trinity College Dublin and the University of Amsterdam.
- Letter from Brian O’Doherty to Yvonne Scott, 10 March, 2006.
- Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, The Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, Berkeley and San Francisco, 1986, was based on three articles published in Artforum in 1976.
- Blaithin O’Ciobhain, “Evolving Shapes,” Irish Press, 1 September 1975; James Barry, “This Rick of Turf is Art!,” Evening Press, 5 December 1975.
- The exhibition was co-curated at the RHA by Patrick T. Murphy and Yvonne Scott.
- Yvonne Scott, “The Landscapes of (Patrick) Ireland; Strolling with the Zeitgeist” and “Asymmetrical Twins,” in Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, editor, Valiz, 2017, pp. 172–92.
Read all contributor bios here.