In Conversation

Brian O’ Doherty with Phong Bui

On the occasion of his retrospective, Beyond the White Cube at Grey Art Gallery, which will be on view till July 14th, the artist Brian O’Doherty—also known as Patrick Ireland—came to visit the Rail’s Headquarters to discuss his life and work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: I know you were first trained as a medical doctor, but you also kept up your practice as an artist. Did one discipline affect the other, and at which point did you give up such a respectable profession for the impoverished life of an artist?

O’Doherty: You can learn from any discipline. Medicine taught me. As a medical student I was already exhibiting in Dublin and London. But at the end of my residency at a big metropolitan hospital, while tumbling into bed, I realized I hadn’t had a dream in six months. I’d sleep the whole week-end to catch up. I did several residencies. But when a friend offered me a kind of pseudo-scholarship to the experimental psychology labs in Cambridge University, I jumped. It introduced me to a whole new field. They put me in an old Nissen hut left over from the war and said “Experiment.” I went out and I bought the books, read them intensely and designed an experiment in visual perception. My boss, Alan Welford of St. Johns, thought enough of it to put it in his book “Aging and Human Skill.” I had justified my existence.

Rail: So the whole experimental spirit from your previous medical experience corresponds similarly to your work as an artist from early on? I see in the exhibit your simultaneous interests in both representational, like the two self-portraits, as well as abstract; the latter recalls a combination of Theo van Doesburg and Ben Nicholson…

O’Doherty: I thought that van Doesberg and Nicholson were opposite from each other. Nicholson was a well-bred horse, a swift and elegant man, and van Doesburg was a great hard-edged thinker.

Rail: And he really got Mondrian mad by introducing the diagonal line, which ended their collaboration with De Stijl.

O’Doherty: Van Doesburg was also connected to the Dada artists, and that made a difference to me. Here was a man who could be pure and impure at the same time.

Rail: What did you do once you arrived in the U.S.?

Five Identities, 2002. Photograph on aluminum. 29×29 in. Courtesy the artist

O’Doherty: I first spent a year at Harvard when I came in 1957, doing all kinds of research. I got an MSc there, but I didn’t learn much. I switched from all things medical. I auditioned for a job as a television presenter at the Museum of Fine Arts from the Boston public television station, WGBH—TV. I would do a half hour each week from the galleries on the museum collections, also interviews with artists—Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, among others. My predecessor, a beautiful young woman, was responsible for getting me the job. She was leaving to teach at Barnard. In gratitude, I married her.

Rail: That’s how Barbara Novak came into the picture.

O’Doherty: WNBC showed that program, Invitation to Art. It had the second highest New York rating, which certainly surprised me. I was offered a show called “Dialogue”. I interviewed everyone from James Baldwin to Muhammad Ali, from Duchamp to Woody Allen. When I was still in Boston I got a letter from someone called John Canaday, offering a job as a critic. That’s when I moved to New York in 1961 and started writing for the New York Times. I wanted to join Barbara in New York. I conducted my education in public for three years.

Rail: So what was your impression of the New York art world during that time? It seems that you immediately understood the reliance on theory among minimalist artists as a way to repudiate the stagnation of Greenbergian formalist thinking.

O’Doherty: An important benchmark that is not quite acknowledged was made by the wonderful William Seitz, the MoMA curator who did great shows such as “The Art of Assemblage” and “Claude Monet: Seasons and Movements”. He wrote in an unlikely venue, Vogue, that the avant-garde era had ended. When the minimalists came along—the key show was “Primary Structures” curated by Kynaston McShine at the Jewish Museum in 1965—I was greatly impressed, more by the ideas than by the work. I, who had never wished to make art from the degraded slums of my inner life, was liberated by their example. Liberated, that is, from all romantic effusions and the fiction of “expression”. I was raised in a culture where romantic and hopeless rebellions were followed by brutal retaliations and repressions. Romanticism can rot your soul.

Rail: 1967 seems to be a very productive year for you!

O’Doherty: ’67 was a magical year.

Rail: Could you tell us the genesis of Aspen 5+6, which contains four 8mm films, five records, a sculpture model, and 23 printed matters, as you once said, it was your own one man show for that year?

O’Doherty: A handsome young chap, David Dalton, who was a Rock & Roll personality, called me up. He became a distinguished historian of rock and wrote books on Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (Mary Josephson wrote about them too). He said, “There’s this woman, Phyllis Johnson, who’s turning out this magazine in a box. Would you like to edit an issue?” That’s how it got started. Back then, Barbara and I used to have lunch with Morty Feldman nearly everyday at a BurgaQue on Third Avenue, that place vanished. Morty would say, “You out-of-town people get the New York code quicker than us natives.” What he meant is you have to pass through a place, its past, its history, its emanation, before you belong to it. I thought of what “ancestors” I would elect for my own New York history. My colleagues at the time were people like Dan Graham, Mel Bochner and Eva Hesse. So I assembled all these texts, films, records (I went around with an open-reel tape recorder) and arranged everything, as a general idea, along an axis of “excess” (say, Burroughs) and “reduction” (Robbe-Grillet would serve), a kind of spine that was easily understood. Of course that wasn’t the subject at all. The idea was to establish a network of provisional relationships that could be read in endless combinations, depending on the reader, listener, looker. Correspondences would announce themselves semi-Baudelairian fashion. Robert Morris’ “Site” would talk to Hans Richter’s “Rythmus 21”; László Moholy-Nagy’s “Light play: Black-White-Grey” would share its transparencies with Rauschenberg’s “Linoleum.” I worked for a year on the damned thing, always knew exactly what I wanted. I called up the Irishman in Paris—

Rail: Beckett.

O’Doherty: Yes. I asked him if he could do a little paragraph on silence. He listened patiently and said, in a very Irish way, “Ah sure, I haven’t a scrap.” But I was ready for that, “Texts for Nothing” had just come out. I asked if I could use one of the texts. He said “Yes” “Would you read it for me? “No, I never read my texts” I wish he had, because he had a wonderful voice. He said Jack McGowran was the one to read. Jack was a great actor. I called him in Dublin and asked him to read and he said “Of course I will, but you have to send the money first”. Money was a bit of a problem. I sent the money, got the tape back. It was magnificent. Then it stopped mid-stream. I called him, “Jack, you’re going great guns and then suddenly you stop”. Jack said, “Oh, that’s as far as the money brought me!”

Rail: Wow. That’s amazing.

O’Doherty: So I went to Phyllis for money. Same with Robbe-Grillet. He wouldn’t do a thing until he got the money. To my distress several people, including Barthes, didn’t get paid. Barthes was in Philadelphia at that time and he came to New York to talk about the project. He got it immediately. My notion that art, writing etc., was produced by a kind of anti-self that had nothing to do with whoever “me” was, an excellent preparation for our conversation. He said “I think I may have something for you.” When “The Death of the Author” arrived, I knew it was revolutionary.

Rail: But at the same time, you were able to exercise as an author, a curator, and an artist.

O’Doherty: There were three themes that were the keys to interpreting the relationships and cross-references: “Time(in art and history),” “Silence and Reduction” and “Language.” I also invented a category called “Between Categories,” which came out of my work in experimental psychology. Morty was very taken with that. He used it as the title of one of his pieces. The box included splendid work commissioned from my colleagues: Sol LeWitt’s first serial piece, a brilliant concept from Mel Brochner, Dan Graham’s “poem.” I wondered if I could converge the entire project in one word, a single equation, using set theory. So I went to a mathematician and he said “It’s the easiest thing in the world, you use B for book, F for film etc, and U for and.” This ended up as LUFURUBUD, and I said, that’s my Rosebud.

Rail: To go back to your work in the exhibit, it seems to me that there’s an inherent or natural attraction to geometry. Many observers have pointed out your love of chess, and one can trace that element in the early self portraits. Did your interest in geometry give you a broad basis for doing works in various fields, from painting, sculpture, site specific works, as well as performances?

O’Doherty: Drawing is the key for me. It keeps you going, even in the most arid times. It led to the installation works, it’s part of my fascination with labyrinths and chess. It helped me diagram the business of the information we get through the relationship between the senses, and the relationship between the senses construct what we are pleased to call “reality” which is so often misinterpreted by the senses. And the way ideas generate their own hallucinations in the so-called world out there. I’ve never quite rid myself of the notion that the world is somehow artificial. 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. My family were all obviously fictional. Pain should’ve convinced me, but it didn’t. The newspaper finally persuaded me to accept the world. All that news couldn’t be spuriously assembled just for me. Do you remember the TV series “Mission impossible”? It was about creating false realities. The Catholic Irish culture of my childhood had something to do with it. What we saw and touched was not the real world. The real world was the next one. The ancient Celts also had that notion. Of course when you practiced medicine you’d better be in this world.

Rail: A certain thing is called for immediate action, which is very real. For example, in your sight specific installation, I recognized a certain architectural motif, including one circle above the door in the main wall, while the other two, one high, one low, on the opposite walls, seem to diffuse the attention between rectilinear and curved lines. But at the same time, they contradict one another. Is there also a reference made to Bramante’ Santa Maria della Consolazione, where you and Barbara have a home in Todi?

O’Doherty: Yes, indeed. The basis for that installation had to do with a conversation I was having with Bramante and imagining him talking back. So I did a grisaille on the back based on his work—symmetrical, harmonious, calm. On the right wall (as you go in) I had him arguing with Tatlin and with Malevich on the left wall. These two didn’t get along. I think they had a fist-fight.

Rail: Would you say similarly that contradiction fuels your creative energies, which get channeled through the different functions of your various identities, and in some ways, helps you stay elusive?

O’Doherty: Yes. Each of them has their identity and each was born out of different necessities. I always had the notion that everyone, depending on the circumstances in which they present themselves, is multiple. I’ve simply materialized some of the normal varieties of personality. Oscar Wilde has a phrase: “If you are true to one personality you may be false to several others.” Not that exact quote. Carl Jung’s idea of animus/anima is very convincing. Both have to be entertained in one’s psyche without the pre-dispositional interpretations so easily harvested from this notion. It was a wonderful feeling to write as Mary Josephson.

Rail: Is it true what Tom McEvilley suggested, that it came out of your devout Catholic background in which you were given the name Brian Mary and you added the confirmation name was Joseph, so you were Brian Mary Joseph, as in Mary and Joseph and Son persona?

O’Doherty: It was my revenge on the Holy Family.

Rail: (laughs) You know, beside Meyer Schapiro, who wrote under two pseudonyms, John Kwait and David Meriam, you’re the only one who has succeeded him, and perhaps many others. Let’s begin with your first, Sigmund Bode, a name that was taken from Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Von Bode, who was a painter, a Renaissance scholar, and the director of the Kaisser Friedrich Museum in Berlin.

O’Doherty: I’ve been more interested in the Germans than in the French, with the exception of the symbolist poets, Mallarmé et al. Freud however was a bit of a blight on my life. I resented his notion, richly poetic though it is, that he could draw a diagram into which my psyche would nearly fit. His influence in those days was very powerful. Now he’s routinely beaten up, which isn’t good either. The catch phrase of the era was “finding yourself.” I never wanted to find myself. I did an unkind piece called the “Therapeutics of Doctor Fraud.” But I appropriated his first name when as a young man in Dublin I was looking for an alter ego to do some work for me. I added the surname of the Wilhelm Bode you mention. I wasn’t mad about him either. He was Giovanni Morelli’s antagonist. So I had Sigmund Bode, a rather uncomfortable person. Years later he wrote the introductory note to that Aspen 5 + 6. Morelli was also a doctor.

Rail: Who was important to the early formation of Bernard Berenson…

O’Doherty: Exactly. He made the attributes based on clinical observation of anatomical minutiae: comparing the canthus of the eyes, as represented by different artists. Also fingers, ears, etc. Morelli wrote under a pseudonym, Ivan Lermoliev, the last name an anagram of Morelli.

Rail: What was the genesis of Inside the White Cube, which was based initially on your three essays published in Artforum in 1976?

O’Doherty: I first sent them to Max Kozloff and John Coplans who were editors at that time. I think they lay around for a while. Then when John relieved his editors, including Ros Krauss, of their duties, I imagine they were short of materials. The White Cube articles appeared in successive issues. To my surprise, the magazines sold out. The White Cube has been riding my shoulders ever since. I keep trying to shrug it off. Same with the Duchamp Portrait. People constantly misinterpret it as an homage. Some homage.

Rail: How about your earlier book, American Masters The Voice and the Myth, published in 1975, which focused on eight artists: Hopper, Davis, Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Wyeth, and Cornell, with wonderful texts and beautiful photographs provided by Hans Namuth? Among them, you seem to have a particular affection towards Hopper.

O’Doherty: Hopper was a wonderful man. Great sense of humor. It’s unfortunate that the Levin biography undermined his character. Levin never knew him. I refuted her biography thoroughly. The greatest criticism I received was for the inclusion of Wyeth. To take him seriously back then was like touching the third rail. Why was I interested in Wyeth? Because country life is a mystery to city people. If you put a city person out in the country and turn off the lights, they are helpless. Country life, which I know from my childhood, has it’s own codes, requires it’s own readings just as the city does. Our city reflexes are sharpened by continual motion, but the rapid make and break of perceptions. In the country, it’s more subtle and at times dangerous. Wyeth is an excellent reader of the eeriness, the harsh brutalities of country life. How many city people see animals slaughtered? Not many. Wyeth also stood in for the conservative turn of mind. I called him “outsider on the right.” Rothko had no prejudice against Wyeth. He said to me “Wyeth is about the pursuit of strangeness. But he is not whole as Hopper is whole.”

Rail: That’s brilliant. So you had a close relationship with Rothko as well? Were you with him towards the end, when he was working on the paintings commissioned by Dominique De Menil for the Chapel, for which he never saw the installment of the work?

O’Doherty: Rothko never managed to go to Houston. He was doing these huge paintings. Abandoning the furry edges which made things float. Once he said “I could have done it with blank canvasses.” I said about a fuzzy rectangle “It floats.” He said “It also weighs a ton.” He was right. His absolutism kept breaking up into a dialogue of opposites, the friction of which produces these assemblages that seem like effusions of thought itself. Very romantic I suppose. But I never saw him as too belle canto, as soft Romanticism , though you can, I guess. For me his work superimposed two things: the 19th century quest for spiritual transcendence and the modernist void. I would sit with him and look at the paintings—quite an experience in the gathering twilight. Very peaceful, though he himself was far from peaceful.

Rail: Would you say there’s a subtle similarity between Rothko and Hopper?

O’Doherty: Sam Hunter made a wonderful comment. He said “Hopper does realist Rothkos.” Hopper is far deeper than the sentimental interpretations of him, the easily available loneliness and isolation. The void at the center of Hopper is very much the inner void. His second to last picture, “Sun in an Empty Room” is the closest he got to that exploration of who he was. There’s not enough done on this, because it becomes difficult to articulate. I do believe the void of his deepest nature, which was mysterious to him, is similarly re-enacted in much of Rothko’s art, his opposite in so many ways. Rothko’s daily self was exquisitely sensitive. Underneath he was exploring this void, he was on his quest. It’s not often said that Hopper was on a quest. Rothko was on a quest. Both sounded the void. That’s a little facile, but it’ll do for the moment. It’s that void that returns to us those fictions of self.

Rail: Could you talk about your work with the NEA as director of film, television and radio programming, when you helped to create such popular series for PBS as “American Masters,” “American Cinema,” “The Metropolitan Opera Presents”?

O’Doherty: I was part-time for over 20 years, worked by the day and hour. I didn’t create anything. You got the money out to the gifted people and they create. Private funders take a major role. The NEH (National Endowment of Humanities) helps. You just stand back. My first director was Nancy Hanks, whose name should live in the memory of every artist. I owe her a great deal. She came from the Rockefeller establishment. People still dispute whether Nixon previously appointed Michael Straight, a client of Nixon’s law firm when Nixon was in New York. Straight was one of the apostles at Cambridge along with Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald McLean. And he was part of the cover-up of Blunt. At any case Straight left eventually and later wrote a book called After A Long Silence, which comes from the Yeats poem—justifying his involvement. I suspect that history disqualified him for NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) Chairman. Thus Nancy Hanks. She turned out to be a genius, and a master politician. She was humane, inventive, charming, resourceful, ethical, and tough. She had no interest in perpetuating her name. She went “rose crowned into the darkness.” We got very close. She let me do what I wanted, after the appropriate testing. I managed to do a few things for the visual arts, including getting artists to develop their own non-profits so they could get a share of the organizational pie. Alanna Heiss understood this perfectly. Irving Sandler was also a great help from time to time. He understood the nature of politics. Frank Hodosoll, the fourth chairman, saved the agency. Then the culture wars started.

Rail: What about Patrick Ireland? His name was inspired by the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in 1972 and will you give him up once the British military is removed from Northern Ireland?

O’Doherty: This May 8th was a historic moment. Monitored by prime ministers of Britain and the Republic of Ireland, representatives of the two parties, the loyalist, Ian Paisley, and Martin McGuiness, the representative of Sinn Féin, which is uncompromisingly devoted to union with the republic, met to re-open the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont near Belfast. The province has been governed from Westminister. The conflict was based on nationalism, religion, and economics. Both parties had, of course, their extremist shadows. As a result of this new development, the guns and tanks are off the street, the barbed wire and barricades are gone. The surveillance, some of the most intense surveillance of any country, particularly on the walls of Derry, is being taken down. The British military presence is being quietly diminished. The civil rights issue, one of Patrick Ireland’s main criteria, has profoundly improved. So Patrick will suffer a peaceful death. Next year he will be interred in an appropriate place, at the age of 36.

Rail: Would that mean you would have a burial ceremony, like the same way when you inaugurated him?

O’Doherty: He will be encoffend, his effigy will be dressed in white and he will be buried under a headstone—“Patrick Ireland, born 1972, Died 2008.” Political burials are a great tradition in Ireland, because they are occasions for the dispossessed, the minority, the persecuted to have a voice. I will invite representatives from either side to witness the ceremony, and if they wish, to speak. We will bury Patrick Ireland with the hatred that gave rise to him.

Rail: Let’s shift to your work as a novelist? Beginning with the first, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. which was published in 1992.

O’ Doherty: What inspired me to write that novel was the blind recovering her sight, how she has to learn the world when she could see. She had no basis on which to recognize anything, to connect the word with what she saw. She was in what experimental psychologists call a great big buzzing confusion. It’s a true case, by the way. She was treated by Mesmer in Vienna in 1777. Oliver Sacks wrote to me and said “How did you get it exactly right?” When I told him I’d worked on visual perception in Cambridge, he lost interest. Mlle. P. is my feminine book; the other book is a masculine book, full of brutality, set in a remote, imaginary village.

Rail: You mean William Maginn in The Deposition of Father McGreevy, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2000?

O’Doherty: Maggin is a real person, born in 1778, died 1840s. A brilliant young man from Cork who went to London, edited Fraser’s Magazine. His contributors included Thomas Carlyle and William Thackery. I appropriated him to introduce the book and write the footnotes to the good Father’s narrative. Maginn, a joker and an ironist, used man pseudonyms. He wrote the O’Doherty papers. So things go round and around.


Phong Bui