A medical graduate of University College Dublin, and Cambridge University, O’Doherty spent a year working in a cancer hospital and, after emigrating to the United States in 1957, conducted medical research at Harvard, before devoting himself full-time to the visual arts. Speaking of his experience after Harvard,
I first spent a year at Harvard when I came in 1957, doing all kinds of research. I got an MSc there, but I didn’t learn much. I switched from all things medical. I auditioned for a job as a television presenter at the Museum of Fine Arts from the Boston public television station, WGBH—TV. I would do a half-hour each week from the galleries on the museum collections, also interviews with artists – Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, among others.
For many years, O'Doherty was an influential member of the senior staff of the National Endowment for the Arts, first as director of the Visual Arts Program, and subsequently as director of the Media Arts Program, where he was responsible for the creation of such major public television series as American Masters and Great Performances. He is the author of numerous works of art criticism, including his book American Masters and the influential book Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space, in which he discusses and invents the term for the Contemporary Gallery Space. He has also written novels: The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P. (1992) and the 2000 Booker Prize-nominated The Deposition of Father McGreevey (1999).
On 20 May 2008, in recognition of the progress for peace in Ireland, O'Doherty ceremoniously buried his alter ego at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, and resumed being called by his birth name.
In The modern art collection, Trinity College Dublin, David Scott writes that:
- "Much influenced by Marcel Duchamp he is an essentially interrogative artist, constantly questioning artistic conventions and the assumptions on which we base our aesthetic judgements."
Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space
Inside The White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, was first published by Brian O’Doherty as three separate essays in Artforum in 1976, Their impact was immediate as seen by their discussion, annotation, citation, collection, and translation. The Expanded Edition of the book (14 January 2000) also includes "The Gallery as Gesture" first published in 1981.
O'Doherty was the first to explicitly confront a particular crisis in postwar art as he sought to examine the assumptions on which the modern commercial and museum gallery was based. Concerned with the complex and sophisticated relationship between economics, social context, and aesthetics as represented in the contested space of the art gallery, he raises the question of how artists must construe their work in relation to the gallery space and system. These essays are essential reading for anyone interested in the history and issues of postwar art in Europe and the United States. Teeming with ideas, relentless in their pursuit of contradiction and paradox, they exhibit both the understanding of the artist (Patrick Ireland) and the precision of the scholar.
He explores in great depth the intentions behind designing the modern gallery space into a neutral space, a white cube, which becomes part of the artwork, giving the exhibition space an underlying beauty. He reveals the importance of the gallery space as not just a white cube but also a historical, special construction, which aims to devour the art. He further discusses the setting for Post-modern art by stripping every layer of artifice away to end up with the white cube. However by endeavouring to make the setting disappear to the art, the void of setting becomes integral with the content itself. The content therefore relies on the context to exist in its true form.
O’Doherty discusses what a modernist gallery does to the artworks and how viewing subject transforms from context to content. This happens primarily through its disappearance, “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light... the art is free as the saying used to go, to take on its own life.” The white cube is designed to neutralise social space and time from the artwork, to free itself from context. O’Doherty elaborates the importance of the wall and how it becomes powerfully active in the art "the wall, the context of the art had become rich in a content of it subtly donated to the art. Space has now become not just where things happen but now "things make space happen". The gallery joins the picture, which begins to define the entire space. This is done so that when we stand in the gallery space we end up being inside the artwork.
The context can only be eliminated if the space is constructed to eliminate the outside world. O’Doherty describes the modern gallery space as "constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church." The artwork like religious verities are to appear "untouched" by time and its vastitudes. O’Doherty explores the roots of the way an exhibition space is designed and investigates the eternal displays of chambers. He has discovered similarities through the history of religion, for example Egyptian tombs, which were deliberately designed to be set off from the outside world and difficult to access just like the Palaeolithic painted caves and the Magdalenian and Aurignacian ages in Spain and France. Egyptian tombs were also an "illusion of eternal presence to protect itself from the flow of time" the tombs also displayed sculptures and paintings that were regarded as sacred and magically contiguous with eternity.
The artworks are set to be isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. We have reached a point where we see the space before the art. The ideal gallery eliminates all cues from the artwork that interfere with the fact that it is "art" and to give then a timeless quality, "art exists in a kind of eternity of display and thought there is lots of 'period' (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbo-like status." Only be being separated
Art used to be an illusion but now it is simply made from illusions. In the 60's and 70's the attempt to change this was risky and could not have been tolerated for long. The art industry then ignored this effort so that illusions come back. "The intentions of closing off the outside world be sealing off windows, making the art works themselves like portable windows penetrated with deep space." The white cube is designed to "bleach out the past" so that the artworks appear "untouched" and so it doesn’t seem to have belonged to posterity, making it seem as though it is a good investment. The relationship between the easel painting and the modern display of art is distinguished in the book. It first describes the easel picture being framed, "a window within the picture in turn frames not only a further distance, but confirms the window like limits of the frame."
O’Dohery refers to an image of Le Louvre in 1932–33 where we can see the magical, box-like status of the smaller easel pictures due to the immense distance they contain and their precise detailing they have when examined them up close. The framing of these paintings is as much a psychological container for the artist as the room is for the viewer, "the perspective positions everything from within the picture along a core of space against which the frame acts like a grid, echoing the cuts of foreground, middle ground and distance within. One steps firmly into such a picture or glides effortlessly depending on its tonality and colour. The greater the illusion, the greater invitation [to] the spectator's eye."
O’Doherty traces the development of the white cube out of the tradition of the western easel painting. He then redirects attention to the same development from another point of view, Like Duchamp's work Shaped Paintings (installation view) at the Visual Arts Museum, 1979, stepping once and for all outside the frame, making the gallery space itself the primary material to be altered by art. Minimal art recognised the illusions inherent in the easel picture and didn’t have any illusions about society. Having dropped off the frame, it helped not only relax the viewers eye to look elsewhere, it also creates some kind in uneasiness’ as the artworks can start to "breath" and the starting to attempt to establish their territory.
"Studio and Cube"
"Studio and Cube" is O'Doherty's long-awaited follow-up to his seminal 1976 essays for Artforum, republished in 1999 as "Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space". That critically acclaimed volume dissected the abstract, white space of the art gallery, calling it "the archetypal image of 20th-century art." In Studio and Cube, he expands his interpretation to include the artist's studio, tracking the relationship between the artwork and the artist from Vermeer through late modernism. O'Doherty reflects on the differing work spaces of Courbet, Matisse, Rothko, Bacon, Warhol, and many others. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the history and issues of art and the environment in which it is produced. Studio and Cube is the first in the series of FORuM Project Publications produced by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, at Columbia University.
Written by his second alter ego "Ashleigh Rye", as a critical reflection on the first and second book 34 years after "Inside the white cube: the ideology of the Gallery Space". Here Rye explores the re-direction of art and strives to reveal art practice that has moved far beyond the white cube. Art has become almost indefinable, yet galleries still offer the same strict institutionalised lighting conditions, are neutralised to extremes with fixed wall planes. Through the evolution of art, its relationship to the gallery as cube has been left behind.
- Moore-McCann, Brenda, Brian O'Doherty/Patrick Ireland (Farnham, Lund Humphries, 978-1-84822-014-0, 2009).
- Brian O'Doherty: Beyond the Ideology of the White Cube. MACBA: Barcelona, 2009.
- Phong Bui, "In Conversation: Brian O'Doherty with Phong Bui" the Brooklyn Rail, June 2007.http://brooklynrail.org/2007/06/art/doughtery
- Irish Artist to "Bury" Alter Ego, ARTINFO, 6 May 2008, retrieved 2008-05-14
- Kimmelman, Michael (22 May 2005), Patrick Ireland, 36, Dies; Created to Serve Peace, New York Times, retrieved 2008-05-22
- O'Doherty, Brian (1976). Inside The White Cube: The Ideology Of The Gallery Space, Expanded Edition. Lapis Press, San Francisco & First University of California Press edition. pp. 1–115.
- David Scott (1989), The modern art collection, Trinity College Dublin. Dublin: Trinity College Dublin Press. ISBN 1-871408-01-6
Ciaran Benson (2011), The artist Brian O'Doherty (previously known as Patrick Ireland) No sad imperialist of the aesthetic self!", The Dublin Review of Books, 17, Spring 2011, (http://www.drb.ie/index.aspx)
- For further information on the White Cube, refer to White Cube