William N. Copley, Lost Innocence, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 37 × 45".

William N. Copley, Lost Innocence, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 37 × 45".

William N. Copley

The Menil Collection

William N. Copley, Lost Innocence, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 37 × 45".

Over the course of his lifetime, the wayward yet prolific William N. Copley occupied three positions in the art world: those of collector, patron, and artist. “The World According to CPLY,” the first American survey of his work, considers each role in a sprawling exhibition that displays works that were formerly part of Copley’s personal collection alongside his own profuse output of paintings and the periodical editions he funded and published. Presented together, they reconstruct a worldview that is as dark as it is candied, as deadpan as it is expressive, and as infuriating as it is endearing. Abandoned as an infant on the steps of the New York Foundling Hospital in 1919, Copley was adopted by a politician and newspaper magnate and reared in luxury. Shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 1945, the budding collector was introduced to Surrealism, and within months he had tracked down Man Ray, who had left Paris at the outset of World War II and was living in halcyon obscurity in Hollywood. Soon after, Copley opened a gallery in Beverly Hills in which to show the work of Ray and other members of the European expat cadre. Absolute artistic autonomy and a guaranteed 10 percent of sales (backed by Copley’s family wealth) attracted other émigré Surrealists to Copley’s novice outfit. Shows of the work of Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy, as well as friendships with Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte, followed; sales did not. The gallery closed after six months, but by this time Copley found himself in the unusual position of serving as both benefactor and mentee to his new Surrealist coterie.

In 1951, Copley moved to Paris. By this time he had struck the vowels from his name and resolved to teach himself to paint under the nom de plume CPLY. The artist’s early works, laid out in the first rooms of the exhibition, are suffused with a carnivalesque aesthetic and a dopey Duchampian schoolboy humor unleashed in what can appear as unbridled celebrations of peephole voyeurism and the male gaze. Formal and narrative references to artists from Matisse to Francis Picabia abound in awkward, colorful canvases such as Blue Mood, 1964. Satirical political imagery and commodity fetishism seep into the work midway through the exhibition, coinciding with Copley’s move from oil to acrylic. Meanwhile, he begins to refine his pictorial punch with a patterning and flatness that evidences the influence of the American Pop artists whom he befriended and whose work he began collecting upon moving to New York in 1963. Copley’s bright and checker-patterned Electric Chair, 1970, for example, at once riffs on van Gogh’s 1888 portrait of an empty chair and Andy Warhol’s simmering silk-screen grids of empty electric chairs from his early-1960s “Death and Disaster” series. The exhibition also includes issues of S.M.S (Shit Must Stop), a bimonthly art periodical that Copley published in 1968, whose contributors included Duchamp, Meret Oppenheim, La Monte Young, Bruce Nauman, and Yoko Ono. Predictably, the project failed to turn a profit and was shuttered after one year.

By 1979, a nearly broke Copley had auctioned off his art collection for a record-breaking $6.7 million. The Menil family, friends of Copley’s who were already gaining notoriety for the studied eclecticism of their growing Surrealist collection, purchased seven works from the sale, including seminal pieces by Ernst, Magritte, and Jean Tinguely. These, as well as Warhol’s aforementioned Lavender Disaster, 1963, hang in the atrium in the preceding Surrealist galleries as a contextual forward to the exhibition. The restrained nuance of the Menil Collection collides with Copley’s brazen, fun-house worldview—folding the seemingly opposed but equally reverent commitments to the making and collecting of art into one another.

Erin Kimmel