Beyond the White Cube: 60 Years of Brian O’Doherty’s Letters

A new compilation traces the critic and artist’s thinking over several decades, including gems from Roland Barthes, Edward Hopper, Lucy Lippard and others 

In Brian O’Doherty’s 2014 novel The Crossdresser’s Secret the gender-defying 18th-century diplomat and spy Chevalier d’Eon receives a compliment from the King of France that his eloquent dispatches display ‘respect for the ear’. O’Doherty’s own letters are equally well crafted; his never-ending flow of ideas reach the page with the ease of conversation. In Dear…: Selected Letters from Brian O’Doherty 1970s to 2018 he recalls his many roles as art critic for The New York Times (1961–64), as editor of Art in America (1971–74), as former Director of the Visual Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts and later Director of the Media Arts Program: Film, Radio, Television (1969–96). That O’Doherty has additionally lived out his life under many identities lends his correspondences a fascinating breadth and diversity. In one letter, he offers his rationale for creating his artworks under the pseudonym of Patrick Ireland from 1972–2008 in protest against the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland in 1972, in which 14 unarmed civilians lost their lives. (Indeed, many of the letters are signed by Ireland.) His other identities include the feminist art critic Mary Josephson, the linguist Sigmund Bode and the poet William Maginn, who shares the name of a character in O’Doherty’s novel The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), which was nominated for the 2000 Man Booker prize.

Letter to Dorothy Walker, 1973. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

Letter to Dorothy Walker, 1973. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

The greatest contribution of Dear…: Selected Letters from Brian O’Doherty 1970s to 2018 however is that it allows us to trace O’Doherty’s artistic thinking over several decades. The letters share his insights into sculptures in progress, experimental performance works and the philosophers and architects who inspired some of the hundred plus ‘rope drawings’ he has created since the 1970s. Despite appearing to inhabit the gallery space with a lightweight ease, the labour of travelling the length and breadth of the US to install these site-specific works in person becomes duly apparent. This continuous artistic dialogue is facilitated by 40 years of correspondence with Irish art critic and curator Dorothy Walker, as well as subsequent decades of correspondence with the book’s editor, Brenda Moore-McCann, who is also the author of the most extensive monograph on his work Brian O’ Doherty/Patrick Ireland: Between Categories (2009). These letters offer reflections on individual artworks that will serve art historians and curators for many years to come.

Letter from Roland Barthes, 1967. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

Letter from Roland Barthes, 1967. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

A little-known fact is that O’ Doherty commissioned Roland Barthes to write the key poststructuralist text The Death of the Author, which was published in his conceptual-exhibition-in-a-box, Aspen 5+6 (1967). One of the gems of the book is Barthes’s letter and postcard to O’ Doherty, handwritten in charming French-English. The casual way in which Barthes entrusts O’Doherty with the translation of the essay is the mark of a long-gone world and inspires at least a little nostalgia in this reader. Surprisingly these are some of the few letters from the 1960s, when O’Doherty was most prolific as an art critic, with a ringside seat of battles over abstract expressionism and conceptual art. Yet, this absence is partly compensated by retrospective correspondence with Lucy Lippard, through which we learn of his friendships and creative exchange with artists Mel Bochner, Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson and the composer Morton Feldman. In a fascinating sequence of letters from the early 1970s we read O’Doherty’s unfolding thoughts on art, space and politics that will culminate in the seminal Inside the White Cube essays (1976), which forever changed how we look at the gallery space.

Letter to Jack Yeats, 1957. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

Letter to Jack Yeats, 1957. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

While art history tends to confine artists to their stylistic periods, O’Doherty’s collected letters also bear evidence of friendships with an older generation of artists. The book opens with a letter to Irish painter Jack Yeats, accompanied by the last portrait ever made of him: a pencil sketch by the young O’Doherty. That he was already operating as an art critic becomes evident in another letter from the same year in which Herbert Read thanks the young critic for his review of a recent book. Following O’Doherty’s move to New York in 1961, we witness his friendship with Edward Hopper, about whom he made the haunting film Hopper’s Silence (1981), and Stuart Davis, who bequeathed his easel to the young artist. Most touching is O’Doherty’s thought-provoking reflection on Marcel Duchamp in a letter to Alexander Alberro, in which this oft-misunderstood artist is humanized and deeply respected. Having first trained as a doctor, O’Doherty once made a conceptual portrait of Duchamp by taking his electrocardiograph. In one letter he recalls Barbara Novak – an art historian and O’Doherty’s wife – bumping into Duchamp on the street, who inquired after the wellbeing of his own heartbeat.

Following 60 years of letter-writing, we arrive at the present, with the opening portrait of Yeats coming full circle in a series of images of O’Doherty, taken in 2018 by photographer Fionn McCann, the recipient of the books’ final letter. Although at 90 O’Doherty has already outlived the octogenarian Yeats, his letter writing days are far from over. Highly perceptive, erudite, modest and with an intelligence that glows with a subdued brilliance throughout, reading his missives is like watching a pianist deftly moving his hands across a keyboard of artistic, philosophical, literary, linguistic, musical and architectural paradigms. A low tone of Beckett here, a sharp of Duchamp or Wittgenstein there and the almost giddy high notes of artistic decision making in action.

Dear…: Selected Letters from Brian O’Doherty 1970s to 2018 (edited by Brenda Moore-McCann) will be launched at Printed Matter, Inc., New York, USA on 30 March at 5pm.

Main image: Letter to Dorothy Walker, 1973. Courtesy: Vermillion Design, Dublin

Lucy Cotter is an independent writer and curator, currently based in Portland, Oregon, USA, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She was curator of the Dutch pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 and is the editor of the forthcoming volume Reclaiming Artistic Research

Latest Magazines

Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

frieze magazine

May 2019

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019

frieze magazine

September 2019