Exercise #7 – Answers

The Body and Its Discontents, 1964, by Brian O’Doherty, Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Q1. Describe what you see in this image.

A1. A small wooden box with ten compartments or half cubes across and six down in a grid pattern.

Q2. Do you notice anything about the way the coloured blocks are labelled?

A2. They are labelled, and coloured. Looking closely, we can see that the colours apply to different aspects of the human body: anatomy in red; the sense organs in yellow; physiology in white; pathology in blue. The box ‘represents’ the human body and its various internal systems, which sometimes can be manifested in disease. Colour is used here as a taxonomic, scientific tool rather than an artistic expressive, emotional medium. The body is presented ‘scientifically’ as the main organ of perception.

Q3. What might happen if you could move the blocks around?

A3. From the image it is clear that the half cubes can be removed and randomly reinserted in other parts of the box. This could produce what the artist describes as  “contradictory processes and illnesses; certificates of mortality; vulnerable intimacies… {the box is } a grown-up ‘toy’ for the adult who plays the blocks composing his or her own substance—a self-referential system that summons a remote Narcissus to join the Frankensteinian ghost.”


This is an early work of Conceptual art which shifted art from the subjective expression of the artist, as in Abstract Expressionism, to a greater emphasis on ideas and involvement of the viewer. For O’Doherty, this early interactive work led to the creation of drawings in space, the Rope Drawing installations, in which the viewer’s body becomes a fully active participant.

The title is drawn from Freud’s book Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930) on the mind and the neurosis of society. This, and other works in the artist’s career, refer to his medical education in Dublin (Ireland), Cambridge (U.K.) and Harvard (U.S.A.).

The artist Brian O’Doherty (1928-), is a medical doctor, major art critic and writer. He is one of the pioneers of Conceptual art in the 1960s.

Cèzanne’s Apple (Portrait of Brian O’Doherty), 2018, by Fionn McCann Collection of the National Gallery of Ireland.