I have the most vivid memory of walking several times through Patrick Ireland’s 2007 retrospective at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, and being totally bewildered. Knowing him as the author of a short masterpiece, Inside the White Cube, that magnificently suggestive history of gallery and museum hangings, I was very puzzled by this display. What, I wondered, was the connection between his conceptual works, installations and paintings? I had, of course, seen his art over the years in the galleries. But at the Grey, I felt as if I were looking at a group show. Born in Ireland, 1928, and trained as a doctor in Dublin, Brian O’Doherty has spent his highly productive New York-based career as a critic, teacher, writer and artist. In 1972, in response to Bloody Sunday, the killing of thirteen unarmed people by the British army in Northern Ireland, he changed the name under which he exhibited to Patrick Ireland. Just as Ireland was divided between the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom, so for twenty-six years he had this double identity. But then in 2008, after peace was declared, he buried an effigy of Patrick Ireland in a ceremony at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin.
France, Germany, even England have recognizable national visual cultures. Ireland, by contrast, does not. In Dublin there are four world-class museums. But although they display many fascinating Irish figures amid their impressive international collections, the identity of a specifically Irish visual culture remains elusive. Though Ireland has Jack Yeats, and Sean Scully was Irish-born, it has no visual equivalent to the literature of Oscar Wilde, William Butler Years, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and the whole host of magnificent living writers. What does O’Doherty mean, then, when he identifies himself as an Irish visual artist?
Moore-McCann’s very lucid, magnificently illustrated book tells the story of O’Doherty’s long, illustrious career. She describes his taking on of the identities of Sigmund Bode, a fictional figure whose name combines those of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Bode, the Berlin museum director; Mary Josephson, marking his response circa 1971 to the rise of New York feminism; and WiIliam Maginn, an Irish literary figure who is one narrator in his 1992 novel, The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. She describes his Portrait of Marcel Duchamp: Lead 1, slow heartbeat (1966), a cardiograph tracing, for which Duchamp thanked him “from the bottom of my heart!” (p. 50). She presents his conceptual art, noting that in the mid-1960s he had important relationships with Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt, Lucy Lippard, Robert Smithson and a host of other major American figures. She tells how, using Ogham, an archaic Celtic alphabet, he creates drawings, paintings and sculptures of vowels. The key to O’Doherty’s oeuvre, she argues, is The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne (1967-8). The title refers to the great Irish philosopher, Bishop of Cloyne. With five magic squares filled with icons for the five senses, lettering in Ogham, in a high art version of a comic strip narrative, we move from illustrated images to an austere drawing of vertical and horizontal lines. And Moore-McCann presents many of his Rope Drawings, nylon cords crossing rooms with the walls painted using house paint. One great influence on these installations, she notes, is the baroque architecture of Borromini. Opening “up the white box of the gallery, mapping its space, mobilizing its walls and floors,” they “dismantled its dialectic of inside and outside” (p. 153).
“His ambition,” Moore-McCann concludes, “is nothing less than a transformation of thinking, looking beyond material objects to underlying systems of belief” (p. 185). This is exactly right. O’Doherty’s wall paintings resemble Sol Lewitt’s; his ropes, Fred Sandback’s installations; and his wall paintings look like Peter Halleys in pastel. But what unifies the body of this art is a refusal to pin down his personal identity. Brian O’Doherty’s visual art cannot be understood apart from how he has “questioned pictorial and linguistic codes, probing how the self was conditioned by them” (p. 108). Here come back to his Irishness, for he really is a literary-and-visual artist, which is to say that his visual art cannot be entirely understood apart from his writing. Now my puzzles about his Grey Art Gallery retrospective have been resolved. We are accustomed to think that the oeuvre of conceptual artists or minimalists will have the same sort of unity as the body of art by an old master. By deconstructing that belief, the visual art of O’Doherty/Ireland functions as a subtle commentary on the written commentary of Inside the White Cube. In the Afterword to the second, 1986 edition, he worries “that the elusive and dangerous art of the period between 1964 and 1976 is sinking, with its lessons, out of sight as, given the conditions of our culture, it must.” Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland shows that that judgment was unduly pessimistic.
Brenda Moore-McCann Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Between Categories. Farnham, Surrey: Lund Humphries, 2009. 208 pp. $70 ISBN-13: 978-1848220140print