Art of the City Artists

Father Figures: Visiting William N. Copley’s Drawings Exhibition With the Artist’s Son

Untitled, 1965.

William N. Copley, Untitled, 1965.

ALL IMAGES: COURTESY THE ESTATE OF WILLIAM N. COPLEY AND PAUL KASMIN GALLERY, NEW YORK

Where do you begin with William N. Copley? There are almost too many good stories about the artist, collector, art dealer, patron, and all-around gadabout, whose life cut a wild path through some of the most intriguing moments in postwar art history. Born in 1919, probably to parents who died of influenza, he was adopted by Illinois magnate Ira Copley and his wife Edith, and grew up in immense privilege—he attended both Phillips Academy and Yale—but like many would-be aristocrats before him, he eschewed that life for one in art.

After serving in the army, he found himself in Los Angeles, where he ran a short-lived gallery with a friend, showing artists like Man Ray and Magritte well before their popular acclaim in America. They had a pet monkey, hosted raucous openings, and sold only two paintings. (Copley, meanwhile, bought 10 percent of each show, starting what would become one of the most formidable collections of Surrealism in the U.S.) The gallery closed in less than a year. But by then Copley was making art.

Untitled, 1969.

Untitled, 1969.

Copley—or CPLY, as he signed his work—painted cartoony, figurative scenes with thick lines that teem with antic drama. Nude, pink-skinned women are everywhere, sometimes embraced or accompanied by a man in a natty suit and bowler hat, which one is tempted to read as the artist himself. Usually his characters have no faces. “I never had any luck drawing faces anyway,” he once explained. “Since I am only interested in men and women and the relationship between each other why do they need faces?”

The effect of his works, consequently, tends to be both comic and psychologically fraught. They have the feel of private fantasies brazenly shared in public—things that are more personal than one typically sees in either Surrealism (which they follow chronologically) or Pop (which they richly anticipate). They’re ribald, playfully skirting propriety and prevailing tastes.

A show now on view at Paul Kasmin in New York allows one to take a wide appraisal of Copley’s achievements, in a scaled down form. Titled “William N. Copley: Drawings (1962–1973),” it homes in on the artist’s work in that medium, which he came to late in his career. (Learning to draw was “an effort I put off for a long time just out of laziness,” he told Paul Cummings, of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, in a 1968 interview)

Untitled, 1971.

Untitled, 1971.

One recent winter morning, Copley’s son, the artist Billy Copley, who strikingly resembles his father, took me around the show. Once his father started drawing, he said, he really got into it, working first on paper plates. “He would just draw for hours,” he said. “He would go on drawing jags. In the ‘60s he and my stepmother went to Greece, and he had a little studio room, and he always worked. He would bring maybe 20 notebooks, and he would just draw, all day long. And then he would come back with piles of work.”

Though there’s no definitive listing of Copley drawings, the estate estimates they number in the thousands. One of the earliest works in the show dates from 1963, a scene with the nude woman and bowler-capped man scratched from a field of purple crayon. Of this choice of material, the younger Copley said, “He could have gotten that from myself and my sister,” since they were both in school at the time.

There are examples from Copley’s works involving his trademark domestic scenes, and also other recurring motifs: flags, baseball, and spare still lifes, which he termed “ridiculous images”—a trumpet, a razor, a vice, which bulge with luscious curves, bulging in an almost libidinous way. “He was a mail-order freak,” said Copley Jr. “He would see things in catalogues, and he would order them over the phone,” some of those finds making they’re way into his works.

Living in New York in the 1960s and ‘70s, Copley was a close friend and confidante of more popular artists. Lichtenstein got him to switch from oil to Magna paint, Copley Jr. said, and Copley sponsored Duchamp’s final piece, Étant donnés (1946–66). He’d lunch occasionally with Warhol. “Andy asked me to be in a movie when I was 16,” Copley Jr. said, “but I was really too young to be able to deal with it. It was one where they’re all in prison. I think I was just too intimidated.”

Untitled, 1973.

Untitled, 1973.

But despite those connections and some success in Europe, his career has been slow to rise in the United States. (He died in 1996.) That is changing. Next year, Houston’s Menil Collection is organizing a major retrospective of his work, his first in the United States, and younger artists, from Andreas Slominski to Brian Belott to Bjarne Melgaard have taken him as an influence, particularly the luscious “X-Rated” paintings, which he began in the early 1970s and that show rather explicit (though still cartoon) sexual acts. A few drawings from the series are included in the Kasmin.

“I don’t know what motivated him to go this way,” Copley Jr. told me. “My sense was that it was really about confronting his own sexuality because he was a very Victorian man, really. He was adopted by this wealthy family, and they were extremely formal and business-like.”

“These are very loose, and they’re charcoal, so I don’t think he held back at all,” he said, as we examined the fulsomely rendered works. “That was one of his goals. It’s true for most artists, really—that they loosen up as they progress. They want to make it easy, fast, and you know, it’s also connected to your subconscious. You want to close your eyes, and just go.”

“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.

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