William N. Copley: Portnoy’s Complaint, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 40 by 32 inches. Herbert Kopp Collection, Munich. 

All images this article © Estate of William N. Copley/Copley LLC/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

1. William N. Copley, quoted in the chronology that appears in William N. Copley, ed. Germano Celant, Milan, Fondazione Prada, and Houston, Menil Collection, 2016, p. 76.
A good part of Copley’s singularity was probably the result of his unusual training, or lack thereof.
2. Copley quoted in CPLY: Reflection on a Past Life, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, 1979, p. 8.
3. Copley was accompanied on the SS De Grasse by his then-companion Gloria de Herrera and Man Ray and Juliet Man Ray. The De Grasse figures more than once in the annals of postwar American art: two years earlier, in 1949, Shirley Jaffe and Jules Olitski, traveling separately, took the De Grasse to France to begin their careers as expatriate artists. One assumes that Copley traveled in more luxurious conditions aboard the De Grasse then did the less financially fortunate Jaffe and Olitski.
4. Toby Kamps, “William N. Copley: the World According to CPLY,” in William N. Copley, p. 29.
5. Copley made these comments during a 1971 interview in The Art Gallery Magazine. Quoted in William N. Copley, p. 174.
6. Peter Schjeldahl, “William Copley at N.Y. Cultural Center, Art in America, May-June, 1974, p. 109. Quoted in William N. Copley, p. 208.
7. Alison M. Gingeras, “CPLY: Story of a ‘Bad Boy,’” in William N. Copley, p. 165. In 2013, Bjarne Melgaard, an artist whose iconoclasm has, it seems to me, taken on an increasingly desperate quality, exhibited his own versions of Copley’s “X-Rated” paintings with the skin colors changed to portray the figures as African-American. Gingeras (p. 167) views Melgaard’s appropriation and racial reassignment of Copley’s erotic paintings, which “a certain sector of the collecting class has deemed it ‘radical chic’” to collect and display, as “an attempt to restore the initial radicalness of these works” by “dislodging them from the safety of bourgeois approbation.”

An art world impresario who championed Surrealism, William N. Copley was also an idiosyncratic painter of subjects ranging from the utterly banal to the provocatively sexual. 

It’s tempting to portray William N. Copley (1919–1996) as a once marginalized figure whose work is only now, twenty years after his death, receiving adequate recognition thanks to the way his art resonates with current concerns. There is certainly some truth to this scenario. During much of Copley’s career, his subject matter and style—concentrated on garish, rollicking erotica painted in a faux-naïf, comics-influenced mode—set him apart from most streams of American art of the time. His non-negotiable devotion to figuration alienated him from every successive phase of abstraction flowing around him. His unapologetic celebration of prostitution and buxom females, either nude or decked out in the sexy undergarments of mid-century male fantasies, sat uneasily with feminist art’s rejection of exactly such voyeuristic, objectifying, cavalier treatments of women’s bodies. In recent years, the world has been much friendlier to Copley’s gloriously clumsy, sexually explicit, exuberantly vernacular paintings. The belated canonization of Chicago’s Hairy Who artists (possibly the only cohort of near contemporaries with whom Copley had deep affinities); the increasingly serious acceptance of outsider art; the willingness of more and more artists to put sex at the forefront of their work; the art market’s newly discovered passion for recuperating once neglected figures; and, perhaps of equal importance, the rehabilitation of burlesque in the wider culture—all of this has contributed to the transformation of Copley’s public image from eccentric, slightly embarrassing wealthy amateur to brave precursor and hot dead artist, someone whose work viewers and critics have been rediscovering in solo gallery exhibitions in New York and around Europe.  

To the extent I was aware of Copley before seeing the current exhibition at the Menil Collection in Houston (not very much, I’m embarrassed to say), I thought of him as a pioneering art collector who amassed one of the most important postwar collections of Surrealism and who had a minor career as a painter. I’d come across his name, usually spelled in the vowelless version he favored (CPLY), in the ad pages of old art magazines, but I dismissed him as simply a colorful character of the 1960s whose art had probably never been taken seriously.

Not only was I wrong about not needing to know more about his art, I was also mistaken about Copley’s status during his life. The meticulous chronology in the catalogue of the Menil show reveals that almost from the beginning of his career, Copley was exhibiting extensively with important galleries. In the 1950s he showed at such notable Paris venues as Nina Dausset and Galerie du Dragon, and in Milan with the famed Galleria del Naviglio. In the 1960s he began a long association with Alexander Iolas, one of the great international dealers of the period, and later exhibited with Galerie Neuendorf and Rudolf Zwirner in Cologne, Arturo Schwarz in Milan, Onnasch Gallery and Phyllis Kind in New York, and numerous others. He was included in two Documentas (Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 in 1972 and Rudi Fuchs’s Documenta 7 in 1982) and in Marcia Tucker’s legendary “Bad Painting” show at the New Museum in New York in 1978. His work was the subject of a 1980 survey that debuted at the Centre Pompidou before touring to museums in Holland and Germany. Clearly this is not the career of a marginalized artist. I don’t know how many of these gallery exhibitions depended in some way on Copley’s extensive activities as a collector, and I don’t know how much of his work sold (judging from the provenance of the works in the Menil show, his estate seems to have contained a great deal of unsold art), but even a quick glance at his exhibition history dispels any notion of him as an artist “neglected during his lifetime.”

And yet, walking through the selection of 120-plus works in “William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY,” I was struck again and again by a profound sense of apartness. Although his works are frequently seeded with references to art history, his oeuvre does not seem to overlap with that of any of his contemporaries (except maybe John Wesley in some of the later work). For better or worse, most artists in any given period will share certain tendencies with others of their generation; Copley painted like few others of his time. A good part of his singularity was probably the result of his unusual training, or lack thereof. Aside from what seem to have been rudimentary lessons in technique from his brother-in-law, who was a Disney animator, and informal tips from Max Ernst and Roberto Matta, Copley was a self-taught painter. Because he was never subjected to the rigors of the academy, and because his vast family fortune (derived from his father’s successive investments in power companies and newspapers) helped insulate him from the usual pressures to conform, Copley was on his own in developing his style and subject matter.  

Much has been written about Copley’s role in promoting Surrealism in the immediate postwar era, including his brief career as an art dealer. In 1948, Copley and his brother-in-law John Ployardt opened a gallery in a Beverly Hills bungalow. During its year-long existence, Copley Galleries mounted shows of Ernst, Man Ray, René Magritte, Joseph Cornell, and Yves Tanguy. While the gallery was a business failure—Copley ended up being his own best customer—it brought Copley into close contact with artists he looked upon practically as gods. The encounters were transformative; as he later recalled, “I’d been a pretty square character up to that point, and discovering the surrealists was the biggest thing that happened to me.”1

It’s to Copley’s credit that, apart from a few early photo collages, he never tried to emulate the styles of his Surrealist heroes. Instead, his main early influence seems to have been Mexican folk art, which he first discovered during a 1946 south-of-the-border road trip he and Ployardt took, the purpose of which was self-described “looting” with an eye toward stocking their prospective gallery with “contemporary primitive art.” As Copley writes in his brief memoir, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer, “we headed for Mexico in a jeep station wagon and, after drinking up Mexico City, headed further south to Pueblo [sic] and Oaxaca, stopping wherever there was a market. We filled the jeep in no time at all.”2

The impact of Mexico is clearly visible in some of the earliest paintings in the show. A small 1948 oil titled Mexican Images (Dream of Oaxaca) features clumsily painted versions of typical Mexican folk imagery (the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cross adorned with symbolic offerings), but in one quadrant of the rudimentary composition Copley inserts an obviously vulvic image. 

Even when there is no explicit reference to Mexican culture, Copley’s early paintings feature the awkward figures, flat colors, and shaky composition of Mexican ex-votos, those small paintings on tin that were then ubiquitous in Mexican churches and shrines and sometimes offered for sale to tourists in outdoor markets. Psychological weirdness and a sense of the macabre dominate a pair of 1948 paintings, Pourquoi Pas and Children of Dynosaurus. In the former, a young boy is being led to the portal of a chamber in which an executioner and a guillotine await him (it’s no surprise to learn that Copley, who was often inspired by literature, was an Edgar Allan Poe fan); the latter, a truly bizarre and unforgettable picture, depicts six young children balancing atop a multicolored dinosaur skeleton. A spider as large as the children and outlined against an orange sky dangles from above. It looks like a painting made by a talented twelve-year-old who has been looking at Rousseau, Gauguin, and Tanguy and contemplating some kind of postapocalyptic situation.3

After 1950, when Copley traveled to Paris, the city where he would spend most of his time until the early 1960s, the paintings became more elaborate and started to overflow with references to French daily life, but the influence of Mexican retablos persisted. Those untutored, narrative paintings he found in places like Oaxaca appear to have given the young artist permission to accept his limitations as a figurative painter and encouraged him to ignore all conventional notions of good composition. In Copley’s thronging, incident-filled Paris paintings, many of which focus on forms of transportation (buses, subways, cars), there is a horror vacui that one suspects might have been prompted, in part, by the shock of being transplanted from the wide-open spaces of southern California to the crowded, compacted streets of Paris. 

Copley marked his arrival in Paris with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ex-Patriot (1951), a pretty artless (even by Copley standards) painting based on pages from his US passport and containing his actual expired passport glued into one corner. A member of the American Communist Party since 1946, Copley had been the target of anonymous harassment in Los Angeles (someone graffitied his house with the phrase “Commies live here”), but since he was neither a public figure nor a government employee, his livelihood was never threatened. Still, he would have felt the persistent chill of McCarthyism, especially in California, where, since 1949, the University of California had been embroiled in a controversy over a state-imposed loyalty oath, and liberal Hollywood was being decimated by the blacklist (it was in 1950 that the Hollywood Ten began serving prison sentences for contempt of Congress). Because eroticism, often with a distinctly French setting, predominates in Copley’s later work, and because his public image was that of a bon vivant, his move to France is often interpreted as an escape from American puritanism, an interpretation that Copley himself promoted. But the political dimension of his expatriation shouldn’t be ignored. His presumably deliberate misspelling (“Ex-Patriot” instead of “expatriate”) suggests he was aware of this, and the anti-nationalist, anti–Cold War message of later paintings (especially his flag-inspired works of the early 1970s) confirms his sense of political engagement. 

Among the first paintings that Copley finished in Paris was an oil portrait of Marcel Duchamp that renders the great trickster as if he were carved from a piece of heavy-grained wood. Based on a photograph Copley had taken of Duchamp when the French artist saw Copley embark on the SS De Grasse from New York to France, Portrait of Marcel (1951) is significant on at least two counts. First, the work is visible evidence of how important Duchamp and Copley were to each other (Duchamp encouraged and advised Copley in his activities as dealer, collector, and artist; Copley is the person who purchased Duchamp’s Étant donnés and donated it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Second, the painting is the first of many that pays tribute to other artists.3 

In his versions of canonical artworks, Copley nearly always twisted the original, usually with a large dose of humor, which he sometimes wielded too heavily. I’m thinking, for instance, of Whole Man’s Hunt (1961), a bawdier version of William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853), which shows a young woman rising, wide-eyed, from her illicit paramour’s lap. More Benny Hill than Monty Python, this super-sexualized version of the famous Pre-Raphaelite allegory doesn’t achieve the transgressive delirium and iconographical liberties of art historical satires by Robert Colescott or Peter Saul.

 Far subtler than Whole Man’s Hunt is Copley’s Birth of Venus (1953), a medium-size oil centered on a pale nude woman who is flanked by a man running an old printing press and handling an array of tools. The Menil’s Toby Kamps, who co-curated the Copley show with Germano Celant of the Prada Foundation, explains in his catalogue essay that the conjunction of the nude and the printing press in Birth of Venus was inspired by Man Ray’s “Erotique Voilée” (1933), a series of photographs featuring an ink-stained Meret Oppenheim and a bowler-hatted Louis Marcoussis. In conflating those photographs with Botticelli’s mythological fantasy, Copley not only totally reimagines Man Ray’s setting, he also, Kamps astutely notes, “transforms the original’s female protagonist from vulnerable gamine to muscular gymnast.”4

Men in bowler hats and naked or nearly so women, generally more curvaceous than muscular, invaded Copley’s paintings in the decades that followed, but there is a third feature in Birth of Venus that became perhaps even more indispensable to Copley: a densely patterned background, in this case boldly painted floorboards and clapboards that are at once a plausible representation of an interior and a busy symmetrical stripe painting. Two of these components—the sensual women and the assertive patterning—derive, of course, from the example of Matisse, an artist whose influence was especially strong on the young American artists who made their way to Paris after the Second World War. 

What Copley did with Matisse, however, was nothing like the work produced by most of the other Americans in Paris. Instead of paying attention to Matisse’s economy of line and privileging of color (as did Ellsworth Kelly), or absorbing the lesson for abstraction to be found in Byzantine art from Matisse’s art historian son-in-law, Georges Duthuit (as did Shirley Jaffe, Sam Francis, and Norman Bluhm), Copley gradually made his way toward rendering the erotic undercurrents of Matisse’s art as explicit as possible. By the time Copley returned to the States in the early 1960s, he was ready to posit a cartoonish version of Matisse’s volupté, and every painting would be about one thing and one thing only: sex. 

If Matisse doesn’t come immediately to every viewer’s mind when contemplating Copley’s erotic fantasies, which became increasingly explicit in the 1960s and ’70s, it’s because their style and iconography are derived chiefly from vernacular American culture, the realm of comic strips, Hollywood movies, strip clubs, garish neon signs, bathroom graffiti, and cheap advertisements. While most of the expatriate American artists in Paris fashioned their art from their immersion in the rich history and sophisticated ideas of Europe, and sustained that attitude even when they returned to their homeland, Copley seems to have been perennially in love with American vulgarity, though he also relished the non-puritanical aspects of French life, such as its tolerance of prostitution.

Copley’s obsession with sex for hire—which culminated in The Tomb of the Unknown Whore, a 1986 installation of paintings, mirrors, graffiti, and bordello furnishings (a bidet, a satin-sheeted bed) at the New Museum—can seem like a throwback to the nineteenth century, when prostitution loomed so large as a subject for art and literature. In the artist’s mind, however, it was linked to his vision of art as protest. For better or worse, neither this nor any of the other installation works Copley began experimenting with in the late 1970s was included in the Menil show. I have my doubts about whether The Tomb of the Unknown Whore would stand the test of time, but another installation, The Temptation of St. Anthony (1977), involving hand-painted wallpaper and paintings made on mirrored Plexiglas, might make a fascinating statement today.

The work of self-taught painters often stays within the confines of its initial premises, rather than displaying the periodic innovations, those phases and periods and “bodies of work,” that we have come to expect from trained artists. Copley’s oeuvre doesn’t feature any dramatic breaks, but there is a noticeable sense of development, especially during the last twenty years of his life. (Surprisingly, one of the boldest, and most elegant, departures came very near the end of his life, with a series of paintings in which fragments of figures float like small islands amid raw canvas; the effect is reminiscent of restored frescoes where only random sections of the original design have been preserved on largely blank walls.)

 Buffeted by a tempestuous private life that featured a series of short-lived marriages and costly divorces, Copley began around 1970 to nudge his paintings into new territory. Among the first results of this shift was “Nouns,” a series of paintings featuring images of everyday objects over simple geometric grounds of grids or stripes. Claiming to have chosen his subjects at random (in some cases from the pages of a vintage Sears Roebuck catalogue), Copley described how he approached making these unapologetically banal paintings: “There’s very little planning, no sketches. I put everything on canvas immediately and directly. It’s really an attempt at non-drawing which turns into another kind of drawing the more you try to eliminate it, the more you change its nature. It has a lot to do with seeing, though. If you think too long, you miss seeing.”5

This stance of the unplanned work carries a whiff of Surrealist automatism, but instead of using spontaneity as a means to access the wild depths of the unconscious, Copley employs it in service of the most mundane images. It’s precisely in his recognition of the virtues of banality unredeemed by any complicated techniques or spectacular effects that Copley spoke to the future of painting. His blend of non-drawing and non-thinking finds its fullest expression in paintings like Bird Branch and Sun (1970). Coming upon some of the “Noun” paintings at the Menil, I was strongly reminded of those later champions of the banal Martin Kippenberger and René Daniëls, especially the former’s “Prize Paintings” of the 1980s and ’90s that deploy perfunctory grids resembling Copley’s. Kippenberger must have recognized Copley as a fellow discontent/provocateur in the palace of painting, and the German may also have identified with Copley’s omnivorous qualities as dealer, collector, writer (he authored numerous essays on art), and publisher (included in the show were copies of S.M.S., a series of artist-multiple portfolios Copley produced in the late 1960s). It turns out that the two men did cross paths in the early 1990s when both were showing at the New York gallery David Nolan; Kippenberger was sufficiently impressed with Copley to appropriate imagery from the American for an exhibition poster. 

What followed the “Nouns” series could not have been further removed from banality: a group of big, in-your-face erotic paintings in which Copley conflated scenes from well-known movies with imagery from pornographic magazines he sought out in Times Square’s adult bookshops. Most of the titles reference controversy-causing movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s: A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, La Grande Bouffe, Bonnie and Clyde, Last Tango in Paris, though he also threw in some earlier classics (whether by accident or design, the titles of Copley’s paintings don’t always match the official movie titles). 

In 1974, he exhibited some thirty of these paintings in a solo show titled “X-Rated” at the New York Cultural Center. Reviewing the show for Art in America, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that Copley was able to transform his pornographic source material “by investing these scenes with joy—not sensual joyfulness exactly, but a sense of his own joy in being able to contemplate them.”6 Featuring big hairdos, big breasts, elaborately drawn pubic areas, and—something fairly rare at the time—active penises on display, these paintings never try to imitate the look of film; they don’t appear remotely connected to photography. Instead, they offer a highly stylized brand of figuration in which hair, mouths, body parts, and items of clothing are depicted as distinct, sinuously curved, outlined shapes. There is a strange conjunction of extreme economy (physiques drawn with a handful of curving lines) and baroque excess, especially in the background patterns. In some of the “X-Rated” paintings, these patterns threaten to upstage the protagonists. A frieze of wonderfully warped grids on some sofa pillows in Monsieur Verdou (1973) appears to be pushing the embracing couple right out of the picture. Marcia Tucker selected three of these works for “Bad Painting,” and the brazen Portnoy’s Complaint (1973) is now on view at the Menil. 

While these paintings can be seen as responses to the cultural turmoil of the period in which they were made, a time when many taboos against the depiction of sex and violence were being dismantled in American society, they also seem to belong in some weird way to our current moment, close in spirit and style to the work of contemporary artists such as Kathe Burkhart, Betty Tompkins, and Carroll Dunham. A catalogue essay by Alison M. Gingeras argues that Copley’s “new cult status” derives, in part, from society’s need for “bad boys.” Drawing on Freudian terminology, she suggests that taboo-defying male artists permit us “to transfer our own potentially disturbing drives and emotional energies into the relatively safe act of looking.”7 Studying Copley’s paintings of assertive, sometimes defiant women, I’m not sure that the “bad boy” label points toward a satisfying explanation for the currency of his work, especially the “X-Rated” paintings. It’s worth noting that Copley’s readiness to portray women as capable protagonists goes back at least to early 1960s paintings such as Los Angeles Angels (1962), featuring a woman baseball pitcher, and En Garde (1962), portraying a well-muscled female fencer. More than a few of Copley’s 1970s paintings of women seem far closer to Burkhart than to Matisse. Just look at the woman giving us the finger in Portnoy’s Complaint. She fills the canvas with a presence and force that don’t allow for any sort of objectification, which in any case is nearly always out of the question thanks to Copley’s wildly exaggerated style, which could not be more removed from the photographic domain of modern pornography. 

After spending some memorable hours with Copley’s art, I’m inclined to look somewhat skeptically on Gingeras’s assumption that deep psychological needs drive the reception of art (an assumption that is, I hasten to add, widely shared). What if the needs involved are only the artist’s, not society’s? What if, rather than fulfilling some drive for the imaginative breaking of taboos, we are simply responding to the intensity of another human being’s passion? What if we fall into Copley’s art with no more difficulty or depth than we experience when falling into conversation with a fascinating person met at a cocktail party?

Suddenly, I find myself pondering a very untimely idea: What if our attempts to uncover deeper content and wider significance derive from a guilt-ridden need to justify works of the imagination, to yoke them to some worthy social function as a way of not having to confront the sheer gratuitousness of art, its fundamental uselessness, its glorying in the excess of beauty, in pure expenditure? Could it be that desire is a motivation and end sufficient unto itself? For all his attention to social issues throughout his long, odd, and impressive career, I think that this was a line of thought Copley must have pursued at length, and I believe the title of one of his late paintings gives us an unambiguous articulation of his conclusion: Trust Lust.

 

“William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY,” at the Menil Collection, Houston, through July 24.