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by Lewis Kachur
The artist and critic Brian O’Doherty (b. 1928) has played many roles over a long and fruitful career, most notably exhibiting his art under the name Patrick Ireland, an identity adopted in 1972 in protest against the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry. Now, a new exhibition surveying his work, "Beyond the White Cube: A Retrospective of Brian O’Doherty / Patrick Ireland," opened at the Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane this summer and is slated to appear in New York at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Apr. 17-July 14, 2007.

Like his admired mentor Marcel Duchamp -- who also adopted alternate identities -- O’Doherty does not exclusively pursue art-making, and the overall body of work is not large. Thus, the new survey, which promises to surprise, performs a useful, even defining, function in its gathering. Across O’Doherty’s individual artistic "gestures" one can find an intriguing thread of continuity to the problematizing of what it means to be an artist, as well as a sustained meditation on the nature and definition of art.

In most retrospectives, some unfamiliar early works are brought out to illuminate a trajectory. "Beyond the White Cube" includes one, a self portrait from the 1950s. Done in the hyper-real mode of the then-contemporary paintings of Lucien Freud, the work is a credible token of a path not taken, that of a realist painter. It is perhaps the first of the selves, tried on and then retired, in this case.

Another role O’Doherty has played is that of the art critic, writing for the New York Times in the 1960s, editing Art in America in 1972-74 and penning an influential series of essays, "Inside the White Cube," for Artforum magazine in 1976. This vocation is represented by an amusing object, The Critic’s Boots (1964-65), a pair of heavy clompers entirely covered with newspaper reviews. The boots of Vincent van Gogh, perhaps, transformed via Cubist collage into a Duchampian "assisted readymade" that meets Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup in a late-Surrealist word-object.

Clearly, the critic slogs, and slogs through piles of words, a notion that is a more comic echo of similarly themed work by Jasper Johns, The Critic Sees, from the same period. The richness of associations belies the humble subject. And like Duchamp, O’Doherty at times prefers the single gesture to repeating himself.

O’Doherty was also a talented arts administrator, supervising the visual arts department at the National Endowment for the Arts in its early days, before the Republicans managed to pull all the agency’s avant-garde teeth. It would be a stretch, of course, to link his government service with his long and intense engagement with mazes and labyrinths. The new exhibition includes gray Minimalist volumes and slabs developed into groupings and mazes. One new work, the modestly scaled Labyrinth, was installed in the courtyard at the Hugh Lane, and may not have been perceived as art by some of the museum visitors. It is recovered as such when one sees the related drawings inside.

Some of the art displays a postmodern hybridity, in that it fuses together diversity. For instance, O’Doherty’s training as a medical doctor and his admiration for the Duchampian readymade dovetail in his cardiograph of Duchamp, a work that is a conceptual "portrait" of the artist. Exhibited here both in its pure graph form and as a wall-hung proto-Minimalist object, a gray box with a screen that presumably continues to flash with the Dada master’s pulse, it is a collaborative work in that Duchamp cooperated in providing his inner rhythm, as it were.

The work can be contextualized with other experimental portraits of the period, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1961 telegram to Paris dealer Iris Clert (reading "this is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say it is") and Arman’s "poubelle" portraits of trash. Today, Ireland’s work is a metaphor for the continued pulse of Duchamp’s influence.

In 1976, O’Doherty established himself as a particularly clear-thinking theorist with a series of essays titled "Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space," and in his current exhibition he continues to play with the gallery experience. In mirrored works such as The Rake’s Progress (1970), for instance, the viewer glimpses fragments of him- or herself looking at the polished aluminum bands. Thus is the act of viewing reified. As is explained in the exhibition catalogue, the runic striations in the work’s mirror surface relate to the Ogham language, an ancient Celtic system of marks comprising an alphabet of 20 letters. In the sculpture, the marks spell out the word "here" several times, a textual invocation of both the immediate here and now and the esoteric Irish cultural specificity of Ogham.

An entire room is dedicated to the contents of the legendary journal Aspen, for which O’Doherty guest edited issue 5+6 (1967). This magazine-in-a-box gathered a stellar cast of contributors, including Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Morton Feldman, Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Hans Richter, Robert Rauschenberg, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Susan Sontag. Among its riches is the first publication of Roland Barthes’ seminal essay The Death of the Author.

Aspen takes the form of both a Duchampian box in a valise and an artist’s book. The interpretation of the valise as a portable art show is posited, yet not a retrospective of one author, but rather as a multimedia group show and history of photographic, sculptural, sound, light and filmic art, plus film documentation of ephemeral performance. The journal was thus less "edited" than "curated."

O’Doherty / Ireland the artist is perhaps best known as an early pioneer of the installation form with his "Rope Drawings," works made of taut string filling and defining space that date from 1973. The Hugh Lane show does not revisit these. Instead, the show features a new string installation, Golden Door Rope Drawing #110, which stands for all those that have come before, and is their summa.

As ever, the work restages art’s historic conflict of line versus color, here in the arena of the gallery cube. Disegno is the strings which crisscross the space, also picking up the maze theme. Colore blocks fill the wall. Much of the time, the two are at odds. But at certain moments of grace, standing at the right positing, the work’s one-point perspective snaps into view and the strings form a geometric outline, a triangle, say, which is viewed as the contour of the triangular color block on the wall. Line bounds color, the systems harmonize, and the space between the room and the wall telescopes down. And all systems of dialectics are evoked.

As each of Ireland’s investigations is thoughtful and discrete, the exhibition has been given its own neat, consistent form, one room per concern. Some rooms are also separate chapters in this story of selves, linked to others and yet separate. Given the diversity of forms explored, we should not be surprised by O’Doherty’s recent turn to fiction, notably the well-reviewed novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000.

I surmise that the artist has been involved in constructing this retrospective at the Dublin City Gallery as a work in itself. One thread is the prodigal who returns to his native soil in his 78th year and more peaceful times for Ireland. Thus, the protesting Patrick Ireland, coined in 1972, lingers in the background (this identity reflecting an ongoing commitment not to exhibit in England until British troops are withdrawn from Northern Ireland). At this moment it is largely Brian O’Doherty in the foreground, again recalling Duchamp, the artist as first curator of his own oeuvre. It will be interesting to see the resonances of this thought-provoking retrospective in New York, when it arrives at the Grey Art Gallery in April.

LEWIS KACHUR is a New York art historian and critic.