In Pursuit of Liberty, Poetry & Sex

‘William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY’ at Menil

“My life is a quest for the ridiculous image.

The visual pun is the golden nugget that we seek.”

— William N. Copley

En Garde, 1962

William N. Copley, En Garde, 1962. Oil, lace collage on canvas, 32 x 25 ¾ in. (81.3 x 65.4 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston. © 2016 Estate of William N. Copley / Copley LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A little boy is standing in a room – a typical bourgeois interior, with checkered blue and brown carpeting, cushy furniture and large paintings on the walls. But he staring, transfixed, at an eerie image of another room that is being held, like a tapestry, in front of him by two naked women. In this room, two characters – a man dressed in a suit and a bowler hat and a naked blonde – are entangled in a passionate embrace, oblivious to a stealthily approaching policemen. Is this a dream, a vision of the boy’s future? Titled “Lost Innocence,” the painting is simultaneously comical, mysterious and erotic.

“Well-Spent Youth” can be perceived a sequel to the boy’s story. It also features a smartly dressed man who is awkwardly perched on the back of a child-size armchair. He is holding the reigns of a toy horse as if taking a ride on a merry-go-round which is too small for his grown-up body. The initial impression of a childhood bliss is undermined by a toy figure of a naked woman in striped stockings who is leaning casually against a folded umbrella. This eerie composition brings to mind the popular quote from Winnie-the-Pooh: ““How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Like so many Copley’s works, these paintings are partly autobiographical. “Against my better judgement, I am brought into this world… I lead a life of excess and debauchery,” wrote Copley in his mock autobiography which he produced in a form of a comic book titled “The Evil I… or, The Story of My Life.”

The exhibition “william N. Copley: The World According to CPLY” at the Menil introduces general public to this highly original, irreverend, shockingly outspoken and hilariously funny artist. This large retrospective is co-curated by Toby Kamps, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection, and Germano Celant from Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy. The exhibition will be shown in the U.S. exclusively at the Menil before continuing to its only other venue in Milan.

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William N. Copley, Rain, 1973. Acrylic on linen, 38 1/4 × 51 1/2 in. (97.2 × 130.8 cm). Olbricht Collection. © 2016 Estate of William N. Copley / Copley LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Nicknamed “the artists’ artist,” Copley was better known for his art collection than his own art during his lifetime. In fact, John and Dominique de Menil first became acquainted with Copley as an art collector and bought from him eleven important works (currently on display in the Surrealist gallery at the Menil.) He was a friend and patron of many famous figures of European Surrealism, including Marcel Duchamp, whom he considered his mentor, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Réné Magritte, and of American Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha.

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William N. Copley, Reclining Nude, 1953. Oil on canvas, 51 3/16 × 63 13/16 in. (130 × 162.1 cm). Kasper König, Berlin © 2016 Estate of William N. Copley / Copley LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It was Duchamp who encouraged Copley to paint. “Duchamp never said anything was good or anything was bad, but I got a chance to show him some of my work and he said, ‘You should continue.’ And that to me was like the Oracle of Delphi telling me to ‘Go Ahead,’” Copley reminisced in a later interview. It happened in the late 1940s. By then, Copley, a son of a wealthy politician and a utilities tycoon, had dropped out of Yale, served in World War II, and failed as a gallery owner in Los Angeles.

Inspired by both Surrealist paintings and Walt Disney animated movies, he blazed his own path in art and created “a world according to CLPY” (pronounced as “see-pli” – a moniker he used to sign his paintings) – a burlesque of reality populated by cartoonish characters who blissfully pursued joys of life having shed vestiges of hypocritical social morals. He was one of them, too – a smartly dressed man, always wearing a black suit, tie and a bowler hat (an homage to Magritte.)

Copley challenged rules, conventions and authority in art and in life. At the time when Abstract Expressionism was practically synonymous with contemporary art, he bravely pursued figurative painting. At the same time, he stayed abreast of current styles and movements, such as Pop, Color Field painting, Conceptualism and Minimalism, and never hesitated to incorporate anything he deemed suitable in his own work.

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William N. Copley, Lost Innocence, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 37 × 45 in. (94 × 114.3 cm). Ann Snider, Los Angeles. © 2016 Estate of William N. Copley / Copley LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Copley famously said: “What other subjects are there besides sex? Painting is just the next best thing.” A strong sexual content of his work is reflective of his own hedonistic lifestyle (he was married six times.) “Remember the Day” is one of those “golden nuggets” of a visual pun that he was constantly searching. Divided into two sections, the painting underscores similarities between the two images: a saucy blonde wearing a pirate’s patch, lacy top and fishnet hose, and an air balloon that bears an uncanny resemblance to the her buttocks.

Copley’s paintings of a naked female body simultaneously follow and challenge the long-established tradition of reclining nudes in Western art. His “Reclining Nude” is anything but a “sleeping Venus.” Like Manet’s “Olympia” that once shocked the art world with an unabashed sexuality, Copley’s model does not shy away from the complete truth about her body and her occupation. Stretching languishly on the blue bedcover, wearing black stockings with blue garters, she proudly exhibits her armpit and pubic hair. A later work, “Rain,” features a fishnet-stockinged nude hugging herself, thus creating an arousing pose, which brings to mind “naughty” nudes of German Expressionist Egon Schiele.

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William N. Copley, 1984 and All That [also known as Untitled (1984) (Statue of Liberty)], 1984. Oil on canvas, 60 × 45 in. (152.4 × 114.3 cm). Private collection, Germany. © 2016 Estate of William N. Copley / Copley LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In politics, Copley was as much of a rebel as in art. Brought up in a conservative family, he always sided with the left wing. His mockery of the Cold War mentality is apparent in “American Girdle,” in which an actual star-striped girdle is irreverently attached to the grafitti-like image of the national bird symbol of America. In another painting, aptly titled “Cold War,” two female athletes, a blonde and a brunette, are locked in a hand-to-hand combat wearing nothing but the trunks made of an American and a Soviet flag respectively.

The exhibition shows the wide range of Copley’s creative output. Many of his works are stories narrated through a sequence of pictures, like a comic strip. Simple and straightforward, devoid of all trappings except for the essential details, they are akin to popular doggerel ballads, like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” by his favorite poet Robert W. Service.

Other works belie Copley’s true nature as a sophisticated erudite well familiar with the arts, history, politics and culture. “The Bride and Groom Stripped Bare by Each Other, Even “ pays homage to the famous revolutionary work by Duchamp “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” “Electric Chair” references both the famous painting of an empty chair by Van Gogh and Warhol’s “Electric Chair” series. “Untitled” – a real metronome with an eye and the word “Think” clipped to the swinging arm – is a bow to Copley’s yet another idol, Man Ray, whose almost identical (except for the word “Think”) “readymade” of 1923, “Object to Be Destroyed,” was actually destroyed by protesters in Paris in 1957.

It is easy to get lost in the enchanted “world according to CPLY” as we follow the riské exploits of his cartoonish characters, chuckle at the ribald humor of his visual puns or marvel at the sultry sexuality of his nudes. The content of his works is so engrossing that one has to step back, disengage and then re-direct attention to his painting technique.

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William N. Copley, Untitled (Think Metronome in collaboration with Man Ray), 1966. Mixed media, 9 × 4 3/8 × 4 1/4 in. (22.9 × 11.1 × 10.8 cm). Rosalind & Melvin Jacobs Collection, New York. © 2016 Estate of William N. Copley / Copley LLC / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The most distinctive element of Copley’s art language is the pattern. His paintings are filled with striped, checkered or ornamental patterns of unexpected color combinations. The space is often defined by a specific pattern, and the boundaries between different spaces and objects within spaces (e.g., furniture in a room) are identified by a pattern change. While Copley’s images are flat, like cutouts, the pattern interplay creates an illusion of volume and depth, in a way similar to Matisse’s paintings.

Rich, eccentric and innovative in their clashing colors, these patterns are an inseparable part of Copley’s scenes, like a musical score in an opera. They amplify the audacity, imagination and joie de vivre of the artist who believed that “the worst crime was to be humorless, and not living fully was a close runner-up.”

The exhibition “william N. Copley: The World According to CPLY” will be on view at the Menil through July 24. More information at www.menil.org.

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