Brian O’Doherty

  • Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin, 1955/2006, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes.


    For Jonathan Rosenbaum

    MR. ARKADIN (1955) and Citizen Kane (1941) are bookends for the same themes—the quasi-tragic fall of the (anti)hero, the psychology of domination, and the ruthless exercise of power. In Arkadin’s case, throw in the poetics of murder. What a Gothick mix! Arkadin’s germination has even more mysteries attached to it than Kane ever had. To prefer Arkadin, Kane’s mutilated sibling, as Godard did, is heretical. The film is usually dismissed in the annals and chronicles of the King Actor (as he liked to call himself), partly because Welles dismissed it, indeed would never

  • Steve McQueen’s Hunger

    A HUNGER STRIKE IS AN EXTENDED, anguished diminuendo. The body, with nothing to eat, slowly eats itself. In Ireland, the memory of the Great Hunger, as the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith called it, is an angry sediment in the national consciousness, stirred when hunger strikes again. As it did with Bobby Sands, the incarcerated protagonist of Steve McQueen’s first feature-length film—indeed, titled Hunger—which arrives in American theaters this winter, after winning the Caméra d’Or at Cannes last May. Sands wanted, among other demands, political-prisoner status. He and the nine young Irish

  • “The Worlds Of Nam June Paik”

    TO HOW MANY OF US is it given to attend the birth of a medium and to witness its institutionalization as—what else?—an “art form”? In the early ’60s, anyone who held in his or her hands a brown, flexible, two-inch-wide piece of videotape on which information was electronically coded had to have a sense of the miraculous. Play it back: There was the moving image shot a moment before—flat, factual, fibrillating, lightstruck. By the late ’60s, the portapak camera had put the means of production (then a vaguely Marxist phrase) in the hands of media artists working across the broad band from the

  • “Jim Dine: Walking Memory, 1959-1969"

    Many artworks were noisy in the ’60s—much clanking and buzzing in the galleries. Most of them are now silent. More memorable is a nonsound, the implied thud of ax into wood in several of Jim Dine’s dangerous-looking artworks. That echo has relayed itself to my ear over three decades, and I brought it back with me to “Jim Dine: Walking Memory, 1959–1969” at the Guggenheim.

    Yes, there the hatchets were, whacked into the wood with a vigor that told you then, and tells you more emphatically now, that Dine was never suited (or bathrobed) for classification in the, to my mind, relatively benign Pop-art

  • Patrick Heron

    NOTHING IS MORE INSULTING to cultural monists than a successful two-track career. Patrick Heron has gone full steam ahead as artist and critic, thereby suffering nobly the ambiguities that attend the artist who writes. In his introduction to Painter As Critic, which gathers most of Heron’s criticism from 1945 (on Ben Nicholson) to 1994 (on Sam Francis), editor Mel Gooding quotes a 1958 letter to the artist from Herbert Read: “Your tactical mistake was to write so intelligently about painting. . . . It is not done by the real painters—it does not fit in with the public’s conception of the

  • John Coplans

    DESPITE EVIDENCE TO the contrary, there is only one John Coplans. His singularity, however, has manifested itself in several careers, most recently as a photographer who, in a ruthless incremental examination of his own body, has seized narcissism by the throat. Now seventy-seven, he maintains that charged restlessness that has propelled him through enough careers to exhaust a platoon. As Stuart Morgan points out in his sympathetic introduction, “In the course of his life, . . . Coplans has been a soldier . . . then a painter; a teacher; . . . the editor of an art magazine (Artforum); . . . a


    ORSON WELLES HAD THAT ONEROUS BURDEN, an original vision. He never had a commercial success. Instead he had those rhetorical ghosts of success—controversies, sensations, prizes. He created what many consider his masterpiece at 25. The rest of his career is usually seen as one of the longest dying falls in American art, which isn’t true. But it’s too satisfying a myth to abandon. To many, the notion of Welles, prematurely posthumous, good for narrations and commercials, sitting among the shards of his ego, is satisfying. Nothing reassures us more than a failed genius. It is a particularly American

  • Inside the White Cube.

    WRITING ABOUT YOUR PAST IS the closest you get to coming back from the dead. You assume a false superiority over your previous self, who did all the work. So looking back at these articles, now revived between their own pasteboard, what do I have to add? A great deal.

    In the past ten years so much has been buried as if it never happened. Art does not progress by having a good memory. And New York is the locus of some radical forgetting. You can reinvent the past, suitably disguised, if no one remembers it. Thus is originality, that patented fetish of the self, defined. What has been buried? One


    The value of an idea is proved by its power to organize the subject matter.


    FROM THE ’20s TO THE ’70s, the gallery has a history as distinct as that of the art shown in it. In the art itself, a trinity of changes brought forth a new god. The pedestal melted away, leaving the spectator waist-deep in wall-to-wall space. As the frame dropped off, space slid across the wall, creating turbulence in the corners. Collage flopped out of the picture and settled on the floor as easily as a bag lady. The new god, extensive, homogeneous space, flowed easily into every part of the gallery. All impediments

  • Inside the White Cube Part III: Context as Content

    WHEN WE ALL HAD front doors—not intercom and buzzer—the knock at the door still had some atavistic resonance. De Quincy got off one of his best passages on the knocking at the gate in Macbeth. The knocking announces that “the aweful parenthesis”—the crime—is over, and that “the goings-on of the world in which we live” are back. Literature places us as knocker (Mrs. Blake answering the door since Mr. Blake is in Heaven and must not be disturbed) and knockee (the visitor from Porlock bringing Coleridge down from his Kubla Khan high). The unexpected visitor summons anticipation, insecurity, even

  • Inside the White Cube, Part II: The Eye and the Spectator

    COULDN'T MODERNISM BE TAUGHT TO children as a series of Aesop’s Fables? It would be more memorable than art appreciation. Think of such fables as “Who Killed Illusion?” or “How the Edge Revolted Against the Center.” “The Man Who Violated the Canvas” could follow “Where Did the Frame Go?” It would be easy to draw morals; think of “The vanishing Impasto that soaked away—and then came back and got Fat.” And how would we tell the story of the little Picture Plane that grew up and got so mean? How it evicted everybody, including Father Perspective and Mother Space, who had raised such nice real

  • Inside the White Cube: Notes on the Gallery Space, Part I

    A RECURRENT SCENE IN SCI-FI movies shows the earth withdrawing from the spacecraft until it becomes a horizon, a beachball, a grapefruit, a golf ball, a star. With the changes in scale, responses slide from the particular to the general. The individual is replaced by the race and we are a pushover for the race—a mortal biped, or a tangle of them spread out below like a rug. From a certain height people are generally good. Vertical distance encourages this generosity. Horizontality doesn’t seem to have the same moral virtue. Far away figures may be approaching and we anticipate the insecurities