“Right There, Looking”: Brian O’Doherty’s Collected Essays
Brian O’Doherty is justly renowned for his short book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976). In any case, as a much-acclaimed artist and a veteran critic, he deserves this presentation of his writings. Collected Essays brings together substantial personal reminiscences of Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko, who were his friends; accounts of travels to Las Vegas and Miami; discussions of medicine that are informed by his early experience as an MD; descriptions of the work Orson Wells and other filmmakers; and selections from his art criticism of the 1960s and ‘70s, dealing with Richard Chamberlain, George Segal, Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. There’s a marvelous account of how he took Marcel Duchamp’s heartbeat to compose a portrait of that artist and the story of how, as a political gesture, he took the name Patrick Ireland (1972-2008). “As a young man in Dublin,” he writes in a brilliant introductory essay on masquerade, “I felt the need to assume a persona that stretched the borders of a culture where literature always flourished and the attitudes to visual art were warily provincial” (pp. 8-9). O’Doherty is a gifted writer whose Irish-honed literary skills are placed at the service of New York’s cosmopolitan visual culture.
As examples of his luminously lucid, jargon free analysis, I especially admired his highly instructive account of the role of windows in Hopper’s paintings, the problems with the dark paintings in Rothko’s Houston Chapel, discussion of neon signs in Las Vegas, and an analysis of Stella’s early reception. But because he doesn’t provide an overview on the very diverse themes of these essays, it’s left to the reader to tease out the unifying concerns. And it’s not clear who will read this book through – except a very patient reviewer. Perhaps Inside the White Cube provides the unifying perspective much needed in the present volume, with its appeal to the role of the spectator’s space. When O’Doherty describes the ways that Hopper’s “aim was to keep the spectator right there, looking” (p. 21), using his windows in his “mysterious realism” which “invites you in to test the logic of his space with reference to your everyday experience” (p. 39), his account is revelatory. And his claim that Rothko’s dark late paintings show “an urge to experiment in ways he had not previously allowed himself” (p. 83), extends that analysis in a surprising way. I regret, then, that O’Doherty doesn’t go out of his way to make this overriding concept, which points to surprising parallels between Hopper’s realism and Rothko’s abstractions, entirely accessible, nor indicate how it might bring together the concerns of the other essays in this volume.
What is the right format for republication of a famous critic’s writings? When Clement Greenberg collected his criticism in Art and Culture (1961) he provided a carefully edited selection of his essays; he was famous enough that no elaborate editorial discussion was needed. When Michael Fried collected his criticism in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (1998), he offered an elaborate introduction describing the genesis and development of these writings. But although O’Doherty’s Collected Essays opens with respectful brief essays by Liam Kelly and Anne-Marie Bonnet, they don’t really tell enough to provide a full perspective on his career, much of which now is historically distant. I sought out this volume, I confess, because I wanted to know if how he had rethought his history of the commercial art gallery, in light of its recent development. But I was frustrated by the very condensed five-page account, whose title, I admit, is suggestive: “Boxes, cubes, installations, whiteness and money.” “Art and its reception,” he rightly says, “always intersected finance. Art is made to be coopted” (p. 331). What then follows? “The white cube I described over thirty years ago is no longer the same place. The stresses on it from within have increased” (p. 330). True enough – but surely there is much more to be said. Right now I can think of no more interesting challenge for anyone interested in contemporary art and its market than spelling out the implications of these claims.
Brian O’Doherty, Collected Essays. (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.) Edited by Liam Kelly. Introduction by Anne-Maria Bonnet. ISBN 9780520286542, 342 pp. $85 hardback, $34.95 paperback