The art critic, novelist, artist, academic and doctor Brian O’Doherty (Ireland, 1928) is mainly known as the author of Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976). In this series of three essays he examines the history and significance of the modernist exhibition space in the form of an immaculate white cube and the way artists deal with this sort of space. O’Doherty questioned the ‘ideal’ exhibition space and was the first to describe it using the term White Cube.
But essentially O’Doherty is an artist who makes objects, drawings and site-specific installations. The artist edition Aspen 5+6 (1967) – a special issue of the legendary American multiple periodical Aspen (1965-1971), which O’Doherty edited as a portable White Cube – and the wooden book object Art Since 1945, O’Doherty’s humorous response to the publisher Fred Praeger, who had asked him to write a book on contemporary art, link his art to his work as a writer and publisher.
Since 1972, O’Doherty has worked under the name of Patrick Ireland, a critical reference to the Bloody Sunday murders in the Northern Ireland city of Derry in that year. In 2008, in recognition of the restoration of peace to Ireland, O’Doherty laid this alter ego to rest in a performance at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and resumed his actual name. O’Doherty has adopted several alter egos in the course of his career. It is a means of experimenting with identity and avoiding categorisation.
For almost 40 years, O’Doherty has been taking photos of himself which he then arranges in a grid pattern under the title The Transformation, Discontinuity and Degeneration of the Image (1969 to the present). These portraits are analytical and documentary in nature. They reveal hardly anything about their maker except his interest in serialism and identity and their changeability or absence.
In addition to this self-portrait, O’Doherty also made the 16-part Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1966-67). Once, when they met, Duchamp said that “art in a museum room gradually loses its value on the basis of the half-life principle”. In this work, based on an electrocardiogram that O’Doherty made of Duchamp, he wanted to provide proof to the contrary. Might Duchamp’s heartbeat – his life-source – be able to refute his idea that art dies on the walls of art institutions?
In 1973, O’Doherty’s interaction with the spaces he worked in became more intense. He created more than 100 site-specific Rope Drawings: minimalist murals comprising geometrical areas of colour with a rope construction in front of them. From one specific point of view the rope forms the outline of the areas of colour, giving a two-dimensional effect. These Rope Drawings demonstrate the importance of lines in O’Doherty’s work: “I learned to make a line begin in space and to make it stop exactly like a line I can draw on paper”.
O’Doherty also examines language and serial systems in his Ogham drawings and sculptures. In 1967 he found a solution by which “to connect minimalism, serialism and language” using Ogham, an ancient Celtic Irish-Gaelic alphabet. The letters in this alphabet consist of vertical and diagonal lines in relation to a single horizontal line. The rhythmical, structured lines in One Drawing (1969) constitute both its form and content.