Beyond White: The Work of Patrick Ireland

The Critic’s Boots, 1964–65

By Lindsay MacDonald
August / September 2007

From April 17 to July 14, The Grey Art Gallery at New York University was home to an exhibit called “Beyond the White Cube,” a retrospective created by Irish-American artist Brian O’Doherty.

Previously shown at The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, the collection featured work spanning 50 years of O’Doherty’s career, and was presented under his alias — Patrick Ireland.

O’Doherty adopted the name to protest Bloody Sunday, when the British Army shot and killed 13 civil rights marchers in Derry in 1972, and pledged to sign his name as Patrick Ireland “until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights.”

The concept of identity has had a strong influence throughout O’Doherty’s career. In his piece The Transformation, Discontinuity, and Degeneration of the Image, 1969–present, O’Doherty uses photographs to show the shifting identity of an individual throughout the process of aging, and in juxtaposition, his painting Portrait of the Artist as a Naked Young Man, 1953,  is a self-portrait at a singular point in his life when enrolled in medical school.

O’Doherty, who moved to New York from Ireland in 1957, is well known not only as an artist but as a critic. The exhibition derives its name from his essay Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, first published in 1976. O’Doherty reasons that the walls of galleries have influenced the perception of art just as much as the works themselves.

He began creating rope drawings in 1973 as a way to deconstruct gallery space. His Rope Drawing (#111), which he created for this exhibit, is a combination of painted walls and cords stretched across space, which the viewer must physically climb through in order to see the work in its entirety.

It is another attempt by O’Doherty to create art that actively involves the spectator in the experience of interpretation.

His 1967 piece, Labyrinth Drawing, Isometric Projection, engages the viewers’ perceptions both mentally and through the suggestion of physical enactment.

Throughout his career, O’Doherty has returned to the idea of labyrinths in his art. This idea extends into his chess drawings and sculptures, such as Chess Set, 1966, made of anodized aluminum, glass, and gouache on mirror and board.

“The tangle of moves accumulating invisibly on the board as a game matured fascinated me, and I drew some famous games until they yielded a superimposed labyrinth of tracks,” he explained.

Also included in the exhibit are the large, six-by-six-foot paintings of Ogham script, an ancient Irish form. Within these paintings, O’Doherty spells out ONE, HERE, and NOW through a code of strokes translated from the Roman alphabet.

“ONE obviously had to do with unity, the Absolute. HERE had to do with position, thus with the ghost of composition. NOW collapsed past and future into the present,” he said.

“You draw to see what you’re thinking,” O’Doherty explains, and to the active spectator, his artwork demands to be thought about. ♦

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