PRINT January 2004

Irving Blum

Throughout our relationship, Coplans had a bulletproof bullshit detector. He was astonishingly direct about every issue. Not only that, but he could give voice to his feelings, which is rare. If he saw something he didn’t like, he not only told you he didn’t like it but rationally explained why. John also had an amazing clarity. I remember when I had the Warhol Soup Can show at Ferus in 1962. It was greeted mostly with either indifference or outright hostility, but John came in and spent a bit of time with the paintings. I could see that he was involved with the work, and so I left him standing there, looking. After a while—after quite a long time, as I recall—he walked back to see me in my office and blandly said, “You’re going to buy all these, aren’t you?” It was an idea I was entertaining but hadn’t really articulated. So I said, “Well, I’m going to try and keep them together.” And I called Andy, who said they were conceived as a series and he’d love for me to keep them together. Nobody other than Coplans saw that. Nobody else came even close to seeing that.

After that, we became very friendly. I was enormously grateful to him for corroborating the little bit of activity that I was engaged in at Ferus. And I did everything I possibly could to persuade Artforum to relocate to LA from San Francisco: There was no criticism in the city until Artforum came down. The artists recognized this immediately. John would have the most extended and lively, fascinating dialogues with Jim Turrell, with Larry Bell, with Bob Irwin. He was able to give voice to what they were doing in ways that often astounded the community of artists in LA. Having seen the Soup Cans, for example, he made one connection after another and very soon hit on the idea of seriality, about which he organized a show at the Pasadena Art Museum. That was a very big idea that hadn’t been explored until John laid it out. But because he always spoke his mind, artists adored him on the one hand and were leery of him on the other. It was not love-hate but love, because of his clarity, coupled with a kind of hesitation.

John was often misunderstood, though. The saddest example involved the opening of the Pasadena Art Museum. John was curator there, and the person with the biggest influence was a trustee, Robert Rowan, who had asked Alan Solomon, then teaching at UC Irvine, to do a show about American painting. Alan agreed and they signed a contract. As he spent more time in California and got to know a number of the artists, however, Alan felt it was too unwieldy—he couldn’t include friends he’d made out here. So he went to Rowan three months before the opening and said, “I cannot do an American painting show. It’s got to be a New York painting show. We have to change the title to New York painting.” Which is what they decided to do, until John said to Rowan, “It’s impossible to open a museum here in California and do only New York painting. I will do a parallel California painting show.”

Now, Alan had all the money. Alan had the expensive catalogue. Alan had the lion’s share of the space—and so the West Coast people never looked more provincial. And they blamed John Coplans. They were incredibly critical of John, so much so that I think he was forced to leave the state. They never bothered to find out why there was a secondary California show or why it looked the way it did. They crucified John for having done it, when it was John who had felt that there had to be West Coast representation.

But the guy was chameleonlike. He had the ability to change careers. I think he started out as a contractor, refitting houses in England before trying his hand at sculpture and then painting—he made these geometric relief paintings. Then he turned to criticism, then curating, and then finally became a rather celebrated photographer, totally focused on his own activity, totally committed to photography. And not so many leave as important a legacy in photography as John has left. He found his niche and exploited it and drove it home. He was dogged. Not only bright but dogged and, in the end, terribly successful. The guy was a force. The world is somehow less engaging without his presence.

Art dealer and collector Irving Blum was formerly a partner in Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, and in Blum Helman Gallery, New York.