BY Mark Godfrey in Interviews | 01 JAN 04
Featured in
Issue 80

Public Spectacle

An interview with Brian O'Doherty

BY Mark Godfrey in Interviews | 01 JAN 04

Brian O'Doherty is probably best known as author of Inside the White Cube (1976), a series of essays first published in Artforum that investigated the history and meaning of the Modernist exhibition space and the ways in which artists had questioned it. After working as art critic for The New York Times in the 1960s, he produced and hosted two art series for television. He edited a special edition of Aspen: the magazine in a box (1967) for which he commissioned Roland Barthes to write 'The Death of the Author'. He served for 19 years as director of the film, radio and television section of the National Endowment for the Arts, where he funded artists and exhibition spaces working with new media. He is himself an award-winning documentary filmmaker: Hopper's Silence (1980) will accompany the new Edward Hopper exhibition at the Tate Modern.

O'Doherty still occasionally produces art criticism but also writes fiction: his second novel, The Deposition of Father McGreevy (1999), was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2000. O'Doherty's own art work has been produced under the name Patrick Ireland since his mid-career name change in 1972, a response to the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre in Derry. Ireland will inaugurate the new extension to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin with a full retrospective in 2005. In November 2003 O'Doherty delivered a paper at the Tate Modern entitled 'Studio and Cube', an unpublished supplement to Inside the White Cube. This inaugurated a series of lectures dedicated to the memory of the late Stuart Morgan.

Mark Godfrey  Since you wrote Inside the White Cube there has been an increase in the number of galleries that are sited in old industrial spaces. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Brian O'Doherty  I think I should make something clear: I've got no answers. I'm an empiricist, both in my work and in my thinking. With respect to the issue of industrial rehabilitation and the taking over of abandoned buildings: what's to say? You do the best you can with them. Some of the results are quite grotesque and, in fact, the great hall at the Tate Modern with the Olafur Eliasson is the first time I've seen that enormously dismal space - like a coffin for a giant - socialized in an effective way. It's a brilliant piece in my view even though many of those prone good folk are intoxicated with their own narcissism as they ponder themselves elevated into the sky. Beyond that, what's to say?

Our first exhibition at PS1 in 1976 - the time I wrote the first white cube essay - was called 'Rooms'; it was an exhilarating show because the building was totally dilapidated. It was an abandoned school. There were layers upon layers of ugly green and ochre paint on the walls and the cries and screams of children were still echoing in the empty rooms. Making art in a completely untransformed building was in many ways more exciting and more interesting than when the building was rehabilitated, and that produced some wonderful work. Vito Acconci lurked down in the basement with all the pipes and boilers. Daniel Buren did the windows facing onto the street; as you walked out of PS1, you would see a vista of the road disappearing into the distance with the Twin Towers in the background.

I think we're all experts at reading spaces now. So we ask 'What notions are implicit in the given space? What does it tell us of the thoughts of the designer if he or she had any?'. Generally it is white spaces of one sort and another, and as a side comment we should talk about the ego-fulfilment of architects to the detriment of the artistic enterprise.

MG  Are you talking about the 'spectacular museum' phenomenon?

BO  Yes, the architects want to be artists. They've learnt from the artists and they have raps like the artists - Daniel Libeskind, for example. His early work was very interesting but now he has a rap about perception and this and that and the other. As an architect I guess you have to be persuasive, socially, and he's extremely effective and very persistent. He'll probably be the dominant figure.

MG  Have you been to the Guggenheim Bilbao?

BO  Yes. It was one of the most thrilling things to lay your eyes on, the undulation, the sea tossing in the midst of these ordinary buildings. As you come towards it, the exhilaration is unimaginable. However, once you get indoors things are a little different. Even the so-called site-specific works didn't look too happy to me. Most of the interior spaces are too vast. I remember seeing these little things on the wall, like postage stamps, and they were ... oh, my goodness, it's a Braque and this is a Picasso and this is a Rodchenko! They looked absurd.

Here at the Tate Modern you have a football crowd every day - how do you deal with that? How do you deal with the public? Very difficult indeed. It's something that I'm thinking of more and more. Which leads you into the issue of the consumption of art that is overconsumed. For instance, I was just in San Francisco where there was a magnificent Philip Guston show. There were very few people there, and you could walk round and see this wonderful show - it was absolutely extraordinary. In another gallery there was a Marc Chagall show and you couldn't budge right or left - it was a terrible experience. I also found the Sigmar Polke show very intimidating - the spaces are too large and the works are too large. There's a rhetoric, a kind of mannerist rhetoric, of size. There's something terribly wrong with the notion of the museum as spectacle. These are not new thoughts but they're ones that continually attend exhibition. I found myself distressed by the lack of intimacy.

MG  Do you crave a privileged space where there are no crowds?
Rosie Bennett: Do you miss the Modernist spectator?

BO  I would like to think that it's possible to make art in the street and to get outside the white cube. Catherine David's thesis for Documenta X was to destroy the idea of the white cube, which was admirable since it is an extraordinary artificial social construct that is basically commercial and has various ideologies implicit within its white walls. Having said that, however, for my own work I want a neutral space. I want a space that does not speak already, and when you go to many museums the architect has already spoken in your space, and with various degrees of incoherence he has made that space unusable for my purposes.

RB  How are you going to use the Hugh Lane space for your Dublin retrospective?

BO  I love the space, because I can work around it. One of the challenges of installation, my kind of installation, is part of the implicit rule (which you sort of subscribed to as a quasi, pseudo-moral matter) that you wouldn't interfere with the space but leave it as it is and then transform it with your interventions so that it would appear inevitable to the spectator that this is the way it should always have been.

MG  A lot of people have been critical of the phenomenon of spaces like Bilbao, although they are obviously immensely popular sites of mass tourism. Do you think there's a kind of snobbery behind that critique, a disappointment that art has become too popular?

BO  It's become entertainment and I object to that. Museums are buying into this big time. They're buying into the idea of entertainment so artists are producing entertainment and I do regret that. But what draws people to these museums? Why aren't they going to the zoo? Why aren't they going to the arboretum? Why aren't they going to other places? Why are people drawn to the modern museum? The architectural phenomenon perhaps. Is it the obsolesence of various formal avenues to transcendence? Has the museum become a kind of pseudo-spiritual place or a fortress in which something is enacted every day, some kind of sacrifice? I'm not quite sure. Remember, public executions used to be very good entertainment. Here at Tyburn in London it was a big number.

One thing is beginning to bug me, and that is the imperial museum. The museum as spectacle, the museum as entertainment, fun. The hypertrophy of art, the mannerism of display, the intimidation of the audience, the citadel of the new museum proclaiming its architectural virtue. These are issues, I think, that everybody has to deal with now and one of the things that I want to know is how the hell did it get this way? I suppose it has something to do with the commodification of leisure, as the museum inevitably adapts the dominating corporate model. What resistance can the art - or museum staff, or indeed, any of us - summon? Not much.

RB  But haven't these always been the issues?

BO  No, I think when you went into the old Tate, it was like a pleasant railway station without a train and none expected. There was no tension in the air. There's tension aplenty in the Tate Modern.

RB  What do you make of the practice of constantly rehanging? As a teacher I often walk into the Tate and find whole rooms are missing: '... and here we have ...', and it's just not there anymore.

BO  Well, the Beaubourg [Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris] changed everything. If I have a relationship with a particular work of art, I want to be able to see it in the same location, where it and I share a certain intimacy and a recurring acquaintance. Frequently that possibility doesn't exist anymore because the work has become a gypsy. It can appear here, it can appear there ... If you go into the Musée d'Orsay now the work seems in transit in some way, as if it's not going to stay. The Beaubourg also marked the first time mobs of people came to museums not to look at the art. They came to surge up and down that great undulating space outside. They wanted to ride up and down on that escalator. It's great fun. The art is something that may or may not be of interest. I feel that the Beaubourg did a lot of damage.

MG  What is the difference between the art public and the non-art public? How might people have some kind of investment in the work, rather than just be receivers of it?

BO  I'm delighted that you ask. I'm more in favour of perceptual resourcefulness than public art, which often looks too overbred on the street. We're all flâneurs of one sort or another, so when walking the city there's a certain grungy aesthetification we can donate to all sorts of casual perceptions. This shouldn't sound too dandy-like, but I'm afraid it's getting there.

MG  How do you feel about the four thematic hangs at the Tate?

BO  I wouldn't like it to be a permanent notion. If your idea is education, which is how many museums, classified as educational institutions, get their government money, then you have to make gestures to education but I think it's hard to teach art history from thematic shows. At the same time, when you walked through William Rubin's sequential laying out of the history of Modernism [at MoMA, New York] it was like walking through a book: you went from gallery to gallery, like turning a page. Works began to look as if they had substituted for themselves: they began to have a certain artificiality, to look like reproductions and to have no scale. That's the other route and it isn't satisfactory either. Now, you shouldn't make criticisms unless you have a lot more positive statements and suggestions. I have none whatsoever. What is the answer to all of this?

RB  Inside the White Cube has become something of a users manual for artists over the past 30 years. Do you think galleries have completely ignored the issues that you generated in the book?

BO  There's a paradox involved because the book was meant to expose what was unseen, to make manifest the latent content of a cultural construct. It's done that for some, I believe, but in the long run it seems to have confirmed for many that the white cube is a space that has virtue and should be used. So, there are two responses. You would know better than I do because I don't pay much attention to it to tell you the truth - it's in the past. I'm not involved with it anymore, except for my own art work. Am I right that there are two responses? One that confirms the white cube as a necessary modality for showing art and the other that says we must break down the notion of this privileged space?

MG  That does seem to be true. I don't know whether you're aware of the phrase 'black box', but the term has been used, in homage to the idea of the white cube, to describe the most typical situation for the display of multimedia and video installation in biennales and Documentas now.

RB  You were quite instrumental as director of the whole new media section of the NEA.

BO  Yes, I pushed for video as a medium. From the early days of Peter Campus, Dan Graham, Joan Jonas, a lot of very good women. (I feel very strongly about the sexism inherent in Modernism.) I was intent on pushing for it because, I suppose, I was involved in the beginning of it. The new media organizations that began around 1970 were ideologically in synch with the counter-culture of the 1960s. To this day, they are the only arts organizations concerned with social criticism and reform. For the first time in media the individual had a voice, a very small one compared to the thunderclaps of the three networks.

RB  The television networks?

BO  The networks stole the airways from the public. No individuals could get things on the network so the diversification of media and the invention of the Portapak camera gave the individual his or her first shot at doing video. It could be a personal video and it could be seen. One of the other things that I was instrumental in, if I may say so, and which I greatly encouraged as best I could, was the development of chains of independent exhibition spaces - non-profit exhibition spaces around the country.

RB  In the beginning there was a lot of snobbery associated with video. It was seen as too easy. A lot of filmmakers, for example, Stan Brakhage ...

BO  Stan eventually went to video and a great shudder went through the whole film community.

RB  I can imagine.

BO  When I was an art reporter doing the Today programme on NBC, I remember - and this is the whole difference between film and video - that when I did a piece on 16 mm I edited with a guy in short sleeves and braces who would talk about his boat and fishing, a regular guy in his mid-40s. Then, when I was editing video, around the same time in the 1970s, there was a college-educated guy in a tie and suit sitting at the console. It was a completely different social situation, and there was an antagonism that bred out very clearly in the independent media area. There was a tremendous tradition of experimental film in the US.

RB  Tell us about Aspen 5 & 6?

BO  Have you ever seen it?

RB  Yes, there is a copy at the V&A in London. You have to wear little white gloves to hold it.

BO  Oh, my God.

RB  When Aspen arrived on people's front doors, as a white cube, as a museum piece in its own right, it seems the spectator somehow became the architect of their own space.

BO  I wanted it to be an exhibition outside the gallery - a portable exhibition that you could just set up yourself. It was the third or fourth, I think, of those Aspens. I intended it to be the first Conceptual exhibition but it turned out to be the second because Mel Bochner had done an exhibition of artist's notebooks, which people called the first exhibition of Conceptual art [Working Drawings at SVA, 1966]. This was the second, but it was certainly the first outside the gallery. It was a very cheeky thing, you know, very presumptuous for a young guy to do. I was moving major figures around like draughts on a board. I got everything through sheer persistence and cheek. I got a tape recorder and went around taping people I knew - Robert Morris, John Cage, Morton Feldman, who was a good friend, and Marcel Duchamp, who was a great friend. I had a hell of a time. If you study the list of contents you will see that the plan was to make very unstable patterns: you could construct various theories of the box by cross-referencing etc. Even though there was a very simple dialectic of complexity and simplicity embodied by, for instance, Robert Rauschenberg's performance piece - which was very orchestral - and Morris' very spare piece with the boards, it ran through the whole thing. It was simply the armature on which I hung a very considerable variety of possible conjugations that were referred to in the introductory text by a fellow called Sigmund Bode.

RB  Another one of your personalities?

BO  One that I used as a kid in Ireland. He's the oldest persona. Sigmund coming from Freud, who I detest, and Bode coming from the 19th century curator of the Berlin museum, Willem Bode, who was an enemy of Giovanni Morelli, one of the people I admire enormously. Wheels within wheels within wheels. I got everything I wanted for Aspen, including a recording of Naked Lunch (1959). To my great surprise I managed to get a recording of Naum Gabo reading the Constructivist manifesto too. Here's the important point: people got it and they didn't know what the hell it was and threw it out. Oodles of them were thrown out. They said, 'what is this bullshit?' It was the Swinging Sixties and Pop art was around, and all that sort of stuff, and this thing didn't mean anything. So, through considerable - what shall we call it? - 'mortality' the first edition is rare as hell.

Mark Godfrey is a curator and art historian based in London, UK. He recently co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader (2021) with Allie Biswas, and co-curated ‘Laura Owens and Vincent van Gogh’ at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.