MoMA PS1 celebrates its fortieth anniversary this summer with an exhibition organized by founder Alanna Heiss. “Forty” features work by many of the artists who participated in the contemporary art center’s first show in 1976, including former A.i.A. editor Brian O’Doherty. In our December 2007 issue, on the occasion of a traveling retrospective, critic Saul Ostrow parsed O’Doherty’s oeuvre, which the artist has produced through five distinct alter egos, most notably Patrick Ireland. Ostrow argues that O’Doherty’s artworks and writings “allow fiction to take on the appearance of fact and vice versa” by employing a complex network of historical and personal references. –Eds.
“Beyond the White Cube,” organized by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, consists of a representative selection of works produced over the last 40 yeas by the proto-Minimalist, conceptual artist and polymath Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland. 1 Because O’Doherty (Patrick Ireland and other alter egos will be discussed below) is known for a wide range of unorthodox practices, it was somewhat disconcerting to enter the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, the exhibition’s U.S. venue, and be greeted by Ogham on Broadway (2003), a straightforward-seeming abstract painting that references Mondrian in general and the Dutch artist’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie in particular. O’Doherty’s composition consists of an irregular grid of colored bars on a gray ground. Small dark squares mark the bars’ intersections. One recovered upon teaming that this painting, and the three other roughly contemporary canvases on view, are not the products of conventional taste, but the result of a systematic application of an ancient Celtic alphabet called Ogham. 2 In fact, Ogham on Broadway relates not only to the ink drawing Vowel Grid (1970), with its lines of broken color, but also to a performance of that same name and year. O’Doherty’s renewed engagement with abstract painting in the wake of its much-discussed rejection some 40 years before, by him and many fellow conceptualists, represents yet another move within the complex network of strategies that orders the Irish-born artist’s production.
Making sense of O’Doherty’s progress has never been easy. His eclectic approach (which is akin in some respects to that of Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Dennis Oppenhiem, et al.) stems from some of the structuralist insights concerning the role of language that are at the heart of Fluxus and Conceptual art. This orientation reflects the influence on O’Doherty of a community of young artists (including Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Mel Bochner, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Ruth Vollmer and Peter Hutchinson among others) that he joined upon moving to New York City from Boston, his home for four years, in 1961. Also at that time, the composer/musicologist John Cage and artist and chess master Marcel Duchamp, were asserting a significant influence on the restless minds of many younger artists, who responded with anti-art gestures, happenings, found objects and more. In this environment, artists sensitive to the limitations imposed by the legacy of modernism sought to escape the confines of signature style, good taste and self-expression by turning to process, performance, concepts and systems.
The sense of freedom of the early 1960s may explain what appears to be the inchoate collection of gestures and experimental works that O’Doherty produced in the pivotal years 1966 and ’67. During this two-year period, his works touched on the themes of identity, perception and transliteration, all of which continue to preoccupy him. Among the seminal pieces are Hearing, an upright, tubular sculpture with a small window through which are viewed small reliefs representing stages in the development of the ear; Bishops Cross, consisting of an X shape that has been cast in glass and rests on a painted chessboard, where it reiterates the diagonal trajectories of the four bishop pieces; a suite of tongue-in-cheek portraits of Marcel Duchamp based on his electrocardiogram; a number of drawings of labyrinths; the ink-on-acetate book Scenario for Black: A Structural Film; the first of the “Structural Plays,” a series of grid-and-language-based works on paper that serve as diagrams of performances; the photo-and-text piece Past, Present Future: Portrait of the Artist Aet 7; the first of the Ogham drawings and sculptures; and Aspen 5+6, an assemblage of artworks and texts by others that he edited as a double issue of Aspen magazine [see slideshow].
Key to understanding the diverse inventory of works that O’Doherty developed from the 1960s into the early ’70s is the pencil drawing Wittgenstein 7H to 7B (1967), a sheet of paper on which a portrait of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has been carefully drawn 14 times. For each rendering, O’Doherty used a different standard grade of graphite pencil (from hard to soft), with the result that each successive image is darker and more distinct than its predecessor. What makes this work key is the emphasis on repetition with variation as well as the piece’s ostensible subject, Wittgenstein. At the time this drawing was made, the Austrian philosopher’s thoughts on language as a game were exerting considerable influence on artists, O’Doherty among them, who were concerned with dismantling some of the metaphysical assumptions that circumscribed art. By producing multiple—if visibly different—images of the “same” Wittgenstein (à la Warhol), O’Doherty aimed to demonstrate that any preference for one Wittgenstein image over another would merely be an exercise of individual taste and reflect no esthetic absolutes.
O’Doherty’s interest in repetition, variation and permutation had its source in the perceptual and cognitive investigations in which he participated in 1957 as a young researcher at Cambridge University’s Experimental Psychology Laboratories. He recycled some basic research materials from those experiments—notably a sequence of drawings in which various objects morph into others—in the mixed-medium piece Between Categories. Dated 1957-68, this work seems to signal O’Doherty’s adoption of the role of the artist-researcher. His subsequent endeavors can be regarded as a career-long investigation (though perhaps not a very systematic one) into the complex network of historical and personal references, physical and mental processes, and social systems and institutions that together structure a work of art.
Among the preoccupations to which O’Doherty intermittently returns is the issue of self-portraiture and autobiographical anecdote. The self-reflexivity of his work is announced by the Johnsian assemblage The Critic’s Boots (1964-65), which consists of a pair of men’s ankle boots mounted on board and covered with reviews written by O’Dolierty during his stint as an art critic for the New York Times in the early ’60s. While the names of the artists in O’Doherty’s reviews are prominently displayed, nowhere do we see his byline.
His arrangement of the boots is reminiscent of van Gogh’s painting of mud-encrusted shoes (A Pair of Shoes, 1886), which became the subject of a protracted theoretical dispute between the German philosopher Martin Heidegger and the art historian Meyer Schapiro. Their differences revolved around Heidegger’s interpretation of the van Gogh painting, specifically his anthropomorphizing of the shoes and his attendant assumption that their owner had been a peasant woman tied to the soil. Schapiro rebutted this interpretation, which suspiciously echoed the völkish ideology of National Socialism, countering that far from even showing a pair of shoes, van Gogh has actually represented two misshapen left shoes, with the owner (or owners’) gender and identity being entirely unknowable. By alluding to this scholarly exchange in a work papered with his own written criticism, O’Doherty seems to be taking a stand on interpretive indeterminacy.
Art history and criticism—and autobiography—also figure in the story of the trompe l’oeil wooden book Art Since 1945 (1975). Prominently displayed on the coves; along with a painted black square, are the title and the author’s name: Brian O’Doherty. This “book,” which can never be read, arose from a commission to write a history of postwar art that O’Doherty had accepted years earlier. When pressed by the publisher to either deliver the book or return his advance, O’Doherty presented him with this object, facetiously fulfilling the terms of the contract. The publisher was not amused. All of this anecdotal information, plus a critical analysis of the entire episode, can be found in a three-page deposition, witnessed and notarized, which accompanies the book.
O’Doherty has employed other modes of self-representation to address the issues of presence, appearance and his own imposture as an artist. Past, Present Future: Portrait of the Artist Aet 7 consists of a snapshot of a storefront in whose window both the photographer (O’Doherty) and the street behind him are reflected. Beneath this image is a lengthy expository text concerning the artist’s intentions and the conditions under which the photograph was taken. A subsequent work, The Transformation, Discontinuity, and Degeneration of the Image (begun 1969 and ongoing), consists of well over 100 photo-booth snapshots, taken on different occasions and recording a 360-degree circumnavigation of the artist. With pictures added at no specific or consistent intervals, the work records the passage of time in both the changing appearance of the aging artist and the declining quality of the earliest photographs in the piece.
A variant on self-portraiture in which O’Doherty engages is the production of alter egos. Patrick Ireland, the best known, came into being in 1972 in response to Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers opened fire on hundreds of civilians marching in Derry to protest the interment of political activists. The 1972 performance that marked the advent of Patrick Ireland consisted of O’Doherty being painted in the colors of the Irish flag and vowing to sign all of his work with Ireland’s name until the British leave for good. The mixed-medium work Name Change (1972), though it includes O’Doherty’s declaration, is less exclusively political than the action to which it refers. Accompanying O’Doherty’s declaration here is a sequence of photographs that document the performance along with a series of gouache drawings whose figural imagery may have been based on the photographs. Yet the gouaches also appear to constitute a storyboard for the performance itself. Consequently, and surely deliberately in view of O’Doherty’s gamesmanship, it is difficult to determine if the gouaches exist as a template for the performance or as a response to its photodocumentation.
Where alter egos are concerned, O’Doherty easily outdoes Duchamp/Rrose Sélavy, for Ireland is just one of the four personae he has adopted since 1950. The others include Sigmund Bode (an art historian, created in 1950), Mary Josephson (a writer for Art in America and Artforum, who arrived on the scene in 1973) and Williams Magnin (an actual 19th-century Irish wit and writer). 3 The full cast of characters appears in the composite photograph Five Identities (2002), a group portrait for which O’Doherty was made-up and costumed as each member of the ensemble. Over the years, all of these personae have lived lives and accrued credentials. Photographed together with their author, they become the embodiment of O’Doherty’s insights into how mutability, subjectivity and fabrication destabilize simple representation, allowing fiction to take on the appearance of fact and vice versa.
Virtually from the start of his career, O’Doherty has partnered images and texts in works that explore the limits of visual information and the susceptibility of that information to being commandeered by language. This is the underlying issue in four of the pieces that were featured at the Grey Art Gallery, Piero in Ireland (1957), The Therapeutics of Dr. Fraud, Plato’s Cave and The Sorrows of Z (the latter three 1968). Each consists of an image accompanied by a handwritten, fictive narrative. In The Sorrows of Z, for example, a painted configuration of concentric, squared bands of gray progressively darkens to a central black field (calling to mind Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series and certain works by Frank Stella). The image becomes illustrative by being paired with a gothic tale whose protagonist has been placed inside the first of five nested containers, depriving him of all stimuli but the humming of his own nervous system.
While such textual works can be associated with O’Doherty’s role as a critic and, later, novelist, they also reflect his preoccupation with the process by which language symbolically fills the gap between the inner realm of thought and the outer world of experience. Structured to materialize this theme are the vertical Ogham sculptures (an ongoing series begun in 1967), which are made of wood and surfaced with highly polished sheets of aluminum. The columnar forms are designed in three different cross sections, two differently angled V-shapes and a W. Upon each piece, where the planes converge, O’Doherty inscribes in the Ogham alphabet of angled strokes the words “One,” “Here” and “Now.”
O’Doherty’s researches into the dynamics of perception, reflection (literal and metaphoric) and language converge in the Ogham sculptures in a format that is at once word and image. The multiple reflections generated by the pieces’ shapes and surfaces engage the viewer and the marks in a complex relationship. Each inscribed or reflected element interacts with and/or obscures the other. There also seems to be, once again, an underlying art-critical reference: the narrow, vertical format, mark-making and choice of words (which suggests the titles of such Barnett Newman paintings as Onement and Here) may imply that O’Doherty, like Donald Judd and other artists in the late 1960s, was seeking to refute Newman’s metaphysics of presence in order to advance a materialist program.
A related concern of O’Doherty’s is the connection between sense data, knowledge and language, an issue explored in the ink-on-paper drawing The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne (1967-68). The title references the influential early 18th-century empiricist George Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne), whose philosophical position is summed up in his axiom “To be is to be perceived.” Setting out to thoroughly diagram the full range of sense experience, O’Doherty fills the cells of three grids with a series of water-color squares and all possible combinations of five simple glyphs that represent the sense organs. Beneath the grids are two texts written in the Ogham alphabet, one consisting of commands (or sense names) such as “smell” and “taste,” and the other being a corresponding but negative group of adjectives, such as “odorless” and “tasteless.”
O’Doherty had already begun to address the relationship between the body, experience and language with two earlier pieces, In the Wake (of), 1963-64, and Kips Bay: The Body and its Discontents (1964). Both consist of wooden boxes divided into compartments, each compartment containing a painted wooden block upon whose sides are inscribed one-word references to physiology, anatomy and the senses. To know these works fully, one has to take out each block, read all of its sides and return it to its place. With both pieces, O’Doherty expands the idea of knowledge to include unpredictable associations and chance readings, for the sequence in which the words are encountered by an individual viewer/reader cannot be predetermined.
The use of language in the works of 1963-64 as a source of arbitrary signifiers meant to activate the body and stimulate associations anticipates important aspects of the “Structural Plays” O’Doherty created between 1967 and ’69. Every play begins as a drawing (eight were on view in New York) with instructions, diagrams and a suggestive title (Chess, I Am Here Now, Violence, Sex, Identity, etc.). Though the series grows increasingly complex, the members all share a fundamental structure, worked out on a chessboard, according to which performers are placed within a gridded space and told to utter phrases or vowel sounds while enacting a prescribed pattern of steps. Akin to the “Structural Plays” is Vowel Grid (1970), which was represented in the exhibition by a video of a 1998 performance in Donegal. Two performers, dressed in white and wearing headgear that functions like a set of blinders, move about a gridded platform inscribed with 225 18-inch-square cells, which are color-coded to the Ogham vowels. One performer moves “across,” the other “down,” each reading off the apparently randomly encoded cells that they traverse.
O’Doherty’s performances are intimately related to his labyrinths, which first put in an appearance in 1967 in a series of drawings and one midsize Minimalist object, Vertical Labyrinth. It was not until the 1990s, however, that O’Doherty found an occasion to build a life-size labyrinth. Of particular interest is the fact that the labyrinths projected in the early drawings were conceived as arrangements of Minimalist foams within enclosed areas anther than as networks of interconnected and blocked passageways. Consequently, as a hypothetical viewer moved about within those projected confines, the pathways would lose their linear character to become spaces in which to experience the defining sculptural masses. Like the performances and Ogham sculptures, therefore, O’Doherty’s labyrinths assert the positioning of the body in space as a precondition of perception, cognition and interpretation. This is a conviction that also informs the Rope Drawings, which O’Doherty initiated in 1973 and continues to make today.
The Rope Drawings began as simple linear diagrams made of nylon cord stretched across space (comparable to the early works of Fred Sandbank) and evolved into complex, site-specific installations that combine rope and painted walls in feats of pictorial and optical illusionism. The more recent Rope Drawings, which often suggest a suite of rooms that one cannot enter, developed from wall paintings in the artist’s home, the Casa dipinta, in Todi, Italy. 4 O’Doherty began to work there in 1976, and the house has served as a laboratory for developing new motifs and as a site for permanent installations.
As in Dublin, where the exhibition premiered, O’Doherty created a new work, Talking with Bramante, Rope Drawing #111, for the Grey Art Gallery. When the viewer moved about the installation, the lengths of nylon cord interacted perceptually with the eccentric geometric color planes that had been painted on the gallery, walls. If the viewer paused to visually align the ropes with the edges of the forms rendered on the walls, the ropes appeared to lose their spatial presence, becoming the outlines of the painted fields. It took only the smallest shift of body or head to throw the ensemble off register.
The Rope Drawings, all bearing Patrick Ireland’s name, have come to be O’Doherty’s most prolific area of production, leading one to speculate that the artist now believes that privileging the conceptual and phenomenal over the esthetic and the formal does not necessarily dictate the outright abandonment of traditional practices like painting. In arriving at this position, O’Doherty has moved from the nihilism of Duchamp’s Dada to the orderly dynamics of El Lissitzky’s Constructivism. In a long career of provocations marked by a sustained rejection of sentiment and metaphysics, this turn to a more inclusive vision of art may be the most surprising yet.
“Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland” appeared at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, Apr. 30-July 1. The show was organized by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, where it premiered May 5-Aug. 27, 2006.
1. Before devoting himself full-time to the visual arts, Dr. Brian O’Doherty spent a year working in a cancer hospital following his graduation from Cambridge Medical School. He conducted medical research at Harvard after immigrating to the U.S. O’Doherty served as art critic for the New York Times (1961-64), editor of Art in America (1971-74) and on-air art critic for NBC. He is the author of numerous works of criticism, including American Masters: The Voice and the Myth (1974) and the influential book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1986), whose three texts on the art gallery as a modernist invention were first published in 1976 in Artforum. O’Doherty has been a professor of fine arts and media at Long Island University. He was the first director of the NEA’s Visual Arts Program and, subsequently, the director of its Media Arts Program, during which time he was responsible for the creation of several major public television series. He has published two novels, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992) and The Deposition of Father McGreevey (1999), which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2000.
2. Based on the Roman alphabet, Ogham’s 20 characters are linear in configuration. Ogham has been found incised into standing stones that were once used to record property ownership.
3. For more on this subject see Thomas McEvilley, “An Artist & His Aliases–Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland,” Art in America, May 1999, pp. 138-41.
4. Casa dipinta was the subject of an article in the June 2007 issue of World of Interiors.