A busy black-and-white painting hanging at the end of a light-filled corridor in one of the most serene museum exhibition spaces in the world depicts a man in a tweed suit and bowler hat. The man has evidently been playing piano; now he spins on his stool to reach for the curvaceous nude woman lying on a nearby bed. The man and woman’s faceless, cartoonlike figures are boldly limned in with broken black lines. An eye-popping variety of patterning—stripes for the wallpaper, speckles for the bed’s counterpane, flowers for the carpet, staccato dashes for wood grain, tweed, and ribbon—fills the canvas from edge to edge. Walls, floors, furniture, and couple undulate as if they, or we, were a little bit drunk.
Titled My Father Plays Piano in a House of Ill Repute, the painting is a classic image from 1966 by William N. Copley (1919–96), the heterodox American artist who signed his works CPLY and whose trademark motif was a randy, buttoned-up everyman who pursues life, liberty, and zaftig blonds while being pursued in turn by angry wives and policemen. The scion of a wealthy family, Copley began to paint in the late 1940s, developing a vernacular that combined the decorativeness of Matisse’s canvases with the graphic punch of Krazy Kat–creator George Herriman’s cartoons and the multidimensional space of Mexican murals. Still woefully under known, he is only now having his first survey in the United States.
Recently conditions have come together to make an American retrospective of Copley’s work seem not only relevant, but inevitable—among them: a widespread interest in self-taught artists; a groundswell of figurative painting by younger artists, many of them looking back to the Chicago Imagists of the 1960s, to Peter Saul, and also to Copley; the 100th anniversary of Dada; a particularly surreal election cycle; and most importantly, a curator intrigued by the artist’s long connection with Dominique and John de Menil, whose private collection forms the bulk of the Menil’s holdings and who owned no fewer than 17 of Copley’s paintings and drawings.
“The World According to CPLY,” initiated by Menil curator Tony Kamps, brings together over 100 drawings, paintings, and sculptures made by the artist between 1946 and 1995. With its major holdings of Surrealist objects, the Menil makes a fitting venue for the work of a man who considered himself a natural surrealist. The show, largely chronological with thematic insertions, is full of surprises, even for those already crazy for Copley. Without in any way downplaying his work’s vaudevillian humor, the exhibition brings to light his often-neglected formal and conceptual strengths.
A patron, collector, sometime publisher, and artist, Copley was born in New York City. Abandoned as an infant, he was adopted at the age of two by the Chicago and San Diego newspaper magnate Ira C. Copley and his wife Edith. (The essential randomness of the universe was an early life lesson.) He attended Yale and fought in World War II, seeing action in Africa and Italy. Following the war, Copley returned to California to work as a reporter for his father’s newspapers, which included the right-wing San Diego Union-Tribune. Copley liked writing, and carried his press card for the rest of his life, but things were strained between him and his conservative family—he was by then a committed leftist. A brother-in-law, John Ployardt, who had studied painting and who worked for Disney, introduced Copley to Surrealism. “Surrealism,” Copley would later write, “made everything understandable: my genteel family, the war, and why I attended the Yale prom without my shoes.”
In 1948 Copley and Ployardt started a gallery in Beverly Hills. They gave one-person shows to René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, and Man Ray. Nothing sold, and the gallery closed after six months. Having guaranteed the artists sales of 10 percent, Copley wound up buying many of the unsold works, the first acquisitions in what would become a legendary collection of Surrealist art. (When he put the collection up for auction in 1979, Dominique de Menil snapped up eleven masterpieces—including Ernst’s magnificent Le surreálism et la peinture of 1942—which are on view in nearby galleries.)
At this point, encouraged by Man Ray, who was then unhappily living in Hollywood, Copley began to make art himself. One of the revelations of the show is how assured his style was from the beginning; it remained substantially unchanged throughout his career, even as he continued to refine it. Four works hung adjacent to one another here represent the basic elements of his visual language, soon to be melded into a durable and highly individual patois: Mack n Madge (1962), a cartoon strip depicting the travails of an ill-fated couple; Mexican Images (Dream of Oaxaca), 1948, a canvas divided into quadrants, each bearing the image of an object from a Mexican street market; Reclining Nude (1953), a woman in stockings and a negligee whose bare mattress and bidet testify to her trade; and Fiesta de la Lune (1957), a swirling, jumbled composition of flags, television sets, cigarette packs, a skeleton, and other items, which suggests the clamor and speed of modern life.
By 1951, though, America appeared to be a dead end for Copley. Figuration was out, and abstraction and Abstract Expressionism were ascendant. His gallery had failed, and his marriage was failing. Leaving his wife and two children behind, Copley sailed with Man Ray to Paris. He was 30 years too late for the heyday of Surrealism and a full generation younger than the Surrealists—many of whom had by then returned to Europe—but he counted artists such as Man Ray, Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp as friends, and they encouraged his naive style. He stayed in Paris for eleven years, painting and filing articles on life there for the Tribune.
While living in Paris, Copley found his great subject: the world’s fundamental absurdity, which he conveyed in “ridiculous images” using his now-characteristic technique of line drawings filled in with bright, patchy color. As Kamps writes in his catalogue essay, “Refusing to intellectualize Surrealism, Copley borrowed aspects of its interest in humor, sexuality and psychology. But he replaced the movement’s uncanny with his own sense of the carnivalesque.”
“The commedia dell’arte is a universal form,” Copley told critic Alan Jones in a 1991 interview, “using the same characters time and time again—a jumping-off place for almost anything. And the same thing always happens, as in Petrouchka. I had never paid much attention to the commedia dell’arte, but when I did I realized that it was where I had been all the time.”
An inexhaustible supply of comedic images could be found in the relations between men and women. (Copley himself was married six times.) “In my commedia,” he noted, “it is always about being ‘taken in adultery.’ ” An early gem addressing the subject is A la mer (Remember my Member), a work from circa 1960 depicting a lighthouse at night. As the light moves over the beach, it pins several startled couples in its glare.
In formal terms, Copley began to experiment with collage-inspired compositions like Fiesta as a method of conveying simultaneity and flux. Often the central image in these works is an automobile, for him a symbol for movement through space, time, and life. On one wall three paintings are hung together: Liberation sur l’herbe (1955), in which a blue sedan, seen from both the inside and the outside, coils itself around a city park; The Accident (1983), involving a car, a man, and a woman seen before and after a bloodless wreck—presumably of both the car and the liaison—and Temptation of Saint Ouen (Gaité Bienvenue), 1956, with a bus and a dead horse at its center. It is groupings such as these that make this show so good, illuminating as they do Copley’s methodical thinking-through of ideas over time.
In Paris, Magritte, especially, was a mentor. As Kamps writes, “The bowler-hatted, umbrella-equipped men that recur throughout Copley’s work are homages to his Belgian friend and ironic emblems of the traditional bourgeois paths that both artists sidestepped.”
Yet, in his 2000 essay “Magritte and the Bowler Hat,” film theorist Peter Wollen challenges the notion of the bowler hat (originally commissioned by a British landowner for his gamekeepers in 1849) as an emblem of the everyman, insisting instead, and at length, on its multitude of cultural associations, including the detective (Hercule Poirot), the comedian (Charlie Chaplin), the Purist (Le Corbusier), the father (in the works of Samuel Beckett), and the fetish (on women, in works from Cabaret to The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And in much the same way, as this show reveals, Copley’s simple narratives, with their small cast of characters, are not just “ridiculous images,” but the vehicles for trenchant commentary on repressive social conventions, dirty politics, misguided nationalism, moral hypocrisy, and coyness of any sort.
On his return to America in 1962, Copley found Pop art on the rise and his work—incorporating images taken from the mass media, but more loosely painted, more narrative, and more personal than that of Lichtenstein or Warhol—viewed as a link between Pop and Surrealism. America of the 1960s also provided a wealth of new material for paintings such as The Cold War (1962), which shows a pair of women wrestlers in a tight lock, one wrapped in the American flag, the other in the flag of the USSR.
In 1968 Copley launched another ill-fated business venture—the limited-edition magazine S.M.S. (short for Shit Must Stop), which published multiples by such disparate artists as Ray Johnson, Lee Lozano, and Walter De Maria. It lost money and ceased publication after six issues. It was also around this time that Copley embarked on two of the most extraordinary series of his career: the “Nouns” and the “X-Rated” paintings.
The non-narrative “Nouns,” based on images from vintage Sears and Roebuck catalogues, depict ordinary consumer goods set against brightly colored, patterned grounds. The similarly non-narrative “X-Rated” paintings, based on images from hard-core porn magazines, show couples having sex on brightly colored, patterned beds, sofas, and floors. In the first series, a boxing glove takes on the aura of a fetish, while the relations between a French horn and a piano stool have a carnal flavor. In the second series, the eroticism of the images is overshadowed by their gorgeous hues and over-the-top decorativeness, as in a painting of a man (in a ’70s patterned shirt) and a woman (in a lacy bodysuit) entangled in the corner of a sofa—whose green-and-white plaid upholstery is having a three-way of its own with blue flowered wallpaper and orange diamond-patterned carpeting. As Kamps writes, “Despite the series’ frank focus on genitals and sex acts—firsts in his career—[Copley] argued that the inanimate objects in the Nouns paintings were far more arousing. The X-Rated works, he stated, ‘are essentially still lifes: they are flowers.’ ”
In works from the 1980s and 1990s Copley continued to innovate, using text (the IBM “think” slogan was a favorite), cutaways, and silhouettes filled with imagery to create increasingly layered compositions. “Lately I’ve changed my way of working by trying to depend much more on the subconscious,” he said in his interview with Jones. “I start a painting and just leave it. I know there is bound to be some subconscious event, so I don’t stand and worry what to do next. I walk away from it. This was a big step for me. It got me away from my own formulas.”
In retrospect, though, Copley’s work seems far from formulaic. One of the show’s few missteps is the characterization of Copley as a “bad boy” artist, an idea that is floated in one of the catalogue’s essays. The term, which emerged in the 1980s in connection with a certain kind of swagger and scale, seems to have little to do with Copley’s low profile and behind-the-scenes patronage of other artists through his Cassandra Foundation and projects like S.M.S. Neither does it particularly apply to his art. While Copley frequently returned to the faceless characters of the blond and her bandy-legged suitor, works like 1963’s The Bride and the Groom Stripped Bare by Each Other, Even—in which scenes of men and women primping for each other alternate with images of common objects—evoke not casual encounters but the complicated dynamics of real-world relationships. As seen here, Copley’s work has as many affinities with that of certain women artists, among them Evelyne Axell, Christina Ramberg, Judith Linhares, Kara Walker, Anthea Hamilton, and Jamian Juliano-Villani, as it does with that of his male Pop and Surrealist contemporaries.
That this exhibition will only travel to one other venue (the Prada Foundation in Milan) is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. Among the seeming impediments to other American museums embracing Copley’s work are the fear of being politically incorrect, the premium on technique, and the distrust of humor in art. Kamps’s courageous and important survey illuminates both the consistency and the sophistication of Copley’s vision and most importantly—especially to younger artists who might look at his work now—its truthfulness to itself.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 130 under the title “William N. Copley.”