Critics’ Picks

William N. Copley, Rape of Lucretia, 1972, acrylic on linen, 45 1/2 x 59 1/2”.


William N. Copley

Sadie Coles HQ | Balfour Mews
9 Balfour Mews
June 9–August 27

It is not the graphic sexuality on display that makes William N. Copley’s paintings stunning; nor is it the wry wit or boneless flesh pressed upon boneless flesh—rather, it is both these things combined with Copley’s taste for zany backgrounds depicting gaudy wallpaper, snazzy tiles, and plaid sheets. The works recall the excesses of the flared 1970s, the decade’s highly charged libidinousness and spontaneity. Like Matisse, Copley is interested in the meeting point of the geometric pattern and the arabesque. However, unlike the work of the sensual Frenchman, Copley’s results turn toward the bawdy. Ultimately, he may be in fact closer to another French painter, Bonnard, a creator of atmospheres and painterly intensity, but the American’s canvases are entirely his own.

Although an autodidact, Copley arguably had one of the finest art educations. A self-declared Surrealist, he co-ran a gallery in California that lasted a mere six months in the 1940s; its prescient exhibition program included Man Ray, René Magritte, and Max Ernst. A philanthropist, Copley gathered one of the finest collections of Surrealist works in America and could claim Duchamp as both friend and guide. Although his art draws more from a proto-Pop aesthetic and a kind of American folk realism than from European Surrealism, the latter influence probably allowed him to access an expressivity that a more trained artist would have suppressed.

Titled “X-Rated,” this exhibition brings together a collection of Copley’s pornographic paintings from the ’70s. It intentionally plies genre, but instead of falling into a history that includes Courbet and Currin, Copley’s visual language veers closer to the gangly energy of Popeye and Krazy Kat. His characters are not pretty—nor is his paint handling—and in that sense, compared with those other painters, Copley arrives at a greater realism.