PRINT February 1998


John Coplans

DESPITE EVIDENCE TO the contrary, there is only one John Coplans. His singularity, however, has manifested itself in several careers, most recently as a photographer who, in a ruthless incremental examination of his own body, has seized narcissism by the throat. Now seventy-seven, he maintains that charged restlessness that has propelled him through enough careers to exhaust a platoon. As Stuart Morgan points out in his sympathetic introduction, “In the course of his life, . . . Coplans has been a soldier . . . then a painter; a teacher; . . . the editor of an art magazine (Artforum); . . . a curator and director of two American museums” while reinventing the role of aging enfant terrible. A London publisher has rescued Coplans’ art writing from 1963 (on Joseph Cornell) to 1980 (on Brancusi’s photographs), roughly the period during which American art writing achieved its maturity with the post-Greenberg/Rosenberg generation. To this, Coplans contributed his share.

How does a work of art criticism, a bastardized trade perhaps better learned on street corners than in the academies that now rule over it, survive? Because its judgments were “correct”? Or its mode of address distinguished? Or because the issues that it confronted keep relapsing in the present? Whatever the reason, much of what Coplans has written is still alive and kicking. Why? In his case it undoubtedly has to do with what I can best describe as an irritability to the moment, an empiricism that concentrates on the task at hand, squeezing from it, by strategies deeply involved in the writer’s personality, results that remain fresh even if the subject has got old. Coplans, who is notoriously subject to distraction, since almost anything will catch his full attention, has in a few of these writings (the prose is smooth, the thoughts jagged) performed what some see as the critic’s first task: to give tongue to the wordless, beginning the socialization of new art through language. The influence of these primary responses is underestimated. They formulate, if sufficiently ingenious, an idea that returns to the art to become a durable part of its content.

Coplans’ reputation is that of the avant-garde artist’s verbal twin, running alongside the artist as apologist, groundbreaker, and friend. Curiously, there is little evidence of this in the current collection. The writings from the ’60s are scanty on what people are pleased to call the cutting edge; there are essays on Cézanne, Mondrian, Schwitters, Cornell, and on artists in Coplans’ vicinity (Berman, Turrell, Ruscha) during his California days. New art is covered by two articles, “American Painting and Pop Art” (1963) and “Serial Imagery: Definition” (1968), the latter of which has achieved its modicum of fame.

After Coplans arrived in New York from Los Angeles in 1971 to edit Artforum (he is erroneously credited as cofounder of the magazine on the book’s cover flap), his writings of the decade were on firmly established artists (Lichtenstein, Warhol, Smithson, Judd). As expository writing, several of these essays (particularly those on the first two) remain valuable. His support of new art was directed less in his own writing than to his editorship at Artforum, where, by assembling a group of contentious, gifted contributing editors and by frequently gathering them in a tense salon, Coplans gave an edge to arguments that influenced the posture of the most influential magazine of that time. This brilliant coven was reduced, then replenished in in 1975 after a dissenting letter from his editors on a rather innocuous decision by Coplans provoked a disagreement over larger editorial policies. Among the sequelae was the birth of October in 1976, the year before Coplans left Artforum to pursue a limited schedule of writing (only 24 pages out of 221 were written after 1977) and to devote himself to photography, a medium he and Max Kozloff had increasingly introduced to the pages of Artforum between 1974 and 1976.

What remains? Evidence of an intense eye (see his Mondrian), and of an admirable restraint that never goes beyond the data his perceptions have earned. Some essays have journeyed to their assigned places in the literature. Two contributions are particularly noteworthy: his catalogue essay for the exhibition “Serial Imagery” at the Pasadena Art Museum and an extraordinary forty—seven-page report on the demise of that museum through fiscal mismanagement, trustee arrogance, and invincible ignorance.

“Serial Imagery” was written at a time when a massive paradigm shift in postwar culture overturned the ruins of Modernism. In the few years between 1966 and 1970, Minimalism named itself; Conceptualism, midwifed by language, delivered itself; Pop art celebrated its imperial triumph; the notion of the temporary developed ideological conviction; “site-specific” entered the language; through the gallery’s porous walls distant Earthworks came into focus. Sex and drugs and rock, civil rights and student revolution, charged the atmosphere. You could get an electric shock, someone said, by just thinking. There was plenty of good thinking, and “Serial Imagery” exhibits the hard intellectualism of the best ’60s writing. This isn’t the place to second—guess that remarkable essay (Morgan does so gently in his introduction), which divined serial principles in Monet, Albers, Reinhardt, Louis, Stella, Bell—brilliantly articulated by Coplans in the cases of Reinhardt and Stella. However, in 1968, young Conceptualists were thinking in progressions, set theory, permutations, modular manipulations, logical and illogical sequences, and processes, and this information is absent from Coplans’ account, as is a clear distinction between series (works on the same theme, subject, or form) and serial (works based on systems). But, to his credit, some of what he said could be applied to them. In an aside in “Serial Imagery,” Coplans articulated his empirical view of the critical enterprise: “The task of the critic is not to say which work is good or bad or best; his task is to ask what is there and what is the nature of the experience. Only then, if he wishes, can the critic venture an opinion of its value. In fact, simply to describe this experience is to in some way evaluate it.” This is the exact opposite of much present practice that situates the artwork within its socioeconomic and gender contexts, and frequently reassures itself by reading from ideological predispositions.

Coplans’ long fugue on the failure of the Pasadena Art Museum is a demonic parable on the abuses of wealth and power, as visited upon the curious institution where social ambition, civic pride, mild forms of repression, and a vague spirituality converge under the rubric of public education and delight. Museum trustees of disinterested philanthropy and patrons of bridled egotism fortunately exist. The Pasadena Museum was not so fortunate. The arbitrariness of the culpable trustees in this affair (first among them the collector Robert Rowan and later the industrialist Norton Simon) is exquisitely dissected. What is exposed in Coplans’ essay on the museum’s financial collapse and subsequent takeover by Simon is not just the usual obtuseness and arrogance, but an attitude to the art that has been captured and detained inside the museum walls. The art, even the museum itself according to this account, was included within the parameters of these collectors’ business interests as a commodity for acquisition and trading. The attempts of a succession of mostly distinguished curators and directors to argue for an enlightened context were overwhelmed by the irrefutable rights of uneducated wealth. What Coplans and his colleagues thought of such trustees is made very clear, as is, by implication, these trustees’ view of staff: curious little people vulnerable in their jobs, with an odd passion for this stuff that makes them unreasonable, obstinate, at times disrespectful, people who go on and on about it, particularly in unreadable catalogues, and who don’t know a thing about the real world. The Pasadena example, like the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, has become a benchmark for misguided public service. Coplans’ analysis, for which Artforum was sued by the Pasadena trustees, ends as follows: “Such a conjunction of the activities and outlook of the business world with the disposition of cultural objects, robs the work of art of its true function and makes it into an object of currency. It is the patronage of illiteracy.”

On the matter of literacy, the epigraphs hovering over Coplans’ essays—from Matthew Arnold, Walter Benjamin, Walt Whitman, and Samuel Johnson—give evidence of a mind with wider perspectives than its area of inquiry, as do erudite footnotes that behave with a discretion unusual in that minor art. Between the two Coplans locates some of the most lucid prose of his era.


Provocations: Writings by John Coplans, ed. Stuart Morgan (London: London Projects, 1996), 252 pages.