A recent show at Simone Subal Gallery, Speaking in Lines, presented a group of works by the artist Brian O'Doherty that had not been on view since the 1960s and ‘70s. Their formal elements included sparse variations of arrangements of lines across mirror, canvas, and paper. Together, they represented the artist's ongoing interrogations of language—its legibility and ability to be layered into visual forms—specifically through the Ogham alphabet, a Medieval Irish script that was traditionally used in epigraphs and inscriptions, composed entirely of straight and slanted dashes aligned horizontally. For O'Doherty, using this alphabet is a way of allowing work to "speak" through a visual register. A series of drawings "written" in the language hung across from four vertical mirrored sculptures engraved with words. Two spare paintings spoke to each other across the room on the subject of hair. With their orderly marks across white surfaces, the drawings (and paintings, actually drawn with watercolor marker on unprimed canvas) seemed to represent networks and textures, a vocabulary with contemporary resonance. I found the show provocative, particularly in a time when language seems to misfire repeatedly or fail to deliver its promises. To discuss these works and the larger ideas they evoked, I visited O'Doherty this spring in the home he shares with his wife, the art historian Barbara Novak. We first discussed his career and perspective on the importance of "diversifying" as an artist and writer, eventually finding our way into conversations on his uses of language in performances, writings, sculptures, and installations.
Mira Dayal: I recently organized a writers' panel on those who work in both art criticism and poetry. Several of the writers we invited discussed the use of opacity in poetry and art, by which they meant resisting the spectator's desire to make meaning of the work in order to reveal the spectator's desire to make meaning at all. You wrote in your book Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space about the Eye being servant of the mind in conceptual art. I was wondering if you think this kind of opacity is desirable.
Brian O'Doherty: That's an unanswerable question. I'm in favor of clarity...I don't think you can put poetry and art writing or prose together. Poetry is a whole different category of difficulty, in that you are refreshing, reusing, and reinventing language in ways that pursue elusive meanings. But in prose, obscurity is no virtue, none whatever. The effort after meaning—which is a natural imminence—is another matter, useful in many ways, including looking at art.
MD: What about in art itself? In your work, there are many layers of meaning—
BOD: There are mute quasi-spoken conventions of art-making, which are entirely another category of utterance, and there you are free to do what you want to do... But you know, these are different categories, different efforts after meaning. Prose is a language designed to communicate, isn't it?
MD: I was interested in your take on that because you have, of course, written widely about art, but I was also reading that you've been relatively resistant to publishing a lot of your writing on your own art. You would send it to curators, friends, or other artists rather than to magazines. So I saw that as a way of—
BOD: Hold on. I've been doing that this very morning. [He gets up and goes to find something, returning with a stack of papers. They are letters he has written to artists, galleries, friends and others over the years. Some are illustrated with drawings, handwritten notes, and other marks. All are beautifully written.] Here are letters collected by a wonderful writer in Dublin, Brenda Moore-McCann, who's written splendidly about my work. She's trying to get them published.
So, effort after meaning—do you want more on that?
MD: Definitely. Or you could talk about your practice as an artist intersecting with your practice as a writer. Do those feed into each other?
BOD: They do and they don't. I've lived my life in terms of defined categories, because when I was doing medicine, I was making art, and I was writing about art, and I was playing football and being young, drinking, chasing girls. I never let these categories get in each other's way. It's good to have this attack on several fronts. If you're making art and you're blocked there, you can write about it. If you're blocked about writing about art, maybe you can go write a novel, right? And then the blockage on the art side clears up, and you go back to that...time will pass and things will open up again, in a natural way.
That's one of the good things about diversity. Diversity is very important in finance and I think the same thing is true about the individual. I would also add that my theme song, which should be set to music, is that people are capable of infinitely more than society allows them, because in every way, one's future, one's originality, one's diversity, one's fulfillment, is blocked, circumscribed, and—through some weakness in human nature—compressed by "outside forces," the gatekeepers and administrators.
And this whole business of identity with respect to what one is allowed to do…I know that very well because I started in medicine, and that's a huge field, are you going to be an obstetrician, an internist, a geriatrician, a psychiatrist, or a public health official? You have to make choices there, but once you're in that group—and Americans are very much in groups—you're not allowed to get out of your groups.
I've noticed also, speaking about medicine—I mentioned earlier the categories of obstetrician, psychiatrist, internist—that when an internal medicine guy is 50, and he says, "I want to do something different. I'm tired of being an internist. I want to become a writer, a poet," that's not allowed. What a reception he would get from the poetry community: "Shut up and go away." That is one of the biggest things I've noticed in life as I've gone on. So the way I've dealt with that is through diversity. Keep it at the same level of quality in everything you do.
MD: I want to return to your discussion of identity in relation to your work as a doctor, because one of your "alter egos" in your writing was a woman. Now, in a lot of medical practices, people are talking more about the fluidity of gender, and that's also discussed more in contemporary art. Your book of historical fiction, The Crossdresser's Secret, is written from the perspective of "the Chevalier d'Éon, who lived as both man and woman, French spy and European celebrity." I was wondering how you think about these contemporary discussions of gender fluidity, because it seems like you were a predecessor to them, in some ways.
BOD: When I worked in Washington [for the National Endowment for the Arts], I was initially in charge of the visual arts, and then films, television, radio. I was trying to get various programs funded, mostly successfully...but I learned about the profound hostility in America towards gays and lesbians. And I—I'm not a hero here, I'm just doing my job—made many, many efforts to get gay organizations funded. They pay taxes; they've got two legs and a tail like the rest of us. The prejudice that met that was astounding to me.
Fortunately things are better now. That war is still going on. But there's been a swing in the past five years, positively.
MD: And then negatively in the past few months, at least in the discourse from Washington D.C....
BOD: Yes, Trumpism is trying to defund Planned Parenthood, which does so much for women's health.
MD: In relation to that, the genesis of your most well-known alter ego, Patrick Ireland—under whose name you created work for 36 years—was distaste for the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. I was wondering if you've had any impulse over the past year to create a similar shift in your identities or in the ways in which you're practicing.
BOD: No, that was my battle. Northern Ireland, occupied by the British army, engaged in various repressions, culminating in the killing of 15 peace marchers in Derry in 1972 by a British parachute regiment. The marchers were unarmed...small in terms of Syria and the rest of the world's atrocities, but that was my impetus for changing my name to something that the British have, for hundreds of years, hated, because you hate whom you oppress, I guess. The impetus was that massacre, for which David Cameron, the former British prime minister, after almost 40 years, apologized.
MD: Do you think language has changed much, especially now in regard to the media? So much of your work has to do with the failure of communication, this gap between the communication of images and the communication of language.
BOD: It's always the same. There are always varieties of oppression, varieties of freedom that prevail socially and for individuals. In terms of language and the uses of language, the corruption of language in authoritarian societies is brilliantly analyzed by George Orwell in Politics and the English Language. Now we have such linguistic perversions as "alternative facts."
In 1967, I boiled down my language to three words, the only ones I use in my work: One, Here, and Now. There's a long conversation here about language.
MD: In some of your performances, you had scripts for people performing; they were also about communication...
BOD: I wrote ten performances between 1967 and 1970, and they were called Structural Plays. They're about various themes, like love, violence, sex, location, etc.
There were very few performances during the conceptual era. Robert Morris, whom I admire, was always there, but there wasn't a lot. I wrote quite a bit about the various ideologies of power embedded in chess. The performances arose out of that, very structured performances, based on language and the reinvention of language, as it were. In these plays, it was language combined with movement, with color, with utterance... The performances turn language into a grid derived from the chessboard. The moves of various chess pieces turn into a reconstruction of language. They were highly conceptual. Several were never done.
[In the rope installations] you choreographed yourself. There was also a grammar to it. If there's another person or two persons in it, then you can watch the other person—he is where I was; she is where I will be. There's a whole grammar of occupancy there that fascinated me with installations. True, I suppose, for any installation... I was very concerned that the space in my installations was charged so that motion, action, is actually playing the piece, as it were, according to your own choreography... The White Cube idea came out of the rope drawings. I'm climbing around galleries to attach ropes up here, down there, and I said to myself, "What is this weird space I find myself in, always white, windows generally blacked out, refrigerators covered, always painted white—where did that come from?" It was purely empirical.
MD: To return to your writing and language: why the three words in your work: One, Here, and Now?
BOD: I think they tell you everything. "One" is the indivisible, the absolute; it's also the self. "Here" is location, the ghost of composition. "Now," of course, is what Joyce called the moment the future plunges into the past. So you have time, space, and identity, and that's all you need... There's a fourth word that I use occasionally: "Zero," with the whole sexy mythology of nothingness. "Zero," the void and the quest in the void for meaning. Samuel Beckett has done a lot with it, and so has the Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, in The Temptation to Exist. Cioran was profoundly pessimistic, but he was very well aware of the utter meaningless of life, whatever meanings we attach to it, or resolutions we succeed to live by.
MD: Do you have any projects that you're working on now?
BOD: I'm giving a talk in Paris later next month...it's something interesting. It's not about the meaning of art; it's about the value of art, and I think art is value-less. I once gave a lecture about how art was totally useless. I had a lot of support from history. Isaac Newton, for instance, thought sculpture was just stone dolls. I did assemble a number of quotes from people who thought art was a semi-criminal activity...I'll have some fun with that. The Paris talk is also about the value of money and the corruption of art by money.
Mira Dayal is an artist, freelance writer, and independent curator based in New York. She is also the founding editor of JAC. Her writing has appeared in NYAQ, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and museum catalogues.