Will the Real Brian O’Doherty Please Stand Up?


Brian O’Doherty lives in New York, and his home phone has been out of order since Sandy struck. But the critic and artist–best known for his book Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space (1976) and for his artistic alter ego Patrick Ireland, invented in protest against the British occupation of Northern Ireland–spoke to A.i.A. via a spotty cell phone connection on Thursday afternoon, a day ahead of being awarded the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing in a ceremony at the tony Explorers Club, on New York’s Upper East Side.

Previously awarded to writers including Linda Nochlin, Calvin Tomkins and Hal Foster, the prize consists of a $25,000 honorarium and an award designed by architect Tadao Ando.

O’Doherty joined the New York Times as an art critic in 1961 and was A.i.A.‘s editor from 1971 to 1974. He has exhibited work at Documenta and the Venice Biennale, and has been the subject of several retrospectives, including one at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery in 2007.

BRIAN BOUCHER What are you working on now?

BRIAN O’DOHERTY I’m just making art. That’s the main thing. I just got back from giving a lecture at the Frieze Art Fair in London, which went rather well, I have to say. I’ve been spending an awful lot of time in Europe. I was also at the Grand Palais in Paris, which screened my documentary Hopper’s Silence [1981], about the artist, and I gave a talk there. There’s a great Hopper show there now.

BOUCHER And what about your writing?

O’DOHERTY I have a novel out there with a publisher at the moment. It’s called The Cross-dresser’s Secret, and it’s about the Chevalier D’Éon de Beaumont [1728-1810], who lived half his life as a woman. I did the same thing with Mesmer in a novel 20 years ago [The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P, 1992]. There are these characters in history that you cotton on to. The Chevalier was an extraordinary character-a spy, a writer, a diplomat, a champion fencer.

BOUCHER And you’re a man who wears many hats yourself, so perhaps you could relate.

O’DOHERTY A little bit. In your old age, doing a lot of things is a wonderful decision, but on the journey, they think you’re nuts. When you’re younger there’s a social pressure to do one thing only. Don’t you think? Do you make art, Brian?

BOUCHER No, I’m a writer.

O’DOHERTY Do you write fiction?

BOUCHER I have not written fiction. I’ve stuck mostly to art criticism and art journalism.

O’DOHERTY Are you teaching at all?

BOUCHER No. See? I’m a living example. The young do one thing.

O’DOHERTY Well, there’s plenty of time to get into trouble.

BOUCHER And what exhibitions do you have coming up?

O’DOHERTY I’m doing an exhibition this summer at the Kunstmuseum Bayreuth. There’s no title yet.

BOUCHER What in the arts are you following right now?

O’DOHERTY Nothing much, really. I’d prefer just to avoid that question. Really, at this stage, I’m interested in my own work and doing what I want to do. It’s inevitably connected to the white cube and theorizing about the nature of museums and curatorship. All that is very interesting. There’s a lot going on that . . . I won’t get into it.

BOUCHER But you’re tempted.

O’DOHERTY I wrote a piece that might be of interest to you if you can turn it up. I make some comments in it about the nature of things that are going on now. The Whitechapel Gallery in London produced a handbook when they re-opened their galleries, and I wrote an essay [Situation, ed. Clare Doherty, 2009].

It deals with some of the things I’m interested in. It’s pretty sharp, Brian, and has been somewhat controversial, and has been translated a bit. The Germans translate everything I do. The most recent show I had was in Berlin earlier this year. The Germans are always very good to me. Curiously enough, I spend most of my time in Europe now. I don’t know why.

BOUCHER Does that give you a different perspective on recent events in the U.S., like the election, the recession, etc.?

O’DOHERTY When I edited Art in America, there was an election going on, in 1972, Nixon versus McGovern. I asked each candidate to give their plans for the arts, and I published them together. I was very concerned that an art magazine get a response from the politicians who determine so much of our lives.

[Editor’s note: This feature is re-printed in the November 2012 issue of A.i.A.]

I was always very concerned about the connection between political life and artistic life and that the context in which we made our lives and made our art should be fairly sharply delineated. In other words, the citizens of the artistic community should be citizens of the political world as well as citizens of the social and artistic world. But that’s getting pretty far afield from your question.

Brian, you voted for Romney, I presume.

BOUCHER No, I did not.

O’DOHERTY I’m pulling your leg.