‘About the Hare and the Tortoise But Mostly About the Hare’: William N. Copley on Francis Picabia, in About 1978

William N. Copley in the living room of his 81st Street apartment in New York, ca. 1973, standing by group portrait by Martial Raysse (Tableau New Yorkais, 1965) and a drawing by Picabia (Guillame Apollinaire,1917). COURTESY WILLIAM N. COPLEY ESTATE

William N. Copley in the living room of his 81st Street apartment in New York, ca. 1973, standing by group portrait by Martial Raysse (Tableau New Yorkais, 1965) and a drawing by Picabia (Guillame Apollinaire, 1917).


For anyone interested in the pathways and redoubts of 20th-century art history that are messy, ribald, obscure, and proudly defiant of taste and convention, now is a great time to visit New York City. Through March 19, the Museum of Modern Art is hosting a deliriously impressive retrospective of the great provocateur and gadabout Francis Picabia, who never met an art movement he couldn’t assist and then betray. And on Thursday, January 26, Paul Kasmin Gallery will open a show devoted to paintings of women by William N. Copley, the artist, collector, dealer, and quiet force of postwar vanguard art, who, as it happens, collected Picabia and channeled him in his own work.

In the essay below, titled “About the Hare and the Tortoise But Mostly About the Hare,” which Copley likely wrote in about 1978 and did not publish during his lifetime (he died in 1996, at the age of 77), he offers a witty and insightful consideration of Picabia’s work, and reveals just how much the erstwhile Dadaist’s free thinking influenced his own practice. In fact, the paintings for Copley’s 1979 exhibition at Brooks Jackson Gallery Iolas were based on Picabia’s 1922 La Nuit Espagnole, which he owned and which is now on view at MoMA. Thank you to the Estate of William N. Copley for allowing us to reproduce Copley’s piece in full here. —The Editors

The word genius annoys me. It is beyond definition, is used too loosely, and if it exists at all, applies to an excess of mental energy so far beyond the norm as to suggest that the possessor is something of a freak, like someone with two or three heads. Milhaud once told me that if a professional copyist started at the age of consent to copy all the works of Bach, he could not complete the job in his lifetime. I generally cite this example to suggest that the nature of time has changed that radically between now and then. But how do we explain the number of expensive works that Picasso was able to produce in his lifetime? Even the forgers have not been able to keep up with him. I am not interested in the concept of genius.

Nor am I too impressed with who gets credit for discovering what. Simply because someone does something for the first time does not mean that he has invented or discovered anything. Points in time, history if you will (though this is another word I quibble with), make most inventions inevitable. The same applies to revolutions.

So it was with Dada. It has not even been established to anyone’s satisfaction who found the word in the dictionary. Dada sprung up in different places, Barcelona, New York, Zurich, at about the same time through a kind of spontaneous generation with its own hippies and war protesters responding to the complacency and disillusionment of the time they were living in. It finally involved a considerable array of intelligent and talented people. Few of these were ever accused of genius. They were eccentrics who were to be responsible for changing the face of modern art through calculated scandal.

In the hands of politicians eccentricity can be dangerous. In the hands of artists it is quite safe. There is a wistful competition among artists to paint a painting that could kill. Picasso is the only one I know who claimed success at this.

Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp were the two great poetic eccentrics of our time.

Man Ray's photograph of the interior of William N. Copley's home in Longpont–sur-Orge, France, 1959, showing Picabia's La Nuit Espagnole (1922). ©MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP, PARIS

Man Ray’s photograph of the interior of William N. Copley’s home in Longpont–sur-Orge, France, 1959, showing Picabia’s La Nuit Espagnole (1922).


Picabia and Duchamp became friends in 1911.

Eccentrics have always been first in recognizing art, erasing all the efforts of historians, curators, critics. Usually they are collectors. Occasionally they are dealers. Witness Walter Arensberg, Katherine Dreier, Barnes, Eddy.

Picabia painted his Caoutchouc in Paris in the year 1909; Marcel Duchamp his Coffee Grinder in 1910. These are very similar conceptions. I seem to remember another like them, by Serge Charchoune, then from Barcelona, dated, I think, 1919. These were remarkable paintings in that they suggested machines to come.

In 1912, Picabia came into the orbit of Apollinaire, that year supposedly marking his first totally abstract work. In 1913, Picabia was in New York, participating in the Armory Show and meeting Alfred Stieglitz and Marius de Zayas, and most probably the great eccentric Arthur Cravan.

Picabia was fascinated with New York and considered it the only Cubist city in the world.

In 1914, he was drafted and in 1915 while on a posh foraging mission to the Caribbean (an assignment attained we would guess through family clout), he took French leave to New York to collaborate with Duchamp on 291. He spent much of his time voyaging between New York, Barcelona, and Zurich, till allowed to return to Paris in 1919. Being well heeled, he could afford to travel during this period when communication was difficult. Thus he became the carrier pigeon for the eccentric ideas of Dada. More important he was the catalyst as well as an animator of the movement.

Today, we know almost all that needs to be known about Duchamp. He has entered the
pantheon. He has been studied and written about by the scholars and critics. He has been exhibited internationally and in depth. His life and his work have been recognized. His imprint on his time is firmly established. Not only that, he lived to see it all happen, perhaps not against his will but something to his surprise.

I’m a great one for knocking on the doors of those I most admire, figuring most artists don’t resent others’ interest in their work and that something about them may rub off on me. I have rarely been thrown out. What I have learned through the friendships I have made this way has enriched my life immeasurably. I did get to know Duchamp through this tactic, for which I will ever be grateful.

I don’t know why I never knocked on Picabia’s door. He was older before an opportunity presented itself. By then there were rumors about his health. Also I felt an unusual shyness proportionate to the awe in which I held him. I shall forever regret it. I might of course have learned a little more about the pre-war shenanigans. But worse, it frustrates to have to speculate when any personal contact would surely have helped to lift the lid for me.

William N. Copley, Battle of the Sexes No. 2, 1974, acrylic on cotton. CHRISTOPHER BURKE/©WILLIAM N. COPLEY ESTATE, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

William N. Copley, Battle of the Sexes No. 2, 1974, acrylic on cotton.


Up till now so little has been known about Francis Picabia. While Duchamp was in many ways his own biographer, if not his own curator, Picabia was too impatient to care to drop any pebbles for the pursuing scholars. Most of his works are scattered, often unrecorded, in many cases unvalued. We know him through chronologies and incomplete prefaces. There is a surge of interest now, and a comprehensive biography by William Camfield of Rice University, long in preparation, will be appearing next year [1979]. There was an exhibition several years ago at the Guggenheim. There is this exhibition [Francis Picabia, 1970]. He did not live to know it would happen.

To know Duchamp and not to know Picabia is to know but half the history. For these two are the Castor and the Pollux of Dada. The yin and the yang. Also the hare and the tortoise. The two great eccentrics, who were as different as they were similar.

Duchamp wrote of Picabia in a preface for William Camfield’s monograph for Schwartz’s show: “As a lad of fourteen he joined the Impressionists and showed a great talent as a young follower of an old movement….” (The italics are mine.) One might say, “Speak for yourself, Marcel.” In this context it should be noted that both artists also traveled the road of Cubism to where they were going. As for Abstraction, Duchamp moved quickly toward Conceptualism, Object to Be Looked at With One Eye Only [To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) With One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour, 1918] being as close as he would come to anything really abstract.

Neither artist was adverse to employing popular images. William Camfield points out rightfully that Pop had its own motivation. Such images were used by the Dadaists in context with their destructive purposes.

Further on in the same article, Duchamp writes: “Between 1917 and 1924 the Dada movement, a metaphysical attempt towards irrationalism, offered little scope for painting. Yet Picabia in his paintings of that period showed great affinity with the Dada spirit.” This could be a little damning with faint praise, except while both men represent most of what we really remember as Dada, George Hugnet notes that in the formal phase of Dada there was always a Picabia-Duchamp spirit as opposed to a Breton spirit or a Tzara spirit. Duchamp credits Picabia as not joining the club itself any more than he had. This might be a contradiction in light of Picabia’s apparent identification with 391 but, particularly in Picabia’s case, he maintained a Dada attitude towards Dada itself. Both men were too interested in moving on.

Exhibition poster for William N. Copley's "Variations on a Theme by Francis Picabia," at Brooks Jackson Gallery Iolas (April 24 - May 26, 1979). COURTESY WILLIAM N. COPLEY ESTATE</small.

Exhibition poster for William N. Copley’s “Variations on a Theme by Francis Picabia,” at Brooks Jackson Gallery Iolas (April 24–May 26, 1979).


What Andre Salman says of Picabia applies equally to Duchamp: “Whatever he does Mr. Picabia has the right to be studied as a true artist the more he denies art.” The twins were here identical in motivation, freedom of poetic expression toward limitlessness. They were anti definable, criticizable, recognizable, respectable art. What they destroyed they put back together their own way for the benefit of the future.

What Henri-Pierre Roché says of Duchamp, “His greatest work was his use of time,” also applies to Picabia. The greatest achievement for any creative person is to arrive, where his personality, his life, is synonymous and indistinguishable from his work.

The similarities do not stop here but run on profoundly. They were both men of enormous humor, which they each expressed or achieved their own way.

Duchamp, the tortoise, had a cerebral humor, inside jokes, inside himself at that. Mostly he structured elaborate puns which kept skipping on into the subconscious like flat stones on water. Duchamp didn’t write any more than he had to, as he didn’t paint any more than he had to. His letters were more like telegrams. He wrote a good deal of criticism mostly for Katherine Dreier, avoiding at all costs being overtly negative. One always had to go looking for his humor, sometimes his disapproval or annoyance. In the preface already cited above, he carefully omits to mention Picabia’s mechanical period and wipes out the era known as the monster period (personally, my favorite) thusly: “…he turned to paint for years watercolors of a strictly academic style representing Spanish girls in their native costumes.” How could he not have known of these lovable paintings! But in the same piece he also pays Picabia profound compliments and in dealing with the transparent period he points out: “By a juxtaposition of transparent forms and colors the canvas would, so to speak, express the feeling of a third dimension without the aid of perspective.” And: “Picabia, being very prolific, belongs to the type of artist who possesses the perfect tool: an indefatigable imagination.”

Indeed it is hard to say what the personal relationship between the two men was. Duchamp never spoke of Picabia in my presence. Somewhere along the line there may have been a cooling. Picabia was given to practical jokes, another aspect of his humor, alas, something Duchamp would not have had patience with. Man Ray described one played on him, but years after it happened when he could laugh at it.

In the paintings or objects, Duchamp, the tortoise, invariably hid his jokes in convoluted puns, verbal, often in the titles, or visual, so the works remained in a way puzzles to be solved.

The Large Glass was totally mythological in concept and to read it we have to learn the private science he invented for it: “meta-irony.” The green box was its rosetta stone. It was all an enormous serious joke.

Picabia the hare’s humor was all from the belly. He, too, loved to make aphorisms, was certainly a master at it, and was not afraid to use outrageous puns. And like any good entertainer would sometimes go to great lengths to set them up. Duchamp was satisfied as long as they remained preposterous.

Installation view of "Surrélisme Et Précurseurs", at Palais Granvelle, Besançon, 1961. Copley loaned two paintings by Picabia to exhibtion: La Nuit Espagnole (1922), third from left, and Le Poete Espagnole (1955), far left. COURTESY WILLIAM N. COPLEY ESTATE

Installation view of “Surrélisme Et Précurseurs,” at Palais Granvelle, Besançon, 1961. Copley loaned two paintings by Picabia to the exhibition: La Nuit Espagnole (1922), third from left, and Le Poete Espagnole (1955), far left.


Unlike Duchamp, Picabia was as prolific in his writing as he was in his paintings.

Primarily his was a humor of attack. He was concerned with breaking up the ball game: war, sex, religion, conviction, consistency, love, other artists, himself. His tools were sarcasm and ridicule spread evenly with lavish imagination. When it was all over, there was to be only freedom apparent. Duchamp, too, sought freedom as his end but he had a horror of polemics.

Very little escapes the venom of Picabia’s attack.

At random:

“Jesus Christ Jockey! Yes, he becomes the curiosity of crowds. He races, everyone bets on him. The results for the bettors: nothing.”

“Purity hides behind our sex.”

“Style is a dead leaf.”

“Taste is fatiguing like good company.”

“Humorists are the worst idiots. They can only amuse those among you, dear readers, who accept to wear chastity belts.”

“Morality is the backbone of imbeciles.”

“I have a horror of the paintings of Cezanné, they bug me.”

As a critic, he behaved very much like Arthur Cravan, the professional scandalizer, poet, and boxer, who upset a literary meeting in New York so successfully as to gain incarceration in Sing Sing for a week. In one of his handbills he liked to pass out, Cravan suggested that Marie Laurencin be publicly spanked. Picabia kept his tongue more in his cheek, the purpose being mostly to provoke.

Picabia was a prolific poet, and I consider most of his writings poetry. It was a poetry of the outrageous which the titles almost suffice to illustrate! “Cinquante-deux miroirs,” “Fille née sans mère” (also used as title for several paintings), “L’athlète des pompes funèbres,” “Unique eunuque,” to cite a few.

William N. Copley, Mother Figure, 1966, acrylic on canvas. CHRISTOPHER BURKE/©WILLIAM N. COPLEY ESTATE, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

William N. Copley, Mother Figure, 1966, acrylic on canvas.


“Caravan serail,” a fictionalized autobiographical odyssey of improbable episodes in settings only probable for Picabia, slanders about everyone he ever knew, including himself, doubling as an anti-Surrealist manifesto. It could make one think of Jerry, an author Picabia steadfastly refused to read, which I suppose sheds some light on the nature of his vanity.

In the sense of contributing to the idea of humor being a necessary element of total expression in creative activity, he must be considered again to share the honors with Duchamp. Duchamp’s Mona Lisa’s Moustache [L.H.O.O.Q., 1919] makes about the same statement as Picabia’s stuffed monkey object Portrait of Cezanné-Rembrandt-Renoir—Still Lives, dated 1920. He often borrowed puns from Duchamp as in The Double World, 1919. For Duchamp, such irreverences were single gestures. For Picabia they were practically a way of life. Already in the Cubist works of 1912 and 1913 we suspect that something funny is afoot. The titles seem to ask us not to take them too seriously as either representational or non-representational. All of what was going on in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and Sad Young Man on a Train is happening in Picabia’s Procession Seville and Sad Figure. What happens with Picabia is that he starts having more and more fun with the titles, which tempts us to enter the picture more and more in search of esoteric happenings. When we get to Girl Born Without a Mother we may realize that we have been looking at machines for some time back.

I do not believe the titles are random (though I admit one can be fooled as by Tanguy pulling words out of a hat). I feel I notice a personal poetic association of humorous myth with which Picabia is intentionally teasing us. The idea of a machine to perpetuate a memory (This Thing Is Made to Perpetuate My Memory, 1915) is a droll concept. The laughter sounds louder as we come to the mechanical objects and portraits where our minds as viewers are made to participate in recognizing the objects or persons through a sense of humor that we didn’t know we had.

The machines become more elaborate and/or more esoteric, also more formal, and again the inexplicable laughter mounts, along with an equally inexplicable fear that we may be laughing at something sinister as in La nuit espagnole, 1922, with its subtitle Andalusian Blood, or The Animal Trainer, 1923.

The optical paintings must clearly have been inspired by Duchamp’s optical experiments, which sought to achieve meaningless solutions to meaningless problems. According to Camfield, Picabia put his “optophones” to work, converting “electrical energy into sexual energy.” This is a process similar to much that happens in The Large Glass of Duchamp. Perhaps Picabia was chalking up a point of one-upmanship on Duchamp. Picabia’s Echelle optique, 1922, almost certainly involved a portrait of one of Duchamp’s optical machines, embroidered with feminine accoutrements.

Collage in the hands of an anti-artist can only be hilarious. Both Schwitters and Ernst (an anti-artist certainly at the time and forever a humorist) used collage to great effect to stimulate incongruous amusement or fear. Picabia in his monster period (a designation I have never thought much of applied to my favorite group of paintings) creates the greatest happiness when he goes into collage. It was his use of banal and vulgar materials which gave them their mystery and joy: tooth picks, drinking straws, buttons, feathers, etcetera.

As for the monsters, since I have to call them that, I revel in these paintings. I see them as double edged, on the one hand as ribald celebrations of love, on the other as boobs on classical themes. They are smallish portrait-sized paintings. As often as not, they involve lovers embracing tenderly and clumsily as though trying to figure where the noses go. The jagged anarchy of the painting style is in tune to the rise of good clean sexual passion. These are violent and deliciously innocent paintings. Certainly they are the strongest, most courageous, and most individualistic of Picabia’s entire output. I can think of no one of his contemporaries who treats affection as nicely as Picabia does in these monumental hymns to profane love. Duchamp’s piece, the gentler version of The Large Glass, Étant donnés… in Philadelphia, remains intellectually clinical in comparison to Picabia’s sweethearts. They are the half-hidden lovers waiting for the last bus that we so often stumble upon. The world does not exist beyond their touching of each other. The techniques of the later transparencies may have resulted in Picabia’s attempt to achieve a further fusion of their embraces. They represent a sudden breakthrough for Picabia into what he really wanted to say about life being so instantaneously exciting. In so often choosing to borrow the structure of well-known classical paintings he achieves a timelessness to the highly charged passionate feelings he is depicting. When not embracing figures they are apt to be just women often dripping with longing.

Installation view of "William N. Copley," 2016–2017, at Fondazione Prada, Milan. ROBERTO MAROSSI/©WILLIAM N. COPLEY ESTATE, ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/COURTESY FONDAZIONE PRADA

Installation view of “William N. Copley,” 2016–2017, at Fondazione Prada, Milan.


The humor here is tender. Lovers do not care how ridiculous they look. Might we not call these something else than “monster” paintings?

Picabia took to working in Ripolin in order that his canvases appear not as paintings; oil paintings felt museum dead to him once signed. He liked to go one step further from time to time and purposely make his painting so vulgar, so badly done, as to affront all sensibilities. I’m thinking, for example, of Portrait of Suzy Solidor, 1933; Deux danseuses, 1922; Femmes au bulldog, 1941 or 1942; or others whenever we choose to recognize them as such. I wouldn’t want to attack anyone’s favorite painting. Again we are tempted to compare early Pop art to these deliberate disasters. Certainly they were prophetic.

Picabia was a master draughtsman and engraver as well as a competent Impressionist at an early age. But he had the power to undo his craft when it suited his needs.

I must confess the transparent paintings do not amuse me much, though technically they were probably inevitable. Transparency had been slowly but logically sneaking into the so-called monster paintings. Until I read what Duchamp saw in them, I had very little understanding. I guess I expected to keep on laughing. I’m afraid we began to laugh less and less with Picabia as the end of his life approached.

But one can talk of the funniest film ever committed to celluloid, Entr’acte. There was Duchamp playing chess with Man Ray, E. S. for Eric Satie, initials on a hearse along with those of F. P. The film is total anarchy ending with a chase scene that doesn’t leave a dry pair of pants in the house.

There were the publications. 291 ran twelve issues from March 1914 to February
1915, in collaboration with Duchamp. 391 started in Barcelona in January of 1917, continued in New York, Zurich, and Paris through nineteen irregularly spaced issues. 391 has been called the mirror of Picabia and holds much promising material for his scholars. His entire attitude to life and arts are revealed there. Unfortunately a complete edition is difficult to come by. In 1920 there were two issues of Cannibale. The hare and the tortoise often collaborated, but Duchamp would be the first to lose interest. It was a passion for Picabia to continue. But he had no patience to catalogue and no desire to be catalogued. Like Duchamp, he expected to be unknown.

His passions were about equally divided between painting and his literary activities.

The hare and the tortoise treated their energy differently. Picabia could not know satisfaction. For him there was no yesterday and no tomorrow. People who react strongly know more anguish. For Picabia it was spending, gambling, drinking, womanizing, opium, fast cars, yachts, painting, writing, editing, manifesting. Duchamp boasted of masterful inactivity.

After perspective, or say Impressionism, it is impossible for an artist to continue as though perspective or Impressionism had not happened. These things simply became part of his vocabulary. If history does exist, its progress is geometric. From the automobile to the aircraft to the atom to the moon in two generations ain’t bad. The first half of the twentieth century was known for Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstraction, Picabia, and Duchamp.

I have found it not feasible to discuss the hare without the tortoise. Only these two shared such an intensity of vision. The dust has not yet settled from their explosive passage. For both of them, nothing was without significance. Between them they set the stage for the art we know today.

One final statement from Duchamp, again from the piece I’ve quoted throughout: “In his fifty years of painting, Picabia has constantly avoided adhering to any formula or wearing a badge. He could be called the greatest exponent of freedom in art, not only against academic slavery but also against slavery to any given dogma.”

Text reproduced with permission. ©William N. Copley Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

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