Brian O’Doherty: ‘Ireland does not appreciate its foreign achievers’

The artist, doctor and Booker-shortlisted author is as busy as ever in his 90th year, with projects in Ireland, Italy and his adopted New York

Artist Brian O’Doherty: ‘Now that I’ve got less permanent, I would like to do some permanent installations.’ Photograph: George Tatge

Artist Brian O’Doherty: ‘Now that I’ve got less permanent, I would like to do some permanent installations.’ Photograph: George Tatge

 

In Brian O’Doherty’s studio there is a large photograph dating from 2002. Five figures are posed against a white background: Brian O’Doherty, William Maginn, Patrick Ireland, Sigmund Bode and Mary Josephson. The thing is, they’re all the same person, they’re all O’Doherty.

“It’s been there since my last show,” says the artist, when I ask him if he likes being surrounded by himself. “That would be quintuple narcissism,” he smiles. “So let me admit to it. I like to see these people, it strengthens my use of them. I used Mary Josephson recently, at a lecture in Paris. She wrote a story about a very unpleasant president who banned the making of art . . .”

The studio, where O’Doherty has been based for almost 50 years, is in a Gothic building off New York’s Central Park. The double height space is crowded with work; a trove of sculptures, drawings, and paintings in process. There’s also a table with plumes of extravagant feathers under glass that his wife, Barbara Novak, acquired at a sale. It had belonged to Gloria Swanson. These days it’s at an angle, and you have to be careful with hot beverages, but it’s a treasured possession.

On a hat stand hangs a unicorn mask. Despite O’Doherty revelling in his five identities, I can’t help thinking of him as a unicorn. Maybe that’s because in the past he has self-mythologised: recreating his identity as Patrick Ireland in protest at the Bloody Sunday killings in 1972, then ceremonially burying that self at IMMA; becoming Mary Josephson to write art criticism. Or maybe it’s because conversations with him are magical.

The standard boilerplate explanation is we’re all capable of much more than what one identity can do

But why be so many people? Perhaps it’s because we get confused by what would once have been termed Renaissance Men (always men, back then), but these days we like to call polymaths. O’Doherty’s art works are in collections at MoMA and the Met in New York, the Pompidou in Paris, Imma and the Hugh Lane. He’s also a Booker-shortlisted novelist, a qualified medical doctor, was art critic for the New York Times and, also a film maker, he presented two series on art on television.

“The standard boilerplate explanation is we’re all capable of much more than what one identity can do,” he says. “But I think it goes back to medical school, when I was also going to George Colley’s studio on School House Lane for art class. I had been pestering my father,” he recalls. “I wanted to be an artist. He said: that would be madness, take a degree, and then you can do what you want to. So I was going from medical school to art school.”

O’Doherty describes how these two worlds didn’t fully understand or appreciate one another. “That’s part of the Irish affliction,” he says. “To attack anything that seems pretentious, or over-ambitious,” he pauses. “But I miss medicine quite a bit, I miss what you might call the laying on of hands, examining a patient. Though that seems quite medieval these days . . .” and he’s off into the realms of medical memories; his honorary membership of the Royal College of Surgeons; and friends from medical school, “dead now. I should be dead too, but I keep refusing the invitation.”

You could revel in his stories for a very long time.

Hailing from a family of doctors and born in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon in 1928, O’Doherty at age 89 is charming. With a deep, rich voice that is growing more gravelly as he gets older, he is erudite, witty and irreverent. Sometimes he speaks like poetry, and he leaves the kind of voicemails you want to save and archive. Tall, with a head of silver hair, and piercing blue eyes, he’s also lean and graceful. In his salad days, he must have been lethal.

“Were you always this charming?” I ask. “Yes,” he laughs. “Toxically so.” I wonder how much trouble it may have got him into. “I was reared to be quite mannerly. That’s a tricky thing in America, it’s a tough culture over here. I’ve met a lot of suspicion in my life, and tons of unjustified jealousy for some obscure reason. We’re always being split into our several parts,” he continues. “There’s a chameleon aspect to social mobility, social sophistication, adjusting your persona. Socially gifted people do it all the time. The Irish are particularly socially gifted,” he adds, offering a redeeming quality to the country he left in the 1950s.

He’s like that. Torn between an affection for many of the people in his home country, and an inability to be blind to its failings. Equally he is deeply troubled by the current situation in America. We’re speaking on the telephone, on the eve of his departure for Italy, where he is going to add some layers of paint to his house in the Umbrian hill town of Todi.

Do I lie in bed dreaming about them? Oh, I work on it

He and Novak were introduced to the area by artist Beverly Pepper (“so many artists came because of her, we used to call it Beverly Hills”). Over the years, O’Doherty has covered the walls with murals, trompe l’oeil paintings and his signature rope drawings, in which he uses rope and string to literally “draw” in space. “There are three more projects to do in the house. Do I lie in bed dreaming about them? Oh, I work on it. There’s something written over the door of the entrance, it has to do with entering and leaving, birth and death, rather charming and frightening. I think, after much rumination, I think I know what to do.”

So much for thinking, but do we experience art with the eyes or the mind? His works certainly seem to act on both, seducing your senses with dancing colours, and then leaving you thinking about the puzzles and conundrums they contain. O’Doherty, who also went to Cambridge University on a scholarship to explore experimental psychology, ought to know. “I think there’s a mood that things project, a sort of osmotic effluvium which one inhales with the eyes, and then suffuses the psyche . . . Like sex,” he adds, with a smile in his voice. “I’m talking about transcendence, which is very unpopular now. It’s supposed to have nothing to do with art these days. I don’t like this.”

In Cambridge, in his late 20s, O’Doherty devised a set of experiments to explore ageing. “I was interested in geriatrics, because I had an old father. That’s an area beset by mythologies that are quite repressive socially. I felt that the old people’s inner life was much more rich than society allowed.” He proved it too. The next stop was the States, on another scholarship, this time to the School of Public Health at Harvard.

“That’s when I met Barbara. Was it love at first sight? No, it was mutual detestation. But it was love at first sight when we went on that first date.” Barbara, a brilliant and highly influential art historian, novelist and painter (you get the impression you can’t rest on your creative laurels in this household), comes on the line to tell me how a friend introduced them. “The friend said ‘I met this guy and I think he’s a doctor and he doesn’t want to be’, and I didn’t think much, and he didn’t seem to like me because I was frowning – I had such a headache that day.” But O’Doherty continued to call into the television studio at Boston Museum, where Novak was presenting a programme about art. “So I thought he was interested, and I got interested back. But he was actually coming to get free tea from an Irish maid, whose name was Delia.”

The rest, as they say, is history, and when Novak left to teach at Barnard, O’Doherty took over the programme, where his interviewees included Woody Allen, Peter Ustinov and Marcel Duchamp, who O’Doherty would famously come to immortalise in a portrait that consists of the groundbreaking conceptual artist’s electrocardiogram. “What was Duchamp like? He was totally charming, not in the least demonic. People considered him so because as a young man his influence and his assimilation of people was so profound and total. We brought him over for dinner before the ECG, that was in April 1966. Barbara brought out her book of Julia Child.”

Novak takes up the story. “What do you cook for Duchamp? I cooked veal, or was it chicken, drowned in cream. It was not only something drowned in cream, but it was followed by an English trifle that was given to me by the wife of the producer of something called Captain Kangaroo, a children’s television show. He blanched when he saw it.”

His wife was a delight, she’d been married to Matisse’s son. Good company for a little Irish provincial boy?

“He looked at it as if he was going to be assassinated,” O’Doherty continues. “It was so full of cholesterol. He did have a damaged heart, but he ate every bit of it, he was so benevolent. His wife was a delight, she’d been married to Matisse’s son. Good company for a little Irish provincial boy?”

Our conversation winds through O’Doherty’s own work, and the people he has met along the way, his friendships with artists including Stuart Davis, “one of my heroes,” Eva Hesse, “a hummingbird”, and Edward Hopper, “an extremely loveable man, with a great sense of humour. He never spoke unless he had something to say.” The artists would swap and gift works with one another. In 2010, O’Doherty and Novak presented part of their extraordinary collection of work, gathered in this way, to Imma. It includes pieces by Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Good company indeed.

For a long time, O’Doherty focused on impermanent work, distrusting that part of the art world driven by the power of money, his wonderful rope drawings and installations mainly only existing in photographs and memory. “A rope drawing enables you to do something that people don’t do,” he said to me in an earlier conversation. “To pay attention to yourself. Most people go through life, in my view, semi-anaesthetised, swaddled in media.” He’s right. Being immersed in one of his works changes your sense of the space around you and, by extension, your sense of yourself.

Now, the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh is restoring a glorious set of Ogham-based murals, painted by O’Doherty on a residency in 1996. Covered up and all but forgotten, they’ll be, post-restoration, one of the few permanent installations by this brilliant artist in the world. The Sirius galleries, he says, are some of the most beautiful he’s ever seen. Looking back, does he have favourites among his work, things he looked at and thought: yes, I got that right? “I think I got the Duchamp portrait right. And I’ve been fortunate in the installations, in that I think they always work out. It’s my obsessional empiricism: reconceive, redo, beat your brains, suffer . . .”

I get the sense that time is on O’Doherty’s mind. He’s quick to anger at the idea of time-wasters, and at the petty betrayals and superficialities that characterise the art world, though he’s an exceptionally generous and loyal friend. I wonder if he finds himself increasingly thinking about legacy. “No. I find myself increasingly thinking about my parents and their world. Parents are hard to decipher. Legacy is not something I think about,” he says. Though he adds that “now that I’ve got less permanent, I would like to do some permanent installations. People enjoy mingling with them and mixing with them. I would like to do some in Dublin, but Ireland does not appreciate its foreign achievers. It’s kind of an insult if you achieve. You’re supposed to fail and then you’ll be adopted.

It talks back to me at crucial moments, it has tizzies and several neurotic moments

“My great joy,” he continues, “is drawing. The hand is not perfect, the hand has a little life of its own,” he says, referring to the stroke he suffered three years ago, when he was hospitalised in Berlin, and was clinically dead for a worrying length of time (although in fairness, any length of time would be worrying to be clinically dead). “It talks back to me at crucial moments, it has tizzies and several neurotic moments, so now I’m trying to figure out how to use its very fine tremour for something. I never give up.”

He talks about his recovery, and the forthcoming trip to Italy. “I can walk and talk and my inner landscape is unchanged. I’m just a very lucky guy. I’m also very lucky to have lived so long with Barbara, I think I’ve done pretty well.” With work currently in Delirious at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, until January 14th, 2018; a new portfolio coming out from Stoney Road Press to coincide with his 90th birthday next year (stoneyroadpress.com); and a book of his collected essays due from the University of California Press next May, it’s more than luck. It’s also more than enough, perhaps, for even five lives – or just one for a very extraordinary man indeed.

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