New York

William Copley

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Through 1980 and ’81, a retrospective of William Copley’s paintings bounced from the Kunsthalle in Bern to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to the Stedelijk in Eindhoven. It was a prestigious circuit, especially for an American artist who has yet to have an institutional show in his own country. It’s not hard to understand the reason for Copley’s neglect at the hands of American curators—the work is simply too naughty, a quality not sought after by public trusts. (I can’t think of one naughty painting in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but there are several in the Barnes collection in Philadelphia.) Naughty art in America has always been a private affair, something best appreciated over brandy in air redolent with cigar smoke. Naughty art is also, in the eyes of what H. L. Mencken termed the Boobus Americanus, the very cornerstone of French culture. Being myself a righteous Boobus Americanus I tend to agree, and consequently I love the fact that the French have claimed Copley as their own from the beginning. His work is dedicated to what R. H. Fuchs, in his introduction to the retrospective’s catalogue, calls an “absolute lack of moralism.” Fuchs likens him to Francis Picabia; I would further suggest Georges Feydeau, René Clair, and Maurice Chevalier.

The first thing one notices about a Copley (or “Cply”) painting is that he absolutely adores women. The second is that he is unrepentantly salacious. There is no getting around what Copley himself has admitted in print, that he has “a very dirty mind.” He also has a very funny mind; and the humor in Copley’s work is a major part of what it’s about. Generously, there’s as much or as little humor as you want to find—or have a capacity to read—but it’s always there. (I don’t think an unfunny Copley exists.) And the clincher is that Copley also knows that a dirty joke can be the source of great art. It was he, after all, who donated the most monumental dirty joke of the century—Marcel Duchamp’s Given: 1) The Waterfall; 2) The Illuminating Gas—to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Copley’s work is, in its own way, rather modest. When he switched to acrylic in the mid-’60s, it became clear that his paintings were definitely more about picture-making than about painting. They are just about as flat as narrative paintings can get. They are also an important notation in the development of pattern painting. Surrounding Copley’s ubiquitous bowler-hatted male and chunky candy female is an intricate maze of an environment as directly busy as the floor of the stock exchange during a trading peak. By now, the figures themselves have reached such pictographic sophistication that they appear archetypal; it is only their repertoire of divertissements that differentiates the couples. Their very anonymity is, of course, the source of their universality, and likewise it is the recognition of their universality that makes them so endearing.

The recent paintings show Copley in top form, wheedling away at the foundations of good taste and correct sexual politics. His randy little couples are as at home in the boudoir as on the tennis court and in the chapel (This Year Give Guilt, 1981, is Copley at his naughty best). Wherever his characters disport themselves they do it with a gleeful abandon which appears sportingly apt for the locale and combatively against decorum. It is, in fact, Copley’s resistance to decorum (in subject matter and composition) that unfailingly animates the paintings and gives them, despite their almost manic repetitiveness of concerns, enduring freshness.

Copley occupies a special niche in American art. He is, again to quote Fuchs, one of the “subversive agents against stylistic dogmatism” and, I think, one of our few grand eccentrics.

Richard Flood