Brian O’Doherty, a beloved artist and critic whose work took an unusually diverse array of forms, from forward-thinking art writing to abstract painting, died of natural causes on Monday at his home in New York. He was 94.
His New York gallery, Simone Subal, confirmed his death Tuesday.
O’Doherty, who sometimes worked under the name Patrick Ireland, one of several alter egos, gained a loyal following in many corners of the art world for his pesky sculptures, his sly performances, and his perceptive criticism. He is perhaps one of the few artists ever to have been nominated for a Booker Prize and one of the few writers ever to have earned a major institutional retrospective in Ireland, the country where he was born.
He was a figure whose output defied easy classification, a fact which he seemed to relish.
“I always found multiplicity available to everybody and greatly unused by everybody,” he told Frieze in 2018. “I deeply believe people are capable of much more than the one role they assign to themselves. There is much more that people can do.”
For many, O’Doherty’s defining work was his 1986 book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, which first appeared as a series of essays in Artforum a decade earlier. That book took up the very nature of modern art galleries themselves, considering the ways that their chilly architecture was inseparable from how the objects held within were perceived. It has been credited with terming the phrase “white cube,” which has become so ubiquitous in the art world that there is even a London gallery named after it.
“A gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church,” O’Doherty wrote. “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life.'”
These days, such a thesis is hardly revolutionary. At the time, however, art was undergoing a profound change in which the context in which a work was shown was suddenly equally important as the piece itself. O’Doherty was essential in helping people understand that change.
By this point, O’Doherty had already had a decorated career as an art writer, serving as an art critic for the New York Times and NBC, and as an editor for Art in America. Yet his indefinable art was in some ways connected to the dynamic he described in Inside the White Cube.
He frequently drew on the sly art practice of Marcel Duchamp, with whom he at one point even had dinner. He measured Duchamp’s heart rate using a cardiogram, then, for one group of works begun in 1966, and made art based on the resulting reading. In so doing, O’Doherty offered an alternative kind of portraiture, one in which the sitter’s presence was only registered in the form of evidence that he was once there.
O’Doherty himself often played with his own identity. In 1972, for the work Name Change, he became Patrick Ireland, a protest, he said, against the Bloody Sunday massacre in which British police killed more than a dozen protestors in Derry. In 2008, to celebrate peace in Northern Ireland, O’Doherty laid the pseudonym to rest for The Burial of Patrick Ireland, which now exists only as a headstone owned by the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
He also took up Sigmund Bode, a faux art historian; Mary Josephson, a fictional feminist art critic who got herself published in Art in America and Artforum; and Williams Magnin, who became a protagonist in one of his novels. And, for the 2014 book The Crossdresser’s Secret, O’Doherty wrote from the perspective of the Chevalier d’Eon, a real-life figure who identified as both a man and a woman during the 18th century.
“Where alter egos are concerned,” Saul Ostrow once wrote in Art in America, “O’Doherty easily outdoes Duchamp/Rrose Sélavy.”
Brian O’Doherty was born in 1928 in Ballaghaderreen, Ireland, and was raised in Dublin. He trained to become a doctor and even worked for a year in a cancer hospital. But his heart was with the art world, and so he moved to what was then the center of it, New York, in 1957. He took a job as a critic to support himself.
During this period, O’Doherty became exceedingly well-connected. In 1967, he was chosen to edit a double issue of Aspen, a short-lived “three-dimensional magazine” about the avant-garde that looked less like a publication than it did a sculpture of a sort. Among its contributors was the French philosopher Roland Barthes, whose famed “Death of the Author” essay was published for the first time in English in the issue.
In the decades afterward, O’Doherty would continue to chart new formal territory with his art. In 1973, he began producing a series of rope drawings in which cord was strung all across gallery spaces, causing viewers to have to kneel beneath and step carefully around them in order to properly see them. These works pushed the theory purveyed in Inside the White Cube into action, forcing viewers to look beyond the gallery wall to contemplate the spaces around them.
“The blank wall is not easy,” he once told Artforum, speaking of a 2015 rope drawing. “Corners and whole rooms are easier, but the wall is a complete, enveloping experience. A dialogue is established between those continents of inside and outside.”
Even works that seemed more straightforward, like O’Doherty’s abstract paintings, were often more dense and conceptual than they first appeared.
Some of his works relied on Ogham, a Medieval alphabet that has been considered the basis for Irish as it stands today. One painting based on those characters is titled One Here Now and fills the walls of the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh. The piece was a reference, according to O’Doherty, to the space’s history as a former yacht club belonging to British colonizers and to his own personal life, since he departed from New York from the Cobh harbor.
Still, by the time O’Doherty received a Booker Prize nomination for The Deposition of Father McGreevy, a 1999 novel in which William Magnin visits an Irish village where all the women die, he was written about in the press as an out-of-left-field contender. In a profile called “Brian who?,” the Guardian wrote that O’Doherty had been “described as an unknown.”
For those familiar with this “unknown” figure, however, O’Doherty’s many identities, and his multifarious art, made him a figure worthy of greater attention.
In 2014, when he had two gallery shows in New York simultaneously, the New York Times wrote, “Brian O’Doherty would fit right in among the artist-writer-curators and assorted polymaths of this year’s Whitney Biennial.”
And O’Doherty himself seemed to delight in his ability to elude even those who knew him well.
When he buried Patrick Ireland in 2008, he told the Times, “None of us wants to be put in a box.” Then, with a laugh, he added, “Except today.”