PRINT February 1988

Brian O’Doherty


BOD: The way that one construes the social situation has changed completely, and the relativism that is reflected in the criticism, and that is now reflected in the art, was long overdue in the art, it seems to me, because that straitjacket or coffin or dike through which the waters of Modernism flowed so wonderfully in fact preserved itself more than anything else. Literature gave it up long ago and music gave it up long ago, and we kept it in visual art longer than anyone else, I don’t quite know why.

What I do object to today is the invulnerable self-interest. It changes the definition of what being an artist is for me. We’re all careerists in our own subtle dissembling ways, and some are better with it than others, like having curly hair and blue eyes; some are really good at it and some are very clumsy at it. But there is too much rampant careerism right now, because the rewards are so great.

The ’70s are the decade I feel most at home in, strangely enough, and there is a vested interest in wiping them off the page and off the books. They are a silent decade, and it may take many years to recover what can be recovered from them—they will become mysterious, like every gap. I remember a collector saying, You guys gave us nothing to collect. And I did not say—because I’ve learned now not to make more enemies than you need and to make the right ones when you make them—I did not say, Well that was the idea. And now I’m forgetting the question. Did all that produce the vast bubbling tapioca that we have now? What we shouldn’t forget about this vast reactive thing—I’m not negative about it, I mean it’s there, right?—is that old tired word “energy.” It’s full of energy.

The ’70s are where much of my heart is but as for critics it seems to me there are two eras, the ’60s and the ’80s. In the ’60s I think American art criticism began to be the best around, and then in the ’80s there’s been a tremendous explosion of brilliance of a variety of kinds, which are antagonistic, et cetera. But I think we’ve never had better. There’s a cynicism in the ’80s which needs examination because it’s not just cynicism—it may have its heartless element, it may have its tough-guy or tough-gal posture, it may have this and that and the other, but at the same time there is something that is producing it that I try and get my fingers out to feel. Because then you know how other people are feeling and how that generation is feeling. But then we all have the shadow of the plague on us. We all have a forestalled future.

IS: One sense that we have is that there’s a glamour and preciousness to age right now, especially because of what’s going on culturally with the death thing with the young, so there is a total real luxury of age. I mean I feel it, I’m telling you I am totally different in a certain way about age since this massive wipeout death thing that’s going on. I think the sense of luxury comes from the shock of changed expectation. This is not to say that we were so spoiled that we thought, Oh, everything’s going to be okay, but the shock of just person after person dropping, you know, it’s a total shock of changed expectations. And I think that’s really in a certain way one of the many many things that are opening up the concept of age.

BOD: I think you’re dead right.

BOD: One friend of mine, a critic and a very bright one, said to me, How can you just like work that is antagonistic to what you believe in and what your work is about, how can you do it? I said, Why should I only like what’s like me? I remember in the Minimal era I couldn’t look at painting, so I’ve been through that kind of hydrophobia, you know. I couldn’t look at painting, it made me ill. It was so juicy. It was sickening. It was awful, gave me indigestion, you got fat, there were too many calories in it. Why are these people putting their psyches out in front of me, I asked, and couldn’t see it, I could only see what my friends and I did. But then you get over that and now I watch the same form of wonderful blindness in other people and I can’t blame them.

LS: Are we interested in the aging artist today?

BOD: That’s not where the action is. However, I think that the whole interpretation of age has changed. I remember with my uncle the great clamor and grief when he hit 40, and he said, I’m now in decline. He was one of those glamorous, irresponsible, hard-drinking Irishmen who saw himself as a young Lochinvar, I suppose. But the codes have changed. I think that the interesting guy who exploded a lot of the fictions of age, who said I can be lustful, horny, outrageous, dirty, anything I want to be no matter what age I am and in my old age, was Yeats. How does it go, something about lust and rage dancing attention on my old age, they were not such a curse when I was young.

TME: You think it horrible that lust and rage should dance attendance on my old age. . . . Or something like that.

BOD: They were not such a something when I was young.

TME: They were not such a curse when I was young.

BOD: What else have I to something.

TME: To spur me into song.

BOD: Right. So he got the Steinach gland operation, monkey glands, I think, which were supposed to revivify him. And I read recently, in a book about him by Richard Ellmann, that he never had an orgasm after this. And how does Ellmann know—was he in bed with him? You know Yeats was being chased by all these poetry groupies and at a certain point his wife would get fed up with it and there’d be an unpleasant parting. So I guess these testimonies to his sexual incapacities came from prejudiced witnesses. I felt criticism as such is going far too far when it gets under the sheets with Yeats to check.

IS: How about Hart?

BOD: Check his heart?

IS: No, how about when journalism or criticism does that to Gary Hart? This is, of course, the age of this kind of question in politics, with the media uncovering its affairs of the heart.

BOD: Well I hesitate to defile the highmindedness of this meeting with a joke that’s going around, but you know what a Republican woman does, don’t you?

IS: No.

BOD: She gives her heart to Bush. And you know what a Democratic woman does. . . . (laughter)

Brian O’Doherty (a.k.a. Patrick Ireland), fifty-two, is an artist and a writer. His most recent exhibition was “Ireland in the ’60s,” at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse. His most recent book is Inside the White Cube.