Patrick Ireland, back from the grave

DUBLIN, Ireland — It’s somewhat disconcerting to talk to a man whose funeral has already taken place. But I recently came across the person known for years as Patrick Ireland animatedly taking questions after he opened an important exhibition of mostly American art in Dublin.

The explanation is simple, if rather bizarre: To his many devotees in the United States and elsewhere, Patrick Ireland is a pioneering conceptual artist, who for five decades has been producing a rich body of work comprising drawings, sculptures, installations, paintings and a category called gestures. His real name, however, is Brian O’Doherty.

Patrick Ireland

Patrick Ireland
(Conor O'Clery/GlobalPost)

The artist changed his name to Patrick Ireland in 1972 to protest the Bloody Sunday killings by the British army in Derry, Northern Ireland. Using this name he became a prominent figure in the New York modern art scene for nearly half a century. Two years ago he decided to resume using his original name to celebrate the restoration of peace in Northern Ireland.

But Ireland didn't merely drop his nom de plume. He interred his alter ego in a coffin containing his death mask. Thus Patrick Ireland was "laid to rest" two years ago on the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art at Kilmainham in Dublin. The secular ceremony was conducted by the American museum director and former Jesuit priest Michael Rush, and attended by leading figures of the contemporary art world.

O’Doherty, dressed in white and with a white stocking over his head, was the chief "mourner." He was “burying hate” by staging the funeral, he explained, referring to the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

I caught up with the 82-year-old artist at the museum, to which he had returned to open an exhibition of works by American and European artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo, Edward Hopper, Sonja Sekula, Sol Lewitt, Mel Bochner, Hans Namuth and Diana Mitchener.

The ghost of Patrick Ireland “has now been well and truly laid to rest,” the white-haired O’Doherty told me, referring to the June 14 conclusion of an official inquiry that found that the 14 civil rights protesters and bystanders who died on Bloody Sunday were killed without justification. He was delighted with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s apology for the actions of British soldiers, recalling that “it was wonderful and I was very moved.”

O'Doherty first heard the news of the Bloody Sunday inquiry outcome in a telephone call that day from Brenda Moore-McCann, a Dublin-based scholar and lecturer who last year produced a comprehensive study of the artist’s work, called “Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland, Between Categories.”

“He was really excited,” Moore-McCann said. “It meant so much to him; he was getting calls all day.”

At the opening of the exhibition, the artist reflected on his work and influences along with his American wife, the art historian Barbara Novak, with whom he has jointly donated the Novak O’Doherty Collection to the museum.

O'Doherty trained as a medical doctor in Dublin and at Cambridge and Harvard, before abandoning medicine in the late 1950s for the life of an artist, critic, writer and filmmaker in New York. His influential book, “Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space,” led to a shift in thinking about how modern art interacts with gallery spaces.

Few people in the United States art world knew until recently about his name change, or that the Brian O’Doherty who wrote “The Deposition of Father McGreevy,” a novel of rural Ireland that was short-listed for the 2000 Booker Prize, was the celebrated Patrick Ireland with whom they were familiar. The search for identity was central to O’Doherty’s life, and the plurality of selves was frequently the subtext of his work. The artist, who in fact once said, “All identity is a fiction,” also used three other alter egos: Sigmund Bode, Mary Josephson and William Maginn. They all remain "alive" — at least, O’Doherty hasn’t formally buried them yet.