The Many Faces of Brian O’Doherty

A common theme haunts descriptions of the Irish artist Brian O’Doherty; to many, he is a protean ghost, transcendent of categories and heedless of circumscription. Maybe this feels more ordinary today, after critiques of gender and racial constructs have argued convincingly, that our selves are nothing if not spectral. Still, having worked under at least five pseudonyms across art, literature, and criticism, the eighty-nine year old artist has become a model for wary shape-shifters.

This January, a retrospective exhibition at New York’s Simone Subal Gallery (in collaboration with P!) unfolded into a country sundered by a critical dilemma – how might we imbue pluralistic identities with the common cause so necessary amidst political crises? In this climate, O’Doherty’s multi-vocal persona has much to show us, especially as his many selves weave through intransigent social dynamics across language, gender, and ethnicity. Still, the ineluctable relationship between identity and power triggers a necessary query: how does the character he will never outstrip – the white European man – bolster his ease in transfiguration? There are consequences to this privilege that work structurally in his quasi-fictional project, against the political and social resistances performed.

O’Doherty himself set the standard of scrutiny that compels such questions, in a series of essays written for Artforum and later collected by UC Press as Inside the White Cube (1986). Contemporary art, he argued, had become a crypto-sacred realm, quarantined from worldly turmoil. Oscillating between recondite analysis and whipping disdain, he describes art as “an advanced culture which has cancelled its values in the name of an abstraction called freedom.” It’s hard to disagree. In our new century, the discipline’s loftier ideals are undermined by the decided un-freeness of our institutions: museums and art educations sealed to the economically disenfranchised by twenty-dollar entrance fees, and six-figure price tags.

Inside the White Cube turns on the observation that since Modern art, context implicitly gives meaning to opaque works. Bereft of easily-interpreted content, contemporary art requires the viewer to dream up “virtues the schlock designer didn’t even know he/she had.” The result tends to be a vague but ultimately inexplicable sense of political purpose. Having given this dynamic such scrutiny, O’Doherty then employed it to subtle – and masterful – effect, crafting a politically charged context for his own paintings, drawings, and performances. It follows that his discreet artworks have become epigrammatic props in a literary chronicle, spanning books, galleries, and life itself.

This effect has been accomplished largely through O’Doherty’s novel The Deposition of Father Mcgreevy, nominated in 1999 for the Man Booker Prize. Therein, an Irish Catholic priest narrates his village’s obliteration. The destruction of this community is due not only to a ravaging winter, but to the surrounding townspeople, who scorn the villagers with accusations of backwardness and perversion. Often, O’Doherty writes the dialogue of these villagers in Irish (as opposed to the form of English spoken in contemporary Ireland). With this act of linguistic subversion, his novel becomes invisibly coupled with his paintings, drawings, and sculptures, which are structured by geometric shapes, based on an ancient Irish language called Ogham. In Ireland as elsewhere, the stigmatization of native languages has often been a tool of imperialist violence. So when O’Doherty esteems this dialect with painstaking footnotes, the novel shudders social import. By association, his gallery-sequestered artworks absorb the same deeply-felt politics.

Ever tending his personal mythology, O’Doherty found a way to weave his novel’s central tragedy with his own pseudonymic enterprise. In the book’s closing pages, we meet William Maginn, a writer who’s been reading father McGreevy’s account along with us. Maginn’s namesake was a real-life nineteenth-century humorist, who wrote a book titled The O’Doherty Papers. Here, O’Doherty is playing games of projection and identity transference, engineering multiple echoes of his own personage, into the novel and its backstory. Disoriented and unconvinced of the fixed unity of a self, he has us right where he wants us.

Before working as an art critic for the New York Times, O’Doherty trained as a medical doctor. Later he hosted television programs, edited Art in America, wrote for the same magazine under the name Mary Josephson, and, in 1967, took on the moniker Sigmund Bode to produce an issue of the avant-publication Aspen. There, he commissioned Roland Barthes’s canonical essay “The Death of the Author.” Barthes observes that the cult of the individual author is a feature of capitalism. His purpose in so doing is to reframe the reader as an empowered agent in literature, who, in reading, synthesizes these threads, which the author could only gather together and transcribe. On the way to deconstructing this phenomenon, Barthes argues that:

“… all writing itself this special voice, constituting of several indiscernible voices, and … literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin … the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”

For an artist whose central gambit has been a dispersion of his own creative persona, commissioning this piece amounted to a canny shoring of the theoretical basis for his own work. This cunning might seem unsavory, if it weren’t worn so plainly on the sleeve of O’Doherty’s artistic livery.

The subtext of both the Barthes essay and O’Doherty’s life project suggest that literature and art might allow the strictures of monolithic identity to fall away. This is an emancipatory vision, in which language and art become corporeal and egoless. But not all identities are shed with equal ease – a fact known viscerally by people of color, and those whose gender or sexuality does not conform to conservative norms. It’s paramount to examine power O’Doherty implicitly carries as a Caucasian – and to reflect on the ways in which that privilege has likely strengthened his ability to perform sundry identities, while safely retaining the position given by society to his (and my) demographic. Because no demographic enjoys a greater assumption of innocence, trustworthiness, and competence, no demographic is freer to craft its own identity. All the same, O’Doherty’s project has repeatedly manifested an aura of social care, especially when making incisive loops through received history.

Ogham on Upper Broadway (2003/04), for example, melds Celtic language with Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942/43). Both paintings present architectonic arrangements of stripes and blocks. But in contrast to Mondrian’s primary colors, O’Doherty’s wildflower purples, blues, and reds mimic Irish tartan. And while Mondrian’s title crosses the artist’s famed dancing habit with Manhattan’s gridded rhythm, O’Doherty’s rendition nods more toward dancing as a stereotype of Irish culture. In these ways, the painting surreptitiously shades the Irish New York experience into a cornerstone of Modernist painting. What’s more, the solicitude of O’Doherty’s relationship to painted color causes the image to hover, without need for the referent. Being so easy on the eyes, this picture seems defiant of O’Doherty’s own incisive critical habits. Evidently, his vocational dilettantism has allowed him to adopt the cutting critic’s voice one day, while undertaking a colorist’s gentle work the next. To borrow a phrase from an art-school friend, he has learned well how to “dance at different parties.”

It was during a dinner event at his own Manhattan home that O’Doherty had an encounter with Marcel Duchamp, now central to his career and mythology. Inveterate deconstructionist of the artworld’s facile value structures, Duchamp figured as both model and rival to O’Doherty. Sharing the elder artist’s penchant for gamesmanship, O’Doherty couldn’t resist taking him down a peg. His tactic was to refute Duchamp’s statement that art “diminishes by half lives in the museum.” To this end, he mounted an electrocardiogram reading of Duchamp’s heartbeat, entitled Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: Lead 1, Slow Heartbeat (1966), and in this way the nonpareil saboteur of artworld pretence lives forever, in contradiction of his own dictum.

This was an act of counter-authoritative subterfuge – a way of respecting the master’s importance while refusing his enthralling power. O’Doherty’s latest novel, The CrossDresser’s Secret (2014), finds this ethos of well-intentioned deceit in an eighteenth-century French diplomat called Chevalier d’Éon, who circulated through gender and professional identities depending on circumstance. In a political schema replete with well-kept secrets and veiled proclivities, the Chevalier’s mercurial sexual identity furnishes both anxiety and power. In 1973, O’Doherty famously responded to state-sanctioned violence, by killing off his own name. British soldiers had just massacred fourteen Irish citizens in what became known as Bloody Sunday. Suspected of IRA affiliation, the victims had been marching in protest of summary imprisonment. From that year on, O’Doherty’s dissolved into that of an enigmatic artist named Patrick Ireland. In 2008, when a peace-making coalition was established in Northern Ireland, Patrick Ireland was interred in a mock burial and O’Doherty returned.

While working as Ireland, O’Doherty sometimes reappeared as a critic. In one videotaped review, he suggested that his alter ego’s work may simply be “the egregious exercise of the gratuitous.” Because the installation critiqued was an immersive mural intercut with string drawings in space – synonymous with the work O’Doherty would continue to make – the tapping amounts to an exercise in public self-scrutiny, by proxy alias. Although the video is a little campy, it triggers a melancholy. O’Doherty has set a high standard for examining the political exigencies of personhood. He has done so by absurdly fragmenting this person, only to have it absurdly reconstituted, time and again. All the while, a hurting self-analysis fissures the trickster’s easy grin.

An in-depth look at a rope drawing by Brian O’Doherty, titled “The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven – Christina’s World, Rope Drawing No # 124,” 2015. Narrating from IMMA curator Christina Kennedy, and featuring an interview with the artist.

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