A young Brian O’Doherty (photo courtesy Simone Subal Gallery)

Brian O’Doherty, who pushed the envelope on questions of authenticity, identity, and gender through his assumption of multiple identities, died this Monday, November 7 at the age of 94. He left behind a staggeringly extensive legacy as an artist, art critic, novelist, filmmaker, and poet, including such paradigm-shifting concepts as the “white cube” and the “alternative art space” — ideas that forged the conceptual framework for institutional critique through their questioning of the modernist gallery’s exclusion of the body, time, and history. 

Born in 1928, O’Doherty relocated from his native Ireland to the US in 1957 to pursue postgraduate medical research at Harvard, but instead embraced a career in visual art following his early passion. Starting out in Boston and moving to New York to take up the position of art critic at the New York Times from 1961 to 1964, O’Doherty became a renowned and prolific art writer who could lend his artistic-led eye, voracious intellect, and poetic turn of phrase to almost any style, genre, or period of work. He eventually left the role to focus on his art practice, delving into experimental performance, drawing, installation, and mixed-media works and making art alongside post-Minimalist peers including Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, and Eva Hesse and the serial musician Morton Feldman. He provided some of the sightlines of these movements through his work on Aspen 5&6 (1967), a “magazine in a box” that prophetically honed in on yet-unfolding artistic concerns.

While his personal artistic concerns overlapped with those of his later-renowned artist friends, O’Doherty broke the mold by bringing into his art practice questions of identity, and by creating experimental language-oriented works in the non-existent territory of post-Minimalist performance. A native of Ireland, a country whose postcolonial cultural and political complexity was a rich source of thought for O’Doherty, he engaged with language not only in terms of narrative and articulation, but also in its potential for doubleness, breakdown, and failure.

He was the first to publish Roland Barthes’s iconic “Death of the Author” essay in 1967, before Post-Structuralism took off. In parallel, O’Doherty’s “Structural Plays,” experimental performance works, moved through and beyond post-Minimalist boundaries, taking up the ancient Celtic Ogham language to infuse modernism with aspects of the pre-colonial culture it excluded. The son of a native Gaelic speaker, O’Doherty approached language with a sense of double consciousness and a deep understanding of the slippages and slipperiness of language, and by extension a distrust of the notion of the authentic self.

Brian O’Doherty, “Structural Play- Vowel Grid” (1970), view of performance at The Kitchen, New York, 2021 (photo © Paula Court)

In further works, O’Doherty pushed against the rigidity of gender boundaries. As an editor of Art in America in the 1970s, he penned criticism under a female persona “to free [him]self from limiting malehood”; much later, his deftly crafted novel, The Crossdresser’s Secret (2013), explored the acceptance of gender fluidity in the 18th century through the real story of the Chevalier d’Éon, a spy who lived as both a man and a woman. (One of O’Doherty’s other novels, The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), was nominated for a Booker award.) 

Highlighting the political agency of artistic identity, O’Doherty adopted the artist’s name of “Patrick Ireland” in 1972 to demand Civil Rights in Northern Ireland following the murder of civilians during Bloody Sunday, a moniker he would not revoke for 36 years. These conceptual “gestures” are deepened by drawing-based and installation works, including his more than 100 Rope Drawings, a response to the exclusion of the body in the “white cube” that conventional exhibition spaces resemble. 

“We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first,” O’Doherty wrote in “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space,” his groundbreaking critical essay first published in 1976. “An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of twentieth century art; it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.”

O’Doherty sought ways to reintroduce durational time, lived history, and the physical body into the gallery, challenging the paradigm in which “eyes and minds are welcome but space-occupying bodies are not.”

Brian O’Doherty installing at the Austrian Cultural Forum in 2016 (photo courtesy Simone Subal Gallery)

Beyond his art and writing, O’Doherty was a crucial early supporter of alternative spaces and art practices in his role as director of the Visual Arts Program and, later, the first Media Art Program at the National Endowment for the Arts. During an event celebrating his early performance works held at The Kitchen in 2021, staff in-house curator Lumi Tan paid homage to how the institution’s ongoing existence, like many other “alternative spaces” in New York, was partly thanks to his backing. 

O’Doherty’s works are held in museum collections worldwide and are currently being celebrated in a survey exhibition at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein until 2023. His writings have most recently been anthologized in Brian O’ Doherty: Collected Essays (2018), A Mental Masquerade (2019), and Dear …: Selected Letters from Brian O’ Doherty, 1970s-2018 (2019).

O’ Doherty exited a world arguably more in sync with his embrace of disciplinary multiplicity, complex identity, and language dissolution than the post-Minimalist generation he is most associated with. He is survived by art historian and artist Barbara Novak, his wife and lifelong creative intellectual companion. All who knew Brian O’Doherty will miss his kindness and humor, and a mind so sparkling to the very end that it seemed he might live forever.

Lucy Cotter (she/her) is a writer and curator whose work explores art as a form of embodied and material knowledge and a site of cultural and political transformation. She was curator of the Dutch Pavilion...