The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue

Into the Mystic

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
All calm, as it was bright; 
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years, 
Driv’n by the spheres ….

Because it shews the way, 
The way, which from this dead and dark abode 
Leads up to God, 
A way where you might tread the sun, and be 
More bright than he. 
But as I did their madness so discuss 
One whisper’d thus, 
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide, 
But for his bride.”

The World, by Henry Vaughan

Vaughan’s Circle (2004), a stunning six-foot square canvas by Brian O’Doherty, was the jewel in the crown of perhaps the best abstraction exhibition of the summer, The Unusual Suspects: A View of Abstraction at the D. C. Moore Gallery, curated by Richard Kalina. Titled after the Henry Vaughan poem The World, the painting was situated like an altar piece on an alcove wall and transportive in a time when contemporary art possessing transcendent beauty is a rarity. Born in 1621, Vaughan was a Religious and Metaphysical Welsh poet, and like O’Doherty, a doctor. That the artist, known for his reliance on the five senses and what passes for material substance should reference such a mystical poem about eternity gave pause for thought.

Brian O'Doherty, Vaughan's Circle, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 inches.

Around 1990, O’Doherty returned to easel painting after a 30-year absence during which he became known for installations and drawings. Vaughan’s Circle has the feel of a painting completed in the autumn of life. In the 1960 film episode of “Invitation to Art” Josef Albers spoke with O’Doherty about his color theory and the philosophy behind it. We see O’Doherty as a young man invested in the Irish philosopher George Berkeley’s theories of vision, art is to be grounded in what can be grasped through the senses. O’Doherty comes across as the young doctor he was, stressing the concrete and scientific. Albers, whom one would expect to be anchored in rigid theory, waxes poetic: “Art is looking at us. Art is not to be looked at.” “Art is open to multiple interpretations,” and furthermore, “what is reality?” It is as though a reversal of the poles, an enantiodromia, has now taken place. The rational young Irishman has transmogrified into the poetic elder. O’Doherty himself says it best: “I began to feel like an old man, which I am, in an early chromatic puberty. Great joy in the color, its moods, and evocations, its tonic surprises.” The palette of Vaughan’s Circle is reminiscent of the one used by Mystical Symbolists like Alphonse Osbert. This is not a contemporary palette, or one drawn from an Albers color exercise. The closely matched pastel hues float on the surface and the ring in the painting’s center is suspended in a sublime surround. The viewer feels as if they are levitating, and glimpsing eternality.

In the “Invitation to Art” Albers conversation we glimpse the young O’Doherty striving to find a rational and sensible order. It is as though he is searching for a safety net to suspend over the horrors of a childhood Jansenist Catholic vision of hell—where the unknown is seen as a dark abyss. O’Doherty found his fortress in the work of the “left footer’ (Protestant) Bishop of Cloyne, the Irish philosopher George Berkeley’s An Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision (1772).

“Back to the Bishop of Cloyne. Where did the intense interest in the senses come from? A very complex question for me, since it burrows back into the darkness of a catholic childhood. I hesitate to elaborate. Suffice it to say that to impose on a reasonably imaginative child the experience of infinity, mortality, guilt, plus a suspicion of the senses is an exquisite kind of cruelty. Of course kids respond differently to the same experience And I lived a parallel life as a troublesome little runt. But floating each night in a well of darkness, which expanded to a blind infinity, left me with a horror of losing my senses, myself, my intense hold on the world.” — Brian O’Doherty 1

In his “immaterialist philosophy”—Berkeley’s famous principle is “esse est percipi”—to be is to be perceived. Berkeley held there are no material substances and that ordinary objects are only collections of ideas, which are mind-dependent. For example, a tree can exist only if it can be perceived using the five senses, by a collection of viewers who form a consensus. As Berkeley put it, “all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being is to be perceived or known.” There are only finite mental substances and an infinite mental substance, namely God. O’Doherty skipped this bit, and avoided Berkeley’s ontology. Berkeley was a man refuted by his contemporaries like David Hume, Jean Le Clerc, G.W Leibnitz, Samuel Johnson and a host of others. and went up against them saying “We Irish do not agree.” In some way, the artist’s reliance on this contrarian countryman set him apart from the American minimalists steeped in more current continental philosophy.

Brian O'Doherty, The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne, 1967-78. Ink and watercolor on graph paper, 17 x 22 inches.

The Irish art historian and fellow doctor Brenda Moore-McCann aptly refers to O’Doherty’s drawing The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne (1967–68) as the artist’s Rosetta Stone. Berkeley’s theory of vision involves four sense organs besides the eye. For example, in perceiving a carriage one might first hear the clatter of hooves, then see the carriage, then smell the horses, get knocked down by the horses, and then taste the dust. In the first square in the row of three at the top of the drawing The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne, we see these sense organs: eye, nose, ear, finger, and tongue. In the second, square color is superimposed over each of these icons. In the third box of squares the colors are alone without the icons, which the artist described as “a modest synesthetic shuffle (all senses experienced visually).” Below the three boxes are diagrams of Ogham, an ancient Irish language that played a major role in O’Doherty’s work, as noted by Moore-McCann.

With The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne an important shift occurred in O’Doherty’s work as the senses were brought together with language in the form of the Ogham script O’Doherty had rediscovered in a manuscript the year before. The Five Senses thereby incorporated for the first time the cardinal elements of O’Doherty/Ireland’s artistic vocabulary that have endured for over fifty 50 years: descriptive colour, the senses, language, and the magic square. 2

Below the three boxes (which progress from icons to color) are three equations that Brenda Moore-McCann has suggested could represent “new senses” or perhaps even “new realities.” This is the point of departure where this critic, representing the Druid approach, launches her argument as champion of both alternative new senses and realities.

In Vaughan’s Circle there is one central circular ring and color dominates. A circle is a symbol which is very different from the icons seen in The Five Senses of the Bishop of Cloyne, which are signs. In the ancient Celtic world—from Avebury, to Stonehenge, to New Grange—the circle carried ritual and cosmogonic significance. It is also an archetype which for Jung represented a mandala and psychic wholeness and was a “Self” symbol, connecting the ego to the transpersonal—another reality to be sure. In Vaughan’s Circle, the spacing of the colors in the circular ring are determined by the Ogham alphabet, an ancient dead Irish language that O’Doherty knew about in his childhood, and later found in the, The Book of Ballymote (AD 1390) which explained Ogham. The Book of Ballymote (Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta), is an iconic 14th century Irish manuscript. For the artist, Ogham answered his search for a language that would become a sign system and eliminate shapes, “the short clean lines of a logical delight.”3 Yet, the manuscript also contains some interesting diagrams—a square within a square with Ogham letters and a circle with concentric rings divided by Ogham markings on each quadrant of the rings. These are not unlike the color spacings determined by the Ogham alphabet in the ring in Vaughan’s Circle. The Ogham vowels A E I O and U were given numerical equivalents one through five, and the subtle color bands in the ring were determined by these numerical equivalents.

Looking at Vaughan’s Circle, Apollo strides forth from Olympus and antiquity. When we think of Apollo we do not think of the plastic arts. He is the god of sunlit mountaintops, music, poetry, oracles, medicine, and prophecy. Yet, this painting possesses an Apollonian simplicity and purity of vision and form, like a great piece of Doric architecture. Perhaps this is the god we should be looking at rather than Berkeley’s Christian God. The painting has a timeless feel. Vaughan’s Circle gives a nod to what the artist described as “those fearless headhunting Celts who loved riddles, saw things in threes, for whom the pressures of the spiritual world compressed the division into a membrane that allowed frequent penetration.” 4

  1. Brenda Moore McCann ed., Dear…Selected Letters from Brian O’Doherty 1970 – 2018, Vermillion Design, Dublin, 2018.
  2. Brenda Moore-McCann, Brian O’Doherty/ Patrick Ireland Between Categories, Lund Humpries, 2009. p.125-6
  3. Brenda Moore McCann ed., Dear…Selected Letters from Brian O’Doherty 1970 – 2018, Vermillion Design, Dublin, 2018.
  4. Ibid.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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