Brian O’Doherty (1928–2022)

Brian O’Doherty, the Irish-born polymath renowned for his influential art criticism and for his pseudonymously made post-Minimalist and Conceptual artwork placing agency with the viewer, has died at the age of ninety-four. His death was announced by his New York gallery, Simone Subal. O’Doherty’s groundbreaking three-part essay “Inside the White Cube,” which first appeared in the pages (and on the cover) of Artforum’s March 1976 issue, remains essential reading today. In the essay, contained in the 1976 volume Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, O’Doherty argues that the spare white walls of commercial art spaces have defined modern art as much as the works that occupy them. O’Doherty here coined the terms “white cube” and “alternative space,” both in broad use today.

Brian O’Doherty was born May 4, 1928, in Ballaghdereen, Ireland. As a young man, he studied medicine at University College Dublin before moving on to postgraduate work at Cambridge University and Harvard School of Public Health, from which he received his master’s degree in science. While working at a Boston cancer ward in 1957, he auditioned for a gig as an arts interviewer at Boston public television station WGBH. He got the job, taking over from art historian Barbara Novak (whom he would later go on to marry, and who survives him). In his new capacity, he interviewed such art-world giants as Josef Albers, Marc Chagall, and Walter Gropius.

During the 1960s, he assumed the role of arts critic at the New York Times; he would go on to work as an editor for Art in America and as an on-air art critic for NBC. After dinner one night in 1966, O’Doherty recorded the heartbeat of Marcel Duchamp, his idol, for a work he called Portrait of Marcel Duchamp. In 1967, he commissioned French literary theorist Roland Barthes to write his foundational essay “Death of the Author” for a special edition of Aspen magazine. He would go on to serve as director first of the visual arts program and then of the media arts program at the National Endowment of the Arts. In the latter role, he created the long-running public television series American Masters (named for his 1973 volume of criticism) and Great Performances. Not one to limit himself to the realm of criticism, O’Doherty was also a novelist; his 1999 book The Deposition of Father McGreevy was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Other novels included The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992) and The Crossdresser’s Secret (2014).

Throughout the decades, concurrent with his work as a writer, O’Doherty continually made art. In 1972, responding to the Bloody Sunday murders by British soldiers of Irish nationals in Derry, O’Doherty began creating work under the moniker Patrick Ireland. As Ireland he enjoyed a successful and sustained career, creating works inspired by his homeland as well as those that centered the experience of the viewer. His “Rope Drawings” series, begun in 1973, for example, offered a way of navigating the gallery. “Most members of the public are not used to engaging with an artwork,” he told Artforum in 2015. “I’ve seen people walk past the great Poussins at the Louvre. The ideal viewer works with a piece and develops a certain relationship to it. As an artist, when you’re installing a work, you’re searching for the optimum viewing point for this ideal viewer.”

In 2008, in recognition of the warmed relations between England and Ireland, he symbolically buried his Patrick Ireland persona at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Thereafter, he resumed making work under his own name.

On turning ninety in 2018, O’Doherty was feted with three institutional exhibitions in Ireland: a mini-retrospective at Dublin’s IMMA, a three-month screening of his film, video, and television works at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork; and, at Sirius Arts Centre in nearby Cobh, the exhibition of his newly restored 1995–96 room-size work, a series of nine vividly hued interconnected murals centering the ancient Irish Ogham script.

“I am now a saint,” he told Frieze in 2018. “I was canonized in Cork. This is my supreme narcissistic moment, in which my faith in myself is completely justified communally.”

O’Doherty’s work is held in the collections of major institutions around the world, including the Seattle Art Museum; the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, all in Washington, DC; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, both in Dublin; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

“I always found multiplicity available to everybody and greatly unused by everybody,” O’Doherty told Frieze when asked about the range of his career. “I deeply believe people are capable of much more than the one role they assign to themselves. There is much more that people can do.”

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