Interviews

Brian O’Doherty

Brian O’Doherty, The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven—Christina’s World, Rope Drawing # 123, 2015, nylon cord, water-based house paint, dimensions variable.

Brian O’Doherty’s three “Inside the White Cube” essays were first published in Artforum in 1976. Only a few years earlier, the artist and writer had begun making his “Rope Drawings,” 1973–, which offered new ways of negotiating the space of a gallery. The latest work from this ongoing series, The doors to good and evil and the windows to heaven—Christina’s World, Rope Drawing #123, 2015, is currently on view in “Fragments,” a group show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin consisting of works from the museum’s permanent collection, through July 26, 2015.

WHEN YOU LOOK AT A BLANK WALL, it has a stare that looks back. Robert Henri, one of “The Eight” and a great teacher from the early days of American modernism, said that the look of a wall or a window is a look into time and space. The wall carries its history, he said.

The blank wall is not easy. Corners and whole rooms are easier, but the wall is a complete, enveloping experience. A dialogue is established between those continents of inside and outside.

Most members of the public are not used to engaging with an artwork. I’ve seen people walk past the great Poussins at the Louvre. The ideal viewer works with a piece and develops a certain relationship to it. As an artist, when you’re installing a work, you’re searching for the optimum viewing point for this ideal viewer. Hopefully, at certain moments, the viewer’s body vanishes and you’re just an eye. People can be old-fashioned about this, but the spectator completes the work, as Duchamp said.

There is a long history to my rope drawings, but this new one is unique and that makes me feel good. I worked with Christina Kennedy on the extraordinary color orchestration—it was a collaboration, bit by bit. Fergus Byrne, an excellent artist, worked on it too. Back in 1972, when I did the first one at 112 Greene Street, I had a big space to fill. I wanted to draw in space, so I tried wood—I tried everything. I had a rope in my studio with one end nailed to the wall. The other end had a very fine cord attached, which I pulled tight to the opposite wall, so there was this Indian rope trick in my studio. And then I thought, Oh bejesus, I can do a whole gallery, I can draw in space. I feel I invented my own means, which is rather nice.

Color and line are essential. Rauschenberg once said to me, “You’re always a line man.” I resented that, though he never saw the glories of the entire rooms I did; some are like houses of parallax. When you outline with ropes, something very mysterious happens. The perspective gives way and one’s frame falls forward, so there’s a Greenbergian push and pull. When you frame that and everything falls into place, you’re choreographing yourself according to the piece. You become the ideal spectator. You also become the vanishing point. From the point of view of perspective, all the lines are now converging in your eye: The wall and the rope drawing are both looking at you.

For this new work, I have this extravagant title, very unlike me. It’s from Andrew Wyeth, who is poison in America, though he’s having a slight revival now. He was a great image maker, full of nostalgia. Americans don’t go in for poetic soft romanticism; American art is harder than European art. Rothko said something wonderful: “Wyeth is about the pursuit of strangeness.” He added, though, that Wyeth “is not whole as Hopper is whole.”

I usually give museums the piece at the end of the show, so smart museum people take color notes, measure everything, and because the rope drawings are all site-specific, the museum can reproduce them whenever they want. Other people take down the ropes, coil them up very beautifully, put them in a cardboard box, and send them back to me, saying, “I’m returning your rope piece.” So these corpses arrive. There is a heap of colored rope in the corner of my studio at the moment, and I was going to throw it out, but then I thought, Let me retrieve that; it could make a nice piece—somewhere in a corner of a museum.

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