An Irishman Goes Back to His Roots

For more than 30 years Brian O'Doherty has lived just off New York's Central Park in a landmark building built about a century ago with sunlit two-story studios especially for artists. His wife is the renowned American art historian Barbara Novak, and he paints on an easel bequeathed to him by the pioneer American modernist Stuart Davis. So it's perhaps no surprise that when asked what his Irish roots have to do with his career as an artist, he answers, "Nothing, I hope." But O'Doherty was born in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, in 1934 to a mother whose family included the notorious rebels the Brennan boys. Sent off to boarding school "to become a man," he was initiated in the national pastimes of fighting bullies ("I got clobbered, but he didn't pick on my mates again") and rugby ("I was good at 12, so they sent me in against 15-year-olds, and I got beaten up there, too"). When British troops opened fire on Roman Catholic demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in 1972, O'Doherty responded by adopting the name Patrick Ireland for his art work until all British troops leave the country. How, then, can Irishness possibly be irrelevant to his art? "When I came to America in 1961," says the silver-haired, handsome and loquacious O'Doherty, "I was trying to reinvent myself as a New York artist."

Now the ever-evolving artist returns to Ireland in the form of "Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O'Doherty/Patrick Ireland," at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (through Aug. 27). When he left Dublin in his 20s, O'Doherty was already a medical doctor, his art training confined to private lessons from a painter of nudes. With some of his early works, he employed his first pseudonym: Sigmund Bode (the first name from Freud and the last from a 19th-century German museum curator). In the United States, O'Doherty quickly became an art critic for The New York Times, with frequent appearances on the morning news show "Today." He served as editor of the prestigious art magazine Art in America (where he wrote many of its articles under the nom de plume Mary Josephson), and as head of the visual-arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts. "I was only part-time, too, because I didn't want to give up being an artist," he says. Under his own name, O'Doherty also wrote two well-received books on art: "American Masters: The Voice and the Myth" and the highly influential "Inside the White Cube," which argues persuasively that the convention of the antiseptic art gallery has determined the meaning of modern art almost as much as the art itself. Somehow, he also found the time to author a couple of novels--one of which, "The Deposition of Father McGreevy," was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2000.

At first glance, O'Doherty's visual art is as variegated as the rest of his remarkable career: conceptual art (e.g., an electrocardiogram of Marcel Duchamp taken during a dinner party in 1967), serial line drawings derived from the ancient Celtic alphabet of lines known as Ogham, room-size installations he calls "rope drawings" and, currently, large, colorful, geometric abstract paintings. In an art world where narrow specialization is greatly prized, and where resentment builds easily against a man who wears too many hats--artist, critic, editor, administrator, professor--O'Doherty has taken his lumps. Said one reviewer: "Ireland has seen so much cerebral art, has studied it so well and absorbed it so completely, that his own work often seems to be a sort of scholar's synthesis."

But there's always been method in O'Doherty's anti-madness. The EKG signaled his determination to get a handle on Duchamp's wry intellectualism, which had paved the way for the then dominant minimal art. (The dadaist elder statesman's first question after the electrodes were removed was "How am I?" He died only a few months later.) In the Ogham drawings, O'Doherty sought not only a Celtic root for reductive visual art but a bridge to making it universal, too. The installations of cat's-cradle-like rope configurations--which O'Doherty/Ireland has been constructing since the 1970s--expanded it again into an enveloping, but austere, physical space.

His recent paintings have put that philosophical restraint back onto the traditional format of the flat canvas rectangle. With a fluidly lovely paint application and lyrical color sense, his pictures express a quiet, deep and well-deserved artistic joy. In front of one of those paintings, O'Doherty leans back in his studio chair and says with a smile, "I'm an artist. Just an artist." Yes, but in the end we suspect that being Irish somehow has a whole lot to do with it.