"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

No Sad Imperialist of the Aesthetic Self

Ciarán Benson

 

His has been a remarkable life’s work. Born in 1928 in Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon, reared and educated in Dublin and for over fifty years a resident of New York, Brian O’Doherty has been a doctor, a student of psychology, an art critic, an educator, a filmmaker, an arts policy director, a novelist and, for all that time, an artist. To layer this career even more, his work has issued under the guise of various alter egos, mostly male but, in the critical persona of Mary Josephson, female. Like other voluntary exiles from a culturally bereft mid-twentieth century Ireland, O’Doherty brought many dimensions of Ireland with him and alchemised them in the crucible of the minimalist and conceptual art movements of New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Among Irish artists these are rare ingredients for an artistic identity and they make for a highly distinctive life’s work. The late Noel Sheridan would have shared some of these influences with him as, to some extent, would Michael Craig Martin.

At a time of life when a summing up seems appropriate O’Doherty continues to energetically work and engage. The complexity of this oeuvre in both genre and authorship has meant that for many an interested reader and spectator a certain puzzlement, born of partial acquaintance with him and his concerns, is a significant element of how they might assess his contributions. Recent major exhibitions in Ireland have helped to resolve this puzzlement – which had arisen partly because of unfamiliarity with the range of his work – as have a series of high quality publications.

The Sirius Project in Cork in 1996 allowed O’Doherty/Ireland to show, in a satisfyingly complete way, how for instance the Ogham script dynamically underpinned his thinking as he transformed a particularly congenial space. The newly revamped Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane was an especially welcoming venue for his striking 2006 Retrospective, which was also accompanied by a highly informative catalogue. The interment of O’Doherty’s most significant alter ego, Patrick Ireland, in the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2008 reunited in the public mind the identity of Brian O’Doherty (erstwhile artist, novelist, critic) and Patrick Ireland (artist from 1972-2008), and removed the confusion for many as to who precisely was who. After the murder of innocent protesters in Derry by out-of-control members of the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday in 1972, O’Doherty – with Robert Ballagh as witness in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin – staged a performance in which he formally took on the name of “Patrick Ireland”. Henceforth Ireland was to be the author of his visual work, until such time as the conditions for justice, eventually achieved by the Good Friday Agreement, came into effect. The subsequent St Andrews Agreement, with its resultant sharing of power in Northern Ireland, finally tolled time for the passing on of Patrick Ireland in 2008. This allowed Brian O’Doherty to reappropriate his past, and his work.

Brenda Moore-McCann’s long-awaited monograph on O’Doherty/Ireland was published in 2009. This exhaustive, splendidly produced book is set to become a benchmark publication for anyone seriously interested in O’Doherty’s work. It also contains many insights for already intrigued admirers. Most recently, following the generous donation of their very personal collection of post-war American art to IMMA in 2010, the catalogue of Barbara Novak’s (the distinguished American art historian whom he met in 1957 and married in 1960) and Brian O’Doherty’s collection allows us to further understand their New York world of that time, and the artistic influences on O’Doherty throughout the half-century and more that he has worked out of New York. Taken together, these are a fitting tribute to an unusual man. More than that, they are resources for understanding what it is that O’Doherty has been doing as he distinctively develops the themes that have preoccupied him since his emergence as an artist in 1950s Ireland.

I find O’Doherty’s work enigmatic. It is not that I cannot grasp his achievements across their exceptional range. It is not that I cannot appreciate the nature of his explorations with code-like Ogham script, his focus on the elements of “identity”, his objections to the sterilising tendencies of the modernist gallery, and so on. The excellent analyses presented by Brenda Moore-McCann, and by the essayists in the catalogue from his 2006 Dublin retrospective, more than adequately meet that challenge. The critical seductiveness of O’Doherty seems to me to be more fundamental in the literal sense of that word: What impulse(s) or idea(s) or intention(s) – constitutive of Brian O’Doherty’s own identity – have worked to connect or integrate the creative work of nearly sixty years? If his work is labyrinthine, is there a core conceptual Ariadne to supply a thread? Engaging with the work as a whole elicits a pleasure not unlike that of trying to envisage the plot of a satisfying novel before reaching its end. This is a hallmark of a creative life well led.

I should stress that my own understanding of “identity” is that it is less something one “has” and more a case of what it is one consistently tends to “do”. Reading Brenda Moore-McCann’s monograph I could see why she found a book of mine, The Cultural Psychology of Self, relevant to Brian O’Doherty’s work. In that book I present an extended argument in favour of thinking about the processes of selfhood as being fundamentally to do with features of location or placement. Who you are is a function of where you are in the webs of human meaning as they play out in time and space, in history and culture. If one has to simplify the key ideas of “self” to just three interrelated words the suggestion is that they be, in the English language, “I”, “here” and “now”.

As we will see later, Brian O’Doherty reached a similar position, notably in the Sirius Project of 1996 where “one”, “here” and “now” are central to that work. Since writing that book over a decade ago, I would now want to add that, of all the terms, I have come to think that “here” is the aboriginal one. “Hereness” is a consequence of having a body, and some “sense of hereness” connects us back all the way to the earliest life forms. It is the nature of all bodies, bacterial to human, to be situated in space and to feel their world from where they happen to be. Time, with “now” as the constant companion of “here”, arises with the evolutionary emergence of memory systems, and it is experiential time, fused with “space”, which generates “place” for human beings. Brian O’Doherty in his artistic work, as in his fictional and critical work, has time and memory, language and position, as insistent preoccupations.

But back to my discreet puzzlement, as befits the “spectator” who, in the second essay of Inside the White Cube, is described as “a sluggish verb, eager to carry the weight of meaning but not always up to it”! Though they were very different from each other, I was reminded of Cy Twombly’s Tate Modern retrospective of 2008 as I thought about Brian O’Doherty’s own 2006 Dublin retrospective. The progression from Twombly’s early work of the 1950s to its culmination in the two magisterial sets of paintings each called the “Four Seasons” suggested to me a comparative path for an artist who is also interested in codes, colour and living. In Twombly’s later work, which gathers together and lifts his earlier concerns into strikingly new syntheses, the viewer is required to “read” and “feel” the work in a quite different way from the demands which O’Doherty’s art makes of the viewer.

Whereas Twombly becomes more relaxed, yet more accurately assured, in engaging the viewer’s associative peripheries of consciousness as he presents the qualities of life’s seasonality, O’Doherty becomes more confidently controlled as he determines how, for example, the kinaesthetics of his viewer’s movements can be brought to optimise a sense of the constants of selfhood. These are the perennial constants of here and now that are always and everywhere part of the viewing subject’s consciousness. With O’Doherty there is, so to speak, more figure than ground, more call for the central focus of deliberative consciousness than for the feelings that arise from the peripheral appeal of allusion. His colour vocabulary is clear and hard-edged, like Ellsworth Kelly, and leads the viewer into quite different territories of consciousness than do the liquidly organic colours of the later Twombly. O’Doherty knows what he wants viewers to see and he is confident that he also knows how to bring them to see it. His aesthetic is generally classical, with clarity as a central aspiration, even though his name-changing work of 1972 may seem romantic in its inspiration.

There is a moral vision implicit in O’Doherty’s work, whether in the novels or in the visual work. It is the kind of vision that animates a real educator, a currently much devalued word in need of urgent re-forging in this time when a grey, managerialist orthodoxy dominates so much of education. This impulse is strikingly present in his 1999 novel The Deposition of Fr McGreevy (which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2000). Set substantially in Kerry in the early 1940s – O’Doherty’s own early teenage years – the novel is a poignant account of a relentless and quiet catastrophe in a tiny, isolated mountain village. The prose, mainly in the spoken voice of the eponymous Fr McGreevy, is a quiet lament for a way of life in terminal decline, but fastidious in its attention to the accurate use of words, idioms and contemporary references. Fr McGreevy’s deposition is bookended between the narrator’s prologue and epilogue. That narrator is another of O’Doherty’s personae, one William Maginn the editor. O’Doherty’s deep appreciation for a hard, lost way of life, in an isolated Ireland struggling with issues of survival and meaning, is everywhere apparent.

What is most evident is O’Doherty’s anxiety that the reader understand the many historical nuances of his re-creation. His detailed footnotes to the text (thirty-four in all) can themselves be read as a cultural primer of names and terms that will be familiar to anyone whose education took place until well into the 1950s in Ireland. Even the word “quiff”, as in the hairstyle, gets a footnote definition, but with the customary wry caution that it should not be confused with “‘bliff’, a term applied to the pout of the covered mons”. O’Doherty wants the reader to know all that is necessary to imaginatively grasp that world now passing from personal to historical memory. “It’s the sharpness of the pain and suffering you forget,” says Fr McGreevy at one point. “If we remembered that, we’d never be free of the past.”

O’Doherty remembers, but wants to be free. Just as the exiled Joyce – much loved by O’Doherty – carried his own flawed Ireland into exile with him and had then to devise his own means for imaginatively reinventing it, so O’Doherty carried with him an Ireland, barely decades older than Joyce’s, and found in the then radical movements of minimalist and conceptual art in New York his own forms for expressing elements of his originating world. As his alter ego William Maginn says in The Deposition, “home isn’t where the heart is, it’s where you understand the sons of bitches”.

O’Doherty’s remembering is largely free of “sharpness”, but still infused with deep feeling. It is, in the sense of a word that will be familiar to older readers, “gentlemanly”. His footnote on Risteard Ó hAodha in The Deposition suggests the sort of man from his formative years whom he admires: “(He was) the Republic’s first film censor. A noble old man, former revolutionary, historian of the Irish Diaspora in France, director of the Abbey Theatre, and medical doctor, he was a typical Dublin polymath.” This is an image of the idealised gentleman as admirable, tactful, intensely interested in the world, conventionally constrained, but capable of revolutionary action when required. Like Dr McKenna in The Deposition, such a man might also be more worldly-wise and accepting of the demands of sexuality than those times could ever publicly allow.

There is here a moral structure for identity which, it seems to me, is central to resolving those puzzling features of O’Doherty’s work that I mentioned above. He wants those readers and viewers who can do so to know all that is needed to fully grasp what he presents to them, and he supplies those means for them within the work. That work is more than the object: the context is an integral part of its materiality. The work is the unfolding relationship of a suitably equipped spectator who allows his or her consciousness to be shaped by what the artist has crafted for attention. O’Doherty presents us with a deliberately fabricated set of keys to see what is there to be seen were it not for its occlusion by the veils of habit and routine. The suddenly noticed strangeness of the familiar is a recurring theme in his work. For want of a better term, he wants to foreground the constraining role played by frameworks of meaning – language, memories, elemental sounds like vowels, grids, boxlike containers of many scales, edges, colours, ways of moving through boundaried spaces, and so on. All of these shape dimensions of self, as “it” (we must be very careful to remember that “it” is shorthand for a process not a thing) serially, incessantly, inexorably changes position in the world, and so changes the look and feel of the world thereby changing itself.

At the heart of O’Doherty’s artistic work is the idea of translation, and by implication that of transformation. In a letter to Moore-McCann in 2000 he suggests that his 1967-8 ink and watercolour drawing, The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne, is the key to his oeuvre. This work is a programmatic summary of how he might wish to advance his exploration of translation. It is a sort of personal manifesto. The drawing (17x 22 inches on graph paper) shouts “precision” with its grids of five senses and the “equations” translating them into colours, and the colours to Ogham. There are two grids in Ogham at the bottom of the drawing. One commands the viewer to look, touch etc, whereas the other enumerates corresponding sensory absences – invisible, impalpable, etc. The whole project depends on the little sign “=” in the drawing. Using the apparatus of scientific notation O’Doherty equates sensory apparatus to colour, then connects colour to Ogham, and finally, via Ogham, connects commands to use these senses with reminders of what the world would feel like if any of these senses were to be subtracted from the palette of the world.

His 1992 novel The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. explores this latter idea fictionally. In this novel he uses the device of the “blind” but musical Marie-Therese to explore how touch enables the naming of the seen. His protagonist is Mesmer, the historical master of suggestion. Here again is the theme of the unfamiliar which is nonetheless recognised: “my house was exactly as I anticipated, but again, I felt I had never seen it before … and I had a fancy that the house was looking at me through its windows and finding me equally strange”. Earlier, Mesmer reflects on how he has met several versions of himself in recent months, and expresses gratitude for this “gift of variousness”. The key to this, as contemporary thinking argues, lies in the nature of pronouns like “I”. They are a particular kind of word known as “indexicals” – as are “here” and “now” – which means that they are always organically tied to a context. You must know its context to know the meaning of any particular use of an indexical like “I”. This idea of indexicality is a further motif of Brian O’Doherty’s, as one can understand from his amusing 1966 piece, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: lead 1 slow heartbeat, which uses the actual EEG of Duchamp’s heartbeat.

Indexicals are not isolated words. They are always part of complex linguistic systems, and it takes a long time for children to master the pronoun system of their own particular language. The primary function of the first person pronoun “I” is to locate the speaker, to claim authorship of something or to take responsibility. There is also much variation across world languages in the kinds of solution each language has evolved to satisfy the needs met by indexicals like pronouns. This is relevant for O’Doherty’s work. In Irish, for instance, there is no word as such for “I”. If you want to say “I love you” in Irish you would say something like “Mo ghrá thú” which literally means “My love to/at you”.

If Ogham is used to signify ‘I’ it will not be conveying a word from the original Irish. O’Doherty’s solution is to take the five lines for the vowel “i” in Ogham and make that work for this key English word in the construction of personal identity, a move from vowel to voice. There is also no “w” in Ogham. For the word “now” O’Doherty must improvise with the combined marks for the vowel “u”. This is visible in the work of The Sirius Project. Clearly, when he is recruiting the signs of Ogham for his paintings and murals he is, as with The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne, presenting just the appearance of precision. His primary reason for selecting Ogham is that it combines aesthetic economy as a script with deep historical resonances for Irish identity. It also analogously conveys what musical notation visually suggests. O’Doherty’s Ogham is a means for contributing to an aesthetics of Irish identity.

One theory of the origins of the Celtic notation known as Ogham is that it was born of a desire for secrecy, as a code that would not be decipherable by those familiar with the Latin alphabet, a kind of druidic evasion of potential Roman scrutiny. Another view is that it was an early Irish Christian invention because the sounds of earliest Irish were difficult to transcribe into Latin and so an alternative was needed. Whatever its roots and irrespective of its meaning, the fact and look of Ogham has a special emblematic place in the ways that Irish cultural history have been used to construct nationalist Irish identity. In the latter moments of The Deposition of Fr McGreevy, William Maginn has his friendship with a central, but incarcerated, man from the lost village confirmed when Muiris O’Sullivan shares with him his “sheep aisling”. Maginn says of this ancient poetic form that “The poets used her (the woman in the vision who personifies Ireland) to encode information that their audience could decipher but to the English was merely a harmless piece of versifiying.”

As a simple visual element, the Oghamic line lends itself to combination and spatial permutation. The “I-Drawings” of the 1970s play with these qualities, enhanced further with the added richness of colour (green, blue, yellow and red) all composed and disciplined into squared grids. The visual aesthetic appeal of these works is quite independent of the actual grammar of Ogham. But, as the ideas that gave rise to these drawings are gathered up into the later work – sculptures, paintings, murals and rope drawings – the web of meaning extends and grows more complex as the grammatical possibilities of Ogham are adapted and put to more elaborate use.

That later use, more expansive in its ambition than the 1970s drawings, is a distilled editing of intricate psychological and cultural ideas. This took time and experimentation, and O’Doherty was well-suited by inclination and formation to such systematic investigation. In his manner of working, the accidental and the aleatory are less likely to be allowed much significance in determining the direction of the work. That power is retained by a focused deliberation, a working out of a set of more general ideas, ideas that O’Doherty can verbally articulate with refined precision. This is not common in the visual arts.

Performance, installation, drawing, painting, sculpture and improvised uses for readymade objects have all found their place in O’Doherty’s repertoire. Moore-McCann, and the essayists in the catalogue Beyond the White Cube, deal exhaustively and insightfully with each of these bodies of work. For me, the strongest kinds are the work of The Sirius Project – One Here Now: The Ogham Cycle – and the extensive investigation and elaboration of the idea of “rope-drawing”. These are his most notable artistic contributions, and precise visual thinking marks each. In the One, Here, Now sequence the depiction Here differs from the other two in its dynamic oblique lines. I may be looking too hard for support here, but it seems to me that after decades of thinking about the details of space and selfhood O’Doherty has also reached the conclusion that “hereness” is the primordial element of selfhood, and has found a way of simply showing that in The Sirius Project.

O’Doherty’s Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space is a classic piece of art criticism, beautifully written, and cautionary, since one is tempted, or in fact invited, to approach the artist’s own work through his critique of the exclusionary dynamics of the modernist gallery. The modernist gallery caters to the “eye” and the “spectator”, each of which (“whom” is diminished as “the Eye” is depersonalised!) is disembodied and only allowed to act in a highly sterilised and formalised way within the gallery. What is shown to the Eye in such quasi-reverential spaces are objects which are effortlessly detachable to become products for sale, thereby perpetuating the dominating power of the market to shape the nature of the art produced. O’Doherty analyses how this works. He claims that “Hard-core Conceptualism eliminates the Eye in favour of the mind. The audience reads.” But the space within which the viewer could move within the white cube remained totally out of bounds to the art at that time. Art was effectively quarantined to the wall. How art reclaimed and used cubic space as part of art became an abiding concern for O’Doherty the critic and the artist.

The idea of drawing in rope must be understood in connection with this project to liberate cubic space and make it part of the work. Marcel Duchamp’s 1942 installation of a Mile of String prefigures O’Doherty’s rope-drawings, specifically in his critique of that installation. While describing, from a photograph, the dynamic movement of the string throughout the room O’Doherty also observes how “it follows the alignment of the room and bays, erratically replicating ceiling and walls. No obliques plunge across the central space, which becomes fenced in, casually quoting the shape of the room … The spectator is harassed … in his gallery box.” With his own rope-drawings, O’Doherty will take the cubic space of that box, reshape it, change the look of its walls and invite the spectator to navigate a work that will now unfold as the moving person follows benign and helpful paths and cues.

A traditional picture in linear perspective is like a window in the wall. The illusory “space behind” the picture plane is created by straight lines converging on one, or more, vanishing points. What if such lines reversed and literally projected forward into the viewer’s space, converging on an optimal viewing point? The traditional spatial relationships of spectator and seen would then be overturned. Pictorial depth would leave its Renaissance lair and advance forward to jostle the spectator in his previously privileged space. Cubic space would become part of the work, and the viewer would have to physically negotiate that space to find the optimal location from which to see what is to be seen. The inside of the cube – the context of seeing – would replace the illusory “outside”, and become part of the work’s “material”. This is one of the things that O’Doherty’s rope-drawings are doing. More than that, the ropes create “edges” and thereby create negative spaces which are sculptural in impact. Spectators intuitively grasp this and, when navigating the temporarily delineated cubes, they do not climb through the negative spaces: they treat them as walls. These in turn are connected to the clean-edged, coloured murals which are sometimes figurative (opening doors, shutters, etc), and sometimes more tangentially suggestive of other meanings and moods.

Moore-McCann quotes from O’Doherty’s notebooks of 1973-76: “When you construct a gestalt, you become a vanishing point. Then where are you?” Imagine you could be located at the vanishing point in a traditional linear perspectival depiction. You would have a choice of which way to face: deeper still into illusory space or about-face and back towards the “back” of the picture plane. In the first case, would you be looking further “inside”, and in the latter would you be gazing towards the “outside”? Now take the rope-drawings, assume they are reverse projections of linear perspectival lines back into real, literal space occupied by a spectator. Stand at a point of convergence of two lines of rope, (“a vanishing point” or a “viewing point”?), and face the same kind of choice: are you “outside” looking back towards an “inside”, or are you “inside” looking “outside”?

With the simplest of materials, nylon rope and water-based house paint, O’Doherty has explored these rich and subtle dynamics of self and position for over thirty years, and in each and every new installation it is the incorporation of the possibilities on offer from the present spatial context that allows novelty, change and difference. O’Doherty has created more than a hundred such installations over the decades, a few outside buildings, but most customised to the spatial possibilities presented by individual sites. They are very consciously indebted to classical architectural forms (I particularly like one early, untypical drawing, Borromini’s Underpass, Rope Drawing  58, 1980). The rope-drawing installations don’t repeat, and they range from the dark and night-like House Call, Martello Terrace, Rope Drawing  77, 1986 to the spare, bright elegance of Talking with Bramante, Rope Drawing  111, 2007.

Listening to Barbara Novak and Brian O’Doherty speak of the artists they knew on the occasion of donating their personal collection of postwar American art to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, it was their sense of affection for them that was memorable. Many were friends and many were clearly influential on Brian O’Doherty. The work donated is very personal and low-key. Two questions come to mind when viewing this intimate collection: Which of these influenced O’Doherty in what he chose to do, and which of them confirmed him in what he had done? The collection will help art historians address these questions in the future. For now we can identify some kindred spirits in the collection such as Duchamp, Mel Bochner, Peter Campus, Christo, Joseph Cornell, Morton Feldman, John Goodyear, Dan Graham, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol Lewitt, and Joseph Masheck. Such an intimate and quiet collection is an organic extension of its owners and repays the time spent in its presence just as a conversation might otherwise do.

James Turrell is another artist who, as it happens, also studied the psychology of perception and has put his insights into light and space to wonderful effect in his work. He too is concerned with foundational questions of self, location and light. Turrell, reflecting on what he found himself doing as an artist, put it like this: “The idea of the Bodhisattva, one who comes back and entices others on the journey, is to some degree the task of the artist ….” This idea of benign enticement, born of understanding, reflection and a sense of responsibility to fragile traditions, is one that is in danger of being excised from contemporary, managerial conceptions of “education”. It is in this sense that O’Doherty’s work has moral force, and is admirably “educational” in wanting those who engage with the work to leave better equipped to wonder about what they may have known but have never before noticed.

In the closing lines of the 1999 edition of Inside the White Cube, O’Doherty writes that the gallery system “maintains its certainty of new product by a peculiar imperative I call ‘slotting’, unique to the visual arts. Most artists become time-bound to the moment of their greatest contribution, and are not allowed out of it. The present rushes by, leaving them curating their investment – sad imperialists of the aesthetic self.”

It is Brian O’Doherty’s achievement to have avoided enslavement, however remunerative, to any such moment and to have bound himself, not to any particular now, but to more than half a century, and continuing, of innovative, challenging, thought-full work.

Books consulted for this essay:

Brenda Moore-McCann (2009). Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Between Categories, (Farnham Surrey, Lund Humphries).
Christina Kennedy & Georgina Jackson (eds) (2006). Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O’Doherty (Dublin, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane).
Christina Kennedy & Marguerite O’Molloy (eds) (2010). Post-War American Art: The Novak/O’Doherty Collection (Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art).

The Sirius Project Catalogue (1996). Patrick Ireland: One, Here, Now: The Ogham Cycle, (Oysterhaven Cork, Gandon Editions).

Brian O’Doherty (1999). Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Brian O’Doherty (1992). The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (London, Arcadia Books).

Brian O’Doherty (1999). The Deposition of Father McGreevy (London, Arcadia Books).


Ciarán Benson is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in University College Dublin where he held the Chair of Psychology (1992-2009). He also held the Royden Davis Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University in 2007. He was the first Chairman of the Irish Film Institute, and Chairman of An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council of Ireland (1993-1998). Amongst his publications are The Place of the Arts in Irish Education (1979), The Absorbed Self: Pragmatism, Psychology and Aesthetic Experience (1993), and The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds (2001). He is a member of AICA, The International Association of Art Critics.

Categories