PRINT January 2004


TO READERS UNDER A CERTAIN AGE (SAY, THIRTY-FIVE), the name John Coplans probably conjures pictures of a hairy, schlumpy, climacteric bag of flesh. Turning his body into a living landscape tableau, Coplans became an internationally successful photographer over the last two decades by focusing his lens on this intensely personal yet oddly alien terra incognita.

Photography was in fact the third full career Coplans, who died last August at age eighty-three, enjoyed. In his lifetime, the British-born, South African–raised figure never followed the straight trajectory. If it is rare to find an individual who flourishes in a new milieu when most are tidying up the achievements of a lifelong pursuit, “lateness” is hardly a conceit foreign to Coplans’s biography. Indeed, his record is inflected both by the notion of belatedness and by its antonymic partner, prescience. As a curator at the Pasadena Art Museum in the mid-’60s, Coplans was among the earliest champions of Pop art and a vociferously sympathetic critic of the work of Roy Lichtenstein and especially Andy Warhol. (He organized a survey of Pop as early as 1963 and later was responsible for retrospectives of Lichtenstein and Warhol as well as the 1968 “Serial Imagery” exhibition.) But despite his reputation as a curator ahead of the curve, Coplans largely abandoned museum work until 1978, when he became director of the Akron Art Museum.

Coplans’s early museum years are less remembered today than his career as a critic and his long affiliation with Artforum. He was there at the founding of the magazine, in San Francisco in 1962; he followed it, or it him, for sixteen years, down to Los Angeles, then, in 1967, to New York. With the departure in 1971 of Philip Leider, he became editor in chief, presiding over the tumultuous years that saw the core editorial group break apart into a handful of factions. Coplans’s reign at Artforum, coming after the magazine’s halcyon late-’60s run, entered lore long ago as a time of editorial catholicity, with the publication embracing any number of (at times) incongruous critical positions and approaches. But in doing so it mirrored a moment of expanding media, practices, and modes of engagement within contemporary art. Too often the strengths of the Artforum Coplans oversaw as editor are overlooked and undervalued.

To try and take the measure of John Coplans’s multifaceted careers and personality, Artforum invited six people who knew him to offer their appreciations of the man and his work.

Eric Banks