X-Rated, Pop Art and Political Themes by William N. Copley on View at The Menil

Great ideas seem to flourish late at night after a few too many drinks at the bar. Rarely do those whiskey-infused epiphanies live to see another day, but, for William N. Copley and his brother-in-law, opening a Surrealist art gallery in Beverly Hills in the late '40s seemed a brilliant idea. Though the gallery closed six months later, the burgeoning friendship between the just returned from war frat boy and his wife's sister's husband, the eccentric John Ployardt, catapulted Copley into the world of art.

“I heard about this guy who opened this art gallery in Beverly Hills in 1948 showing Surrealist art at a time when L.A. didn't really have much of an art scene,” says Jonathan Griffin, a Los Angeles-based critic who became so fascinated by the man that he is now working on a biography. “Most of the artists in the city at that time were landscape painters or were abstract painters who were probably 20 years behind the most interesting stuff happening in Paris at the time.”

Griffin says Copley's disastrous enterprise offers a “glimpse into L.A. at a time before the sort of standard art history began.” Though the gallery was an epic fail, it did have an upside, introducing the gallerists to Man Ray, then Marcel Duchamp, and leading the pair down a rabbit hole of other introductions, to artists such as Roberto Matta, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and Isamu Noguchi.

When they were unable to meet the guaranteed sales, Copley often purchased unsold works himself. “He didn't have to worry about money because his father was incredibly wealthy,” says Griffin. (Copley's father was a newspaper tycoon who owned papers in Chicago and San Diego.) “It was the only way he could persuade famous artists to exhibit with him. I guess he got hooked,” says Griffin. “He never meant to be a collector, but the fact that he was extremely wealthy made it possible to share his wealth with his friends.”

“[He was a part of a] whole generation of artists and creative types who fought in the war and came back not really knowing what to do with themselves.” They were looking for something more. 

Copley as a collector tells only half the story; he went on to become a prolific painter who touched on Surrealism, Pop art, Americana and psychosexual themes. “In the late '40s, as [Copley] came to buy art, he also was beginning to paint himself; he was finding his own voice as a painter,” says Griffin.

The Menil Collection is presenting the first comprehensive United States retrospective of his art in “William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY,” with about 100 paintings and works on paper. Griffin, who also is a contributing editor for Frieze Magazine, was invited by the Menil's curator Toby Kamps to write an essay for the exhibition catalogue – he's almost a living encyclopedia, having spent the past three years “working with the estate, his three children, gathering interview material.”

In the Menil exhibit, the earliest painting, titled Well Spent Youth, dates back to 1946. “It's a rather peculiar painting of a man in top hat and tail coats beside a nude woman, or a woman wearing long stockings and holding an umbrella,” says Griffin. It was a theme that the artist returned to over and over, the “formally suited man” and a “nude, or semi-naked woman” representing erotic interest.

“So much of Copley's work is about this tension between manners and formality and society's expectations and secret, private, erotic desire,” says Griffin. “In a way, that art was a way for Copley to balance these two sides of his personality.”

The artist also was known for his pornography-inspired “X-Rated” paintings from the early '70s. “He had an exhibition of really quite shocking paintings at a museum in New York,” says Griffin. “He really held nothing back in terms of sexually explicit content and also this aesthetic opulence that comes through in his work. These paintings are really beautifully colored; the bedsheets and curtains against which these copulating couples are laying, they're just as arousing as the figures against them.”

The retrospective also includes works from Copley's “Noun” paintings that showed “simple objects painted against vibrant backgrounds,” as a response to Pop art, similar to what Andy Warhol was doing with soup cans and soda bottles. “This was Copley's way of bridging the gap between these movements [Surrealism and Pop art], picking out the everyday objects and in a sense making them strange again.”

Several of the paintings deal with flags, and not just the American flag. “There's a flag of France that has three wine bottles, and a flag of Great Britain that has a silhouette of an umbrella against the Union Jack,” says Griffin. Some of the flag works were political and anti-war, created during the Vietnam War. “One of them is a United States flag with, instead of the stars, it says 'think.'”

There are a few unintentional surprises in the exhibit, including all six of the SMS (Shit Must Stop) portfolios. “That was his kind of late life economic folly,” says Griffin. “It was hugely well intentioned and hugely economically unsustainable. He and a friend produced incredibly lavishly made editions by artists, many of them his famous friends around the world.” The idea was that the everyman would, for the price of a $200 subscription per year, be able to collect art by famous artists. “But he would invite friends, people he didn't know very well, to contribute. So, when you look through these [portfolios] now, there's a real surprise of an artist that was included.”

Copley continued to collect art until the late '70s, when one of his five divorces forced the sale of a great deal of his collection. “I think it was a relief to him in a way.” At the time, the $6.7 million price tag was the highest total for a single owner's collection in the United States, and included Man Ray's image of large red lips floating above the landscape.

As a fitting companion to the exhibit, The Menil Collection's Surrealism galleries are displaying 11 pieces from Copley's collection, including paintings, drawings and sculptures by Wifredo Lam, Jean Tinguely, Man Ray, Max Ernst, André Breton and René Magritte.

There's a panel discussion with curators Kamps and Germano Celant and exhibition catalog contributors Alison Gingeras and Jonathan Griffin at 7 p.m. Friday, February 19; and an artist's conversation with local artist Trenton Doyle Hancock, publisher Dan Nadel and Kamps ("Copley, Comics, and Alternative Figures in American Art") at 7 p.m. Monday, February 29.

“William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY” opens February 19 and continues through July 24, at The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross, open Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., 713-525-9400, menil.org. Free.

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