Note: this is a very rough, first draft. Sources cited and images TBR will be added in subsequent drafts.
Personas - Why not Duchamp? - The life and death of Patrick Ireland.
Before there was Patrick Ireland there was Brian O’Doherty.
Patrick Ireland lived thirty-six years; Brian O’Doherty is nearly ninety.
Patrick Ireland, not a man but an embodied idea, was born with a purpose. That idea, Ireland’s purpose, was a political statement; a statement in which an alter ego, whose very name staked claim to his identity, became the signature of the visual artworks of Irish-American artist Brian O’Doherty "until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights." [O’Doherty, 1972] The works themselves are not political, are not protests or in anyway could they be relegated to the category of propaganda. They are art.
Patrick Ireland was conceived during a 1972 performance of O’Doherty’s as part of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art at the Project Art Centre in Dublin in response to the events in Derry on January 30 of that year. With the assistance of Robert Ballagh and Brian King, in the presence of 30 invited witnesses (not spectators, viewers or guests -witnesses) O’Doherty, dressed in white with a white stocking on his head, was carried onto a stage where he made his proclamation (see quote in previous paragraph) changing his name/identity (as a maker of visual artworks) to Patrick Ireland before being painted in the Irish tricolors which disappeared into a muddied mess of color as the performance progressed.
The white stocking, a semi-transparent, or semi-opaque -depending on your point of view- mask. The stocking did not hide the identity of the face behind it, but it did flatten the features - like a piece of paper. A piece of paper that orders and treaties a written on; a piece of paper that maps and lines are drawn on. Dressed all in white -white pants, white turtleneck sweater, white stocking over his head - O’Doherty morphed himself not only into ‘Patrick Ireland’ but into an alter ego analogous to the ‘White Cube’ of which he would write four years later; what he describes as the albatross around his neck. [O’Doherty, Frieze Talks 2012] Patrick Ireland became the space, the frame, that allowed the (political) expectations (of the time) placed upon the object (and artist) by the spectator to be met; at the same time the artist maintained the freedom to follow the paths he was interested in exploring. A neutral and heavily charged zone of engagement.
In the thirty-six years the artwork produced by O’Doherty was signed by Patrick Ireland the overall intention, thematic exploration and formal approach the artist took in the work followed a (consistent) trajectory. Simultaneously, the application of this other name on the signature line added not only an additional layer of questions and statements to that path, but provided the artist freedom within a framework (the alter ego) to explore side roads, gathering fragments of information and inspiration to carry back to the main road where they served to enrich and provided added sustenance (and substance).
“The name at least became a reminder. Every work I did after that gained a political context for me and for anyone who may have wondered who Patrick Ireland was” O’Doherty said in a 2008 interview with Michael Kimmelman on the death and funeral of Patrick Ireland held on May 20, 2008 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. After the Good Friday Agreement the previous year Patrick Ireland’s existence was no longer needed. To honor this he was laid to rest in the same manner by which he was born -a performance in the form of a traditional, Irish political funeral. Patrick Ireland, the name, needed not to be or to do anymore than that -a reminder.
In a conversation with Phong Bui published in The Brooklyn Rail [June 7, 2007] Brian O’Doherty said of the funeral he was then planning for Patrick Ireland:
“He will be encoffined, his effigy will be dressed in white and he will be buried under a headstone—“Patrick Ireland, born 1972, Died 2008.” Political burials are a great tradition in Ireland, because they are occasions for the dispossessed, the minority, the persecuted to have a voice. I will invite representatives from either side to witness the ceremony, and if they wish, to speak. We will bury Patrick Ireland with the hatred that gave rise to him.”
During the funeral procession O’Doherty, costumed as Ireland accompanied the casket containing the effigy of his alter ego to an open grave on the museum grounds, after dropping handfuls of dirt on the coffin which had been lowered with its contents (were there any contents?) into the pit, removed the stocking. The artist had removed his mask, but another mask still exists -the death mask of Patrick Ireland. No longer featureless, now a relic, but still a reminder.
Lee Krasner is reported to have once said to O’Doherty “You’ll never get your name back”. [Triple Canopy Honors Brian O’Doherty, Oct. 30 news release]; or as O’Doherty recalled in the Frieze Talks her saying to him “You’ll be Patrick Ireland forever.” The idea expressed in this remark by Krasner, that identity is tied to name, and once the name is sacrificed or become subservient to another name the identity previously attached to it is lost for good is somewhat ironic coming from a painter whose own identity and struggle to preserve her own name which through a marriage was dominated and subsumed, only to slowly reassociate with her own painterly identity after her own death. [Levin, 2011] However, Krasner spoke a truth -there is real danger associated with the assumption of another identity, be it an alter ego, persona or name via marriage. Patrick Ireland may be buried, but Brian O’Doherty will be Patrick Ireland forever. The features on the death mask of the persona are those of his creator.
Ciarán Benson in his essay on O’Doherty, No Sad Imperialist of the Aesthetic Self- The Artist Brian O’Doherty (previously known as Patrick Ireland),published in the Dublin Review of Books (June 3, 2011) wrote that the death of Patrick Ireland “...allowed Brian O’Doherty to reappropriate his past, and his work”. Reappropriation implies that something must be reclaimed by someone, an individual or a group, after it has been used in a disparaging way. It is questionable whether the artist’s assumption of personas, such as O’Doherty/Ireland, could be viewed as a disparaging action, one that would lead to or need an act of reappropriation. An action leading to loss of identity might typically be viewed as a disparaging act, both inside and outside of the art world. One must only look to the phrase ‘a person’s credit is only as good as his name’ to understand the relationship between name, identity and the value contained within. While this might certainly be the case within the realm of finances and daily existence, the idea that something, a part of one’s identity -personal, artistic or both- is lost with the assumption of another name, persona, alter ego as part of a creative action is not an idea I would agree with; nor do I think when taking the example of Brian O’Doherty/Patrick Ireland a valid argument for loss could be made. More likely to be proven in the case of Patrick Ireland is how the assumption of a persona expanded O’Doherty’s creative practice through not only the freedom it provided him to not create political or propaganda per se, but to the space in which to ask smaller questions that fed the bigger ones he was asking without those smaller asides taking over and dominating the conversation the artist was having within the work. The expansion of the artist’s practice by the incorporation of personas is far from a disparaging action and more an action maximizing the potential contained within.
Patrick Ireland was not the only alter ego or persona of Brian O’Doherty. There are or have been at least four others; five altogether if “Brian O’Doherty” is included. (I will write more on the other identities further down in this essay.) O’Doherty’s reason for developing so many personas was as much about space as about identity. Reporting on a talk given on February 21, 2012 at Vassar College in conjunction with an exhibition of his work at the college’s library and in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, O’Doherty was said to have explained his assumption of the personas as the solution he found to doing things he wanted to do which otherwise ‘did not fit’ with the work he was doing at that particular moment -so he created a new identity to do it. [Hernandez, 2012].
Personas create a type of space defined by the freedom they give to act, create, and exist in more than one way. The development and application of multiple personas by the artist as part of his or her creative practice could (should) be understood as a natural outgrowth of the exploration of the multifacetedness of identity in relation to the liminal space in which identity is played out.
Patrick Ireland was the means by which O’Doherty brought the personal, the emotional, the political into the work he had been doing throughout the 1960s, and continues to do to this day without making the work personal, emotional or political.
For me as an artist coming of age in the 1980s Patrick Ireland was Brian O’Doherty, and Brian O’Doherty was the author of Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. I understood Patrick Ireland as a politically motivated pseudonym for Brian O’Doherty, and Brian O’Doherty as an artist/writer who was critically taking apart the structure of the space in which art works existed -a physical, a conceptual, a commercial and a liminal space. The two names belonged to the same body, but were not the same.
There is no doubt that Marcel Duchamp has played a role in the development of Brian O’Doherty’s creative endeavors. However, this role, as O’Doherty quickly and adamantly pointed out in his presentation at the National Portrait Gallery symposium in Washington D.C. (March 27, 2009) in conjunction with the exhibition Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The dynamics of portraiture, is and was not as a mentor, master, or influence. Instead, in line with O’Doherty’s use the language of the game of chess as a metaphor in his talk to describe his opponent and their match, I propose envisioning the relationship between Duchamp and O’Doherty as that between two players engaged in a game. Chess was and is a game important to both men since their childhood, and each applied its language, structure and approach to play to his art.
After leaving the field of medicine -O’Doherty is an M.D. and did research in experimental psychology at Cambridge University before moving to the United States in 1957 to do further research at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston where, after one year and being awarded a M.Sc.from Harvard, O’Doherty took a job as host of an arts program for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on the local educational and eventual Public Television affiliate WGBH-TV. Throughout the 1960s, first in Boston and subsequently in New York City where he is still based today, O’Doherty through hosting, interviewing, and his entry into art writing as an art critic for The New York Times, O’Doherty not only continued his work as a visual artist with during a period he has described in numerous talks and interviews as ‘his graduate education occurring in the public eye’, but he befriended and integrated himself via his various roles (artist, critic, writer, educator) not only to his generation of artists who would form the core of the Minimalist/Conceptualist movement (LeWitt, Bochner, Smithson, Hess), the generation of artists influenced by the idea and work of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage -who was himself influenced by Duchamp raising a question of originality of influence on those artists, Johns and Rauschenberg), but also to artist of the previous generation of the New York School such as Mark Rothko and the composer Morton Feldman. Most importantly, as he described it in his talk in Washington, in 1959 he went to New York City from Boston and “hunted down” Duchamp; not as an act of pilgrimage, but more or less to respectfully take him apart, study him, and eventually refute him.
Because O’Doherty is so adamant in his statements seeking to correct what he views as a misconstrued understanding and reporting of his relationship to Duchamp by critics and art historians, I want to briefly touch on a few of the overlaps in their lives which fueled both of their interests in related themes, doing this as a means of underscoring O’Doherty’s maintenance that his work is not in emulation of that of Duchamp -he is no Duchampian in the sense many artists are- but rather inspired by other common sources he critically examined Duchamp’s work in order to refute those ideas which he found problematic in relation to his own creative undertakings.
To begin, both men began as painters. It is safe to say O’Doherty is still a painter, although he might be called by many other names -writer, performance artist, installation artist, and the list goes on. Duchamp famously denounced not only painting and the life of a painter, but also the identity of an artist. He declared to have given up making art for playing chess; declaring himself a respirateur. Of course, this was all subterfuge on part of Duchamp, who, despite dedicating much time to playing chess, still played the game of art in various ways and probably just as avidly; and on his final exhale released to us not a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide, but Etánt donnés. Yet neither Duchamp nor O’Doherty was interested in making painting after existing models, models that connected only to the spectator through the eye. Each, was/is interested in reaching the spectator’s mind. Although Duchamp made his public declaration against ‘retinal’ painting and an existence bete comme un peintre a good decade before O’Doherty’s birth, the O’Doherty family background in medicine and his own initial forays into this scientific field argue that Duchamp was not the driving force for O’Doherty’s own interest in making art that superseded its outermost, visual layer. The desire to reveal the structure beneath the surface is not a declaration or stance against the visual object, or even painting, to gunst of the idea or concept on part of either Duchamp or O’Doherty; rather it is simply the desire of each to go beyond the surface and address the “I” beholding the eye through the work. To indulge in a bit of wordplay, a favorite pastime of both men, -there is more to this than meets the eye.
This brings me to introducing play as a formative aspect for both artists. As mentioned earlier, each man, since childhood, avidly played the game of chess; and chess is identifiable in terms both visual and conceptual as a leit motiv throughout both of their work. On one hand O’Doherty has applied the grid of the chess board along with the rules of the game -movement of the figures- as the substructure to work he has done across many media and genre. At times he has used chess quite literally and at other times more figuratively in his work. On the other hand, Duchamp, while also using the figures of the game literally in his work, more importantly applied the game figuratively by doning it as a mask from behind which he engaged [with the world (of art)].
Duchamp was a highly skilled player of the game, it was ‘his own game’. Suffice to say it would take another highly skilled player, one who knew the rules, through asking the right questions could take apart the strategy applied to the game by the opponent, find the holes, re-form, re-apply or create new rules of play, and then beat him at his own game. In the match O’Doherty set out to win the question he asked himself going into the game was how could he refute Duchamp’s assertion that art once hung on the museum wall rapidly declined to the point of death? For a painter such as O’Doherty, the question was existential -how can he prove this to be incorrect? Or, at least, to question in a way so the art he was making was not already declared dead upon arrival. As O’Doherty recollects and retells in his presentation at the National Portrait Gallery symposium the impetus he felt to engage Duchamp in his own game it becomes clear that, like in a game of chess, where each move requires the opponent to analyze and question in order to make the next move, from this question and its analysis further questions were formed and played out.
There are various ways to play and philosophies defining what play is. When playing a game the options are usually to play by the agreed upon rules until the game ends or to play by the rules to a point, generally of mutual agreement, then change the rules as a means of sustaining the game. This is the type one might associate most readily with playing a game like chess. Even Alice, when she traveled through the looking glass, followed the rules of chess to reach the end of the game and make it back to the other side. Then there is the type of play Richard Schechner in his book Performance Studies: an introduction describes as “...Nietzschean, where the gods (fate, destiny, luck, indeterminacy) change the rules of the game at any time, and therefore, where nothing is certain.” [page 92] Of these two kinds of play I propose the game played by Duchamp and O’Doherty might be viewed as falling somewhere in between these two types, after all the players began playing by the rules, but the rules were changed and uncertainty followed. However, it was not the gods that changed the rules, it was O’Doherty. Because of this I put forth that the type of play engaged in went beyond that of a simple game and entered into what Schechner described as ‘dark play’. This type of play is a form of ‘deep play’ defined by Clifford Geertz in 1973 in The Interpretation of Cultures, pages 432-33, as the type of play in which both parties are “...in over their heads. Having come together in search of pleasure they have entered into a relationship which will bring the participants, considered collectively, net pain rather than net pleasure”; and cited by Schechner as the basis for his definition of dark play: “Playing that emphasizes risks, deception, and sheer thrill”. [page 119] Although the idea that pain resulted from the game between Duchamp and O’Doherty is absurd, there was deception, risk and thrill leading to further uncertainty involved.
An urbane definition of a player is a person skilled at manipulating or “playing” others. A spin on the old adage ‘it takes one to know one’ would be ‘it takes a player to know a player’ and in the case of O’Doherty, Duchamp met his match - pun intended. Entering into his game with Duchamp, O’Doherty had studied the players previous moves in preparation for his own. The move O’Doherty made that challenged Duchamp took place one evening in the spring of 1966.
As the story goes, recollected at various times through the years by O’Doherty, the artist and his wife, art historian Barbara Novack, invited Duchamp and his wife Teeny to dinner. Beforehand O’Doherty had inquired if he could make a portrait of Duchamp. Duchamp, as was his nature willingly agreed -more to his willingness to be portrayed by his contemporaries I refer you to the essay ‘The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Depictions of Marcel Duchamp by His Contemporaries and Ours’ by Francis M. Nauman in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Inventing Marcel Duchamp: The dynamics of portraiture (2009). In preparation O’Doherty had rented an electrocardiogram machine, intending to create a portrait of Duchamp by recording the artist’s heartbeat.
Retelling the origins of the artwork Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1966) as part of his 2009 symposium talk, O’Doherty contextualized the origins of this work through the merging of his interests in body parts - perhaps from his own medical background in combination with advancing technologies, such as the first heart transplant which was only months in the future (December 1967) - with Symbolist poetry and prose (another overlap with the interests of Duchamp) and his question of how could art, the art he was making and the art Duchamp had made, be kept ‘alive’ in a museum in light of Duchamp’s pronouncement that artworks die on the museum walls. Three years earlier the artist Robert Morris had recorded his own heartbeat and titled it Self Portrait (EEG), therefore the precedence for applying this technology to portraiture was there; it had been done before, but lacked “wit”, in O’Doherty’s opinion. Witty is a character trait one might well associate with Duchamp, but not necessarily the body organ of the heart. More likely the artist known as the one who attempted to strip the emotional, the sentimental - all those things associated metaphorical with the heart - is associated with the brain, such as in the sculpture by Swiss artist Jean Crotti Portrait de Marcel Duchamp sur mésure (1916) consisting of a cast of the forehead/top of the artist’s (this remains questionable) head replete with a thick head of hair fabricated from fine wire, two glass eyes suspended beneath the brow-line, and the profile, jawline and neck of the artist replicated by means of a bent lead wire. An adjective used repeatedly by O’Doherty to describe Duchamp, his art and his reactions during the process was “cool”. The brain is considered ‘cool’ while the heart is considered ‘hot’. In reality, according to O’Doherty, Duchamp was neither. Duchamp was warm and that was what the artist was seeking to convey in his Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, the warm, living, respirateur.
The artist in his presentation recalling that night pondered what might have been his subject’s thoughts on the intention of the work. Despite the artist’s medical background his intentions were not to a potential pathological reading (or telling) of his subject. [Note: O’Doherty shared in his talk that the previous evening a cardiologist did finally look at the EEG drawing and declared signs of previous cardiac incidents in the lower ventricles. Duchamp died approximately 18 months after O’Doherty recorded his heart beat -of heart failure.] While it the intention of O’Doherty might not have been clear to Duchamp that evening, and although the two artist never spoke of it later, it was perhaps clear to Duchamp that evening this portrait was unlike the others he had allowed others to make of (with) him. O’Doherty reports Duchamp suggested he sign the work “Brian O’Doherty, M.D.”. Innocent enough when one considers the artist in fact has a medical degree. However, the younger player saw through the tricks of the older coyote. As per Francis Nauman’s essay, Duchamp frequently allowed others to make or attempt to capture his portrait. But, in doing so he often found a way to subvert the artist making the portrait, claiming authorship for himself. O’Doherty was aware of this and did not allow Duchamp to even claim co-authorship by attaching his initials to O’Doherty’s name. This recognition of Duchamp’s ability to usurp authorship or sway the intention from that of the artist’s to his own, or as O’Doherty described it in his 2009 symposium presentation as Duchamp’s radioactive zone of influence, had kept O’Doherty from permitting his Portrait of Marcel Duchamp to be exhibited anywhere in the vicinity of a Marcel Duchamp exhibition until then, forty-three years later.
To make Portrait of Marcel Duchamp embody the the warm, living, respirateur O’Doherty needed to go further with the work than Morris took his self portrait; and still further than Duchamp might have taken it. Portrait of Marcel Duchamp by Brian O’Doherty did more than open a can of worms, it opened a box of questions of authorship, not only for spectators but also for the artist, and perhaps, also for Duchamp. Who owned the heart beat? Was it a Readymade? If so, was it made by Marcel Duchamp or involuntarily by Duchamp’s heart? Had O’Doherty appropriated, stolen or even eaten Duchamp’s heart(beat)? How much was O’Doherty controlled by Marcel Duchamp in this work? The questions raised by this work point to the nature of dark play O’Doherty and Duchamp were (equally) engaging in as they explored and pushed the boundaries of the space of identity expressed in (through) the art work.
O’Doherty often writes or speaks of the role of ‘gesture’. In the third essay of Inside the White Cube when discussing 1,200 Bags of Coal, Duchamp’s ‘non-artwork’ installation in, of or for the “International Exhibition of Surrealism,” 1938, New York, the author defines gesture as:
“Gestures are a form of invention. They can only be done once, unlesseveryone agrees to forget them. [...] I suppose the formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy, and grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and ideas. It is to that degree didactic, as Barbara Rose says, though the word may overplay the intent to teach. If it teaches, it is by irony and epigram, by cunning and shock. A gesture wises you up. It depends for its effect on the context of ideas it changes and joins. It is not art, perhaps, but art-like and thus has a meta-life around and about art. [...] So a gesture has an odd historical appearance, always fainting away and reviving.”
“A gesture may be a “young” project; but it is more argumentative and epigrammatic, and it speculates riskily on the future. It calls attention to untested assumptions, overlooked content, flaws in historical logic. [...] Documents and photographs challenge the historical imagination by presenting to it an art that is already dead. [...] Undocumented projects may survive as rumor and attach themselves to the persona of their originator, who is constrained to develop a convincing myth.”
(O’Doherty, 1976 pages 70-71)
If the term gesture is applied to the works of Marcel Duchamp per the first section of the quote above, then per the second quote the term must be applied to the work of O’Doherty, specifically Portrait of Marcel Duchamp. However, I propose that while O’Doherty’s work is gestural in nature based on his definition, it is not the same type of gesture as Duchamp’s. The difference between the two artists’ approach would be akin to the difference between a 30 second gesture drawing and a two minute sustained gesture drawing. Duchamp was, on the one hand, the economic, one-off, single thrust 30 second gesture. O’Doherty, on the other hand, was the sustained gesture of a “young” project, reliant on its argumentativeness, speculation, and ‘challenge (to) the historical imagination by presenting to it an art that is already dead’ by means of documents and photographs, lest it “attach” itself to the persona of of its originator, constrained to develop a convincing myth’.
In order to take the linear recording of Duchamp’s heartbeat further O’Doherty first carefully dissected the line, becoming intimate with the visualized structure of the isolated beat. The artist remarked upon the sameness yet originality of each beat. By isolating the single, resting beat, O’Doherty amplified the repetition, which through redundancy indicated an equilibrium, ‘fictional paralysis’ or ‘suspended mortality’. In his 2009 presentation in Washington D.C. describing this process O’Doherty paraphrased Kierkegaard’s “true repetition is eternity”, expanding it by inversion to “eternity is the true repetition” and remarking that although we “can tell time by the heart, (but) the heart cannot tell time”. Further to O’Doherty and notions of eternity, a few years later in a 2012 conversation with Professor Margaret Iversen as part of Drawing Room 10th Anniversary event (https://vimeo.com/179471974) the artist harking back to his Catholic childhood upbringing, the most terrifying notion was ‘eternity’, that this could go on forever. Returning to Portrait of Marcel Duchamp O’Doherty sustained the gesture of Duchamp’s EEG through sixteen works in the work, which is rightly termed a series. After the initial recording on paper and the isolation-dissection of the heartbeat O’Doherty knew the next thing he wanted to do was make Duchamp’s heart beat again. “I was going to make him live” O’Doherty said. This required more than the paper documentation; this required the heartbeat itself. To achieve this O’Doherty sought to construct an oscilloscope-type object employing low tech materials and resources scavenged from the streets of lower Manhattan. Building a box with three fragments of Duchamp’s heartbeat etched into glass, with flickering backlighting like a blinking sign in a dive bar advertising cheap beer, O’Doherty hung his box on a wall, plugged it and and brought Duchamp’s heart back to life. Subsequently an iteration followed featuring a single etched pane of glass depicting the fragment of the beat, and which the artist slowed down the flicker of the lights so that Duchamp’s resting heart now beat only every seven seconds per minute -near to that of a blue whale, according to the artist. By slowing Duchamp’s heartbeat down, spreading the number of times Duchamp’s heart actually beat in life, O’Doherty calculated he had increased Duchamp’s lifespan by almost three times - near eternity. O’Doherty had refuted Duchamp’s claim that the artwork died on the museum wall by making him live forever.
Again, the artists never discussed the work once it was completed. But upon completing these first iterations in the series and exhibiting them in 1967, O’Doherty has described how eerie it was for him to watch Duchamp watching his heartbeat beat as the artist came to view the exhibition. We do not know what Duchamp thought of this portrait, which was perhaps the most intimate portrait (with the exception of Duchamp’s self portrait Paysage Fautif) done of the artist. The questions raised might always remain unanswerable; however, in their asking not only Brian O’Doherty was led further into his sometimes dark, generally playful explorations of identity.
A One-Man Show for Five People or “I’ve always lived parallel lives.”
The header of this subsection combines a headline from an article in the campus newspaper about an exhibition of Brian O’Doherty’s art in 2012 at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY along with a quote from O’Doherty in used as a headline in an article published October 18, 2014 in The Irish Times looking back at the career of Brian O’Doherty -aka ‘Patrick Ireland’.
It might seem slightly out of order to review the biography of the main protagonist almost at the end of the essay; however, doing so underscores how little relevance the artist’s bio plays in terms of his or her work, yet maintains it is relevant and therefore information must be supplied to gain a more expansive and detailed picture of the artist and understanding of the work. To begin with Brian O’Doherty I return to the death of Patrick Ireland. In the 2008 New York Times article on the death of Patrick Ireland Michael Kimmelman wrote:
"Mr. O’Doherty was born in 1928 into a family of doctors in County Roscommon. “I was always searching for an identity,” he recalled.His family had “a fractured sense of identity”: two uncles joined the British army, another uncle fought the British and helped capture a British general. [...]
In retrospect, like everything else he did, the essay (II. The Eye and the Spectator’ Inside the White Cube) dealt with identity — how people and the works of art they make, once decoded, show themselves inextricably entwined with their origins and locales."
('Patrick Ireland, 36, Dies; Created to Serve Peace' May 22, 2008)
I have mentioned earlier O’Doherty’s own background in medicine and the role it has and has not played in his work. There is clearly reason to say that despite always having been ‘a painter’ much of O’Doherty’s methodology harks to that of a scientist in the laboratory, with a strong studio based painting practice. In fact, an area art historians might one day consider perusing in O’Doherty’s biography is how O’Doherty’s practice led research might have contributed to the formation of the emerging definition of the practice led artist-researcher in the late twentieth century. As if the dual identities of scientist (medicine) and visual artist (most media) were not enough we must also add to O’Doherty’s curriculum vitae that of performance artist, author (literary), writer (journalism/criticism), art critic (in writing and on TV), television host/interviewer, educator (adjunct professor), and arts administrator (part-time director for the United States National Endowment for the Arts for twenty years). A resume as full as O’Doherty’s is not found every day, not just because the expansiveness of the roles undertaken appears exhausting and overwhelming for the average person, but more importantly the degree of diversity in identities performed in each role is generally discouraged by society and each area the role is situated in. Even in the twenty-first century when the understanding that people are no longer tied to a single job or profession is commonplace, there remains the expectation, or dare I write, the respect for the specialist or the expert. Why this is and remains to be is not my topic, but when addressing the art world in general regards to the ’specialist’ or ‘expert’ the origins can be traced to the birth of modernism, the shift in the role of the artist (and the academic) in a culture where the art object (and knowledge) is commodified and consistency in style, expertise and specialization are guarantees of a value which not only will remain stable but increase over time. While many, if not the majority of people are content with this system -deduced by the period it has not only existed but by its development throughout the late twentieth century and into the current century- suffice to say there have been, are and, quite possibly, will be people who are not content to become or remain specialists, tied to a single style, constrained by the walls of the White Cube described by O’Doherty. What then? How do we live not just parallel lives, but multifaceted existences in a culture of experts and specialists? Further, does (must) a multifaceted existence exclude the ability to become an expert or a specialists?
Another interesting connection between Marcel Duchamp and Brian O’Doherty is their hyphenated identities; Duchamp the ‘French-American’ and O’Doherty ‘Irish-American’. Both men came to the United States in their mid-to-late twenties, and while O’Doherty pretty quickly ‘settled’ in New York City (after four years in Boston), Duchamp spent decades moving back and forth between the US and France, one foot on each shore, before ‘settling down’ in New York City -though both men have/have had footholds in Europe, Duchamp in Paris and Spain for the final years of his life, and O’Doherty and his wife their villa in Umbria, Italy - the significance of which I will write more later. This shared status of continually shifting between the identities of emigrant and immigrant deposited another layer to or polished another facet of the identity of each. A difference between the biographies of O’Doherty and Duchamp is the early life of each; whereas Duchamp’s family had a clear ‘French’ middle-class identity, the identity of the O’Doherty’s was impacted by the political relationship/history between Britain and Ireland, as made clear in the quote above.
In addition to sharing the experience of hyphenated identities, Marcel Duchamp like Brian O’Doherty had a fairly rich and diverse resume -perhaps not quite as expansive as O’Doherty’s- but for the time well beyond the status quo. How each artist created the space necessary to function in a multitude of ways, while in some ways, on the surface, might at first appear to be related, when taken apart and studied more deeply reveal a quite expansive difference. Foremost in their difference is Duchamp’s rejection of the identity of an artist - one who makes art in favor not of other identities, but for the non-identity of a respirateur; whereas O’Doherty has fully embraced this facet of his identity, perhaps it is not even a facet, but the core.
What might appear to be a commonality, but upon closer examination reveals itself to be a difference is how and why Duchamp and O’Doherty both developed and applied alter egos, specifically a female alter ego, within his creative process. At a glance Rrose Sélavy and Mary Josephson appear to be long lost cousins, if not aunt and niece. Yet these two ladies are not related.
There remains much discussion amongst Duchamp scholars as to why “Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose”. Duchamp was notoriously vague, misleading and at times simply short on providing the information needed to pin down these things. It is not the job of the artist or his alter ego to ‘explain’.
On the other hand, Brian O’Doherty, in his efforts to differentiate his art and ideas from those of Duchamp, made it quite clear in his March 2009 presentation at the Inventing Duchamp symposium why Mary is Mary and not Rrose. What we know of Rrose’s origins from Duchamp is that he created Rrose out of a desire to play a game, a little one between ‘I and me’, just to be different. He has said he first thought of changing religions -exchanging Catholicism for Judaism- but on second thought gender seemed the great leap. Rrose did not necessarily ‘do’ anything different than what Marcel did, although she readily took ownership of her/his actions. Whereas Mary, who Brian O’Doherty described as his closest persona -the one he most needed- originated in his own attempts to understand and process the struggles he witnessed his wife dealing with throughout the 1960s and 1970s in the all-male art history department/world. Mary turned Brian into a feminist. Mary was a tool with which O’Doherty could apply to engage differently with a part of his work -in this case writing, art criticism.
In addition to Rrose and Mary both Duchamp and O’Doherty had other alter egos or personas. Again, they were developed quite differently and fulfilled different functions within each artist’s practice. In Marcel Duchamp’s practice I venture to describe all of the personas of Marcel Duchamp under the single moniker “Marcel Duchamp”. Unlike Rrose or the personas of O’Doherty, Duchamp’s personas were not developed as individual characters, instead they might be described as a multitude of masks all looking like Duchamp, but each an original; like a heartbeat: each the same, each original.
In the case of O’Doherty in addition to Mary Josephson and Patrick Ireland there were two more personas -William Maginn a reincarnation of an late-18th, early-19th century Irish journalist/writer who occasionally wrote under a pseudonym of “O’Doherty”, and the composite writer-historian and generally uptight character of Sigmund Bode. A fifth persona of Brian O’Doherty could be seen as “Brian O’Doherty” in either one of his other roles, or as I will write in a later essay, as the painter. What is interesting about both the personas of Duchamp and O’Doherty, with the exceptions of Rrose Sélavy and Patrick Ireland the identity of the artist behind the persona, in the case of O’Doherty, was revealed decades after the inception of the persona- after the persona had published, edited, commented on, exhibited (or failed to exhibit) works created by O’Doherty and attributed to that identity. In matters of Duchamp it is questionable if the artist behind the personas “Marcel Duchamp” has ever truly been revealed, this is a matter both Duchamp scholars and laity are still debating to this day.
What is clear in regards to both artists’ application of personas to his creative practice is, for O’Doherty to find the freedom he sought he needed the mask -the name of a persona- to hide behind in order to explore his ideas through other media in a space where too much diversity, too much variance was frowned upon; for Duchamp freedom was found by simply creating a mask that was a copy of himself that was also an original, an act of rejecting the association of his image/name with any fixed identity.
Following the thread back to painting.
To conclude this essay in Personas - Why not Duchamp? - The life and death of Patrick Ireland I return to the overlap in the biographies of Marcel Duchamp and Brian O’Doherty, their mutual beginnings as painters and chess players. Throughout their lives, and O’Doherty is still alive at the writing of this essay, both painting and chess remained a thread throughout their creative practices.
Despite what Duchamp said about no longer painting, he did, and one could argue that his ‘not’ painting is what kept this thread running through the heart of his practice. The beating that never ends. In regards to O’Doherty and his painting practice, I will discuss it more thoroughly in the final essay of this section; however, suffice to say that painting remained a prominent thread in his practice by the additional pathways he explored and by which he further developed questions directed specifically to painting after Duchamp. How does the painting on the wall remain alive after its own death has been prematurely declared?
Therefore, in my next essay I will examine more closely the role and impact of the multiple personas, aside from Patrick Ireland, in the practice of Brian O’Doherty alongside other artists, primarily painters, writers and performance based artists who have used multiple personas as tools in their creative practices to explore identity. My final essay in this section will address in more detail the development of the Rope Drawings and their connection with the personas to the later paintings of Brian O’Doherty, focusing on the wall paintings in the artist’s villa in Todi, (Umbria) Italy.