New York

Brian O’Doherty

Byron Gallery

Brian O’Doherty’s exhibition at the Byron Gallery is another of the manicured performances that seem to be the special prerogative of those who know a great deal about art, a great deal about artists, a great many artists, a great deal about the art world, and a very great deal about how to get along in the art world. All of these considerations are wantonly thrust upon the observer here, without quarter or mercy.

Entering the gallery, one is confronted with a framed electrocardiograph of Marcel Duchamp, with Mr. O’Doherty’s name in the space indicated for “doctor.” This object, so rich in speculative possibilities, so redolent of aristocratic lineage, so unimpeachable, is apparently intended less as an objet d’art than as a kind of Good Artkeeping Seal of Approval, assuring Quality in advance to the Good Artkeepers, and indicating to others that it might be “more prudent not to venture.” It appears again in the show proper, in a somewhat different form.

The works themselves are all constructed objects, and a number of them have fashionably electric features such as motion and expensive lights. However, close examination of the pieces reveals certain economies that have been made among the materials which are not very noticeable at first, but which ultimately have a compromising effect upon the whole.

Newton’s Egg is a smallish cubical peep-box, containing an ovoid form. The six insides of the box are mirrored (you peek through a hole in the reflecting surface of one of the mirrors) and there are triangular mirrors mounted in the inside corners of the box that multiply the reflections quite a bit. The egg-form is supported by a little lucite pillar.

Infinity Box #1 is another peepbox, this time without so many mirrors, but with three peep-holes. Because one again looks through the back of one mirror at another one, there is an apparent infinitude of reflections, just as occurs when one sees himself sitting between two large mirrors in a barbershop. Inside this piece there are doll-like masks, of the untiringly popular “phrenological” variety, and a black and white chess pawn which participate in the reflections. The imagery seems childishly simple, and it is.

Technically, these two pieces are more noteworthy. Every aspect of their mechanics and optics is a feature of some of the most impressive and brilliant works of Joseph Cornell, H. C. Westermann, and Larry Bell, from which Mr. O’Doherty’s own creative flow may have received a single seminal jogging. In the world of contemporary art, it is unfailingly a thing to wonder at how the artistic ambience of the time hovers over those receptive to its motions and then descends, sparking them into creative formulation, each in his separate studio.

Mr. O’Doherty’s Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, however, reshapes our vision of one of the great pioneers of the present artistic era by forcing us to a keen awareness of his mortality, something many of us have quite forgotten. In this object, an electronic light blip passes and repasses the metal frame of a carpenter’s level; the path it takes is a transcription of the line drawn by the stylus of the machine on the framed electrocardiograph sheet mentioned earlier. A photostatic copy of this sheet is helpfully placed near the portrait as a mnemonic aid. Uncannily, the most convulsive movements of the blip are centered in the rings which once held the fluid ampoules of the level. Of course, the question of a “likeness” in the conventional sense does not come up in this work at all. Instead, something totally idiosyncratic, and therefore utterly revealing, is given of the sitter, and more importantly, it is something totally without the interpretive interferences that inevitably cloud the truth in any ordinary portrait. By freeing the genre of this imperfection, which until now had seemed impossible to eradicate, the Portrait of Marcel Duchamp breaks new ground. Accurate monitoring of the numerous highly specific bodily functions of any notable person now offers to artists the fulfillment of an oft-expressed dream, that of “getting inside the sitter.”

––Dennis Adrian