New York

John Coplans

Hasn’t every artist, at some time or another, uttered the undying cliché, “In a way, my work”—whatever its ostensible subject—“is always a kind of self-portrait”? This retrospective of John Coplans’ photographs is indeed called “A Self Portrait.” And yet, while the pictures take their maker’s own body as their exclusive subject, I believe Coplans has earned the right to say, should he wish to, that his work couldn’t be further from self-portraiture. In part this has to do with his refusal of the genre’s primary convention: recording, it seems, every inch of his aging flesh, Coplans has rigorously omitted his face, the one portion of the body that is the sine qua non of a traditional understanding of the portrait.

I don’t think this has anything to do with an earnest effort to show, for instance, how the indicia of personal identity may be disseminated across the body rather than concentrated in eyes, nose, and mouth. And almost completely absent is any sentimental recognition of the evocative and lyrical quality of the wrinkled skin of the elderly. The exhibition title, in fact, is an exercise in irony: Coplans shows himself, but not his Self. Recalling his earlier career as a critic and curator, we can see the evident relation between the photographic project that he has pursued since 1984 (when he reached the age, cutely imagined by the Beatles, of sixty-four) and the ideas behind serial imagery in painting that Coplans helped define in a famous exhibition in 1968. In this light, the intention of the works in “A Self Portrait” is clearly intellectual—abstract and systematic—before it is personal and expressive.

Coplans’ eloquent advocacy, moreover, of the nineteenth-century Western landscape photographer Carleton Watkins in an essay from 1978 (the same year Coplans began his first, tentative experiments with the medium) marks him as a topographer and monumentalist rather than an intimist. (This is just as clear in the small Polaroids from 1984–91 on view at Andrea Rosen Gallery as in the massive prints that dominate the P.S. 1 retrospective.) Indeed, Coplans on Watkins’ stereoscopic views of Yosemite might be some other critic on Coplans’ views of his body: “The images are complex fragments, glimpsed bits of nature. Compositionally they are severely cropped. Only in rare instances is there an attempt to give an overview,” so that “the sequence itself makes no sense; there is no implication of an orderly journey.” Coplans’ emphasis on the extraordinary density of detail in Watkins’ pictures, and above all on the sense they give of “a self-imposed task not contingent on outside pressures or events”—something they share with serial painting—just as clearly prefigures his own work.

Coplans works with his body, it would seem, as the most available means for fulfilling a self-imposed task. Yet for all the insistence and minuteness with which that body is mapped, its specificity is always subordinated to the avowedly artistic purposes to which it is put, which is to say that it is treated as raw material rather than as a subject. Indeed, that body is constantly being transformed into what it is not, as it becomes lithe here and elephantine there, as it hardens into stone or, following Isaiah, softens into grass. Likewise, for all the consistency with which this single project has been pursued for a decade and a half, the composing eye—the organ everywhere in evidence but never shown—does not have one constant identity. In this imaginary museum, as Jean-Francois Chevrier calls Coplans’ oeuvre, the artist’s eye can be that of a naturalist or an abstractionist, a surrealist or a classicist; can affirm its affinities with Matisse or Guston or with Muybridge or Stieglitz or the body art of the ’70s, all the while preserving a “redundancy,” as Coplans says in an essay on serial imagery, “that continuously confirms the power and continuity of the creative process.”

Barry Schwabsky