John Rivers Coplans 1920-2003
Memorial Tribute for John Rivers Coplans (June 24, 1920 – August 21, 2003)
Thursday May 20, 2004
The Great Hall,
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
New York City
John Coplans. Serial Figures.
May 21 – June 26, 2004
Andrea Rosen Gallery
525 West 24th St.
New York, NY 10011
John Coplans: Early Photographs
May 8 – June 26, 2004
Per Skarstedt Fine Art
1018 Madison Ave., 3rd Fl.
New York, NY 10021
The extraordinary 18 year span of austere photographic self portraits that the late John Coplans undertook from the age of 64 to 82 has come to a close. This spring 2004 in New York, two exhibitions of the self portraits were scheduled to coincide with Coplans’s memorial tribute, held at the Great Hall of Cooper Union on May 20th, 2004. He might have been pleased. The exhibitions, one uptown of early prints and one downtown of the last series, bookend the final phase of this singular individual’s life in the arts.
Coplans had at times described himself as “an atheist Jew” and didn’t want a religious service upon his death. Instead, he left instructions for his son Joseph Coplans to make packets of his ashes and distribute them, at Joseph’s leisure, furtively, inside cathedrals and temples all over the world.(1) Beyond that, he encouraged those who survived him to simply “go out and have a drink.” And so, Amanda Means, John’s widow, a photographer herself, organized a memorial tribute seven months later at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. Means arranged for speakers’ remembrances to alternate with dvd clips of previously shot film and video footage of John as art critic, artist, and beloved husband. The images and the speakers’ live tributes rekindled his spirit in all its rough and refined detail.
Joseph Coplans, a writer, spoke first. Joseph’s remembrance of his father was full of wry and affectionate observations. A propos the self portraits, he retold one of John’s tall tales with its sly concoction of fact, fiction, wordplay, and imagination. Coplans announced to the adolescent Joseph one day that he had been traveling back in time to visit his ancestors while he slept. The point of the story is that we became human by developing the ability to recognize each other, to face, confront, and negotiate with each other- that is, by standing up. John vowed that he would acknowledge the wisdom of the Ape-ess who had visited him in his dreams. Her presence does indeed seem to lurk in some of Coplans’s photos of his aging body.
Following Joseph, speakers included Michael Kidner (in a film clip), a painter from John’s postwar days in London; Robert Bell, an economist and writer also speaking for the 1960s artist Larry Bell; Irving Blum, the art dealer formerly of Ferus Gallery in 1960s LA; Max Kozloff, a distinguished critic who worked with John at Artforum. Critic Ben Lifson spoke for Brian O’Doherty, who had been Art In America’s editor when it was Artforum’s rival in the 1970s. Next, there was Gregory Allgire Smith, who was on the staff of the Akron Art Museum during John’s tenure; Editha Mesina, John’s first studio assistant; Anne de Villepoix, John’s Paris dealer, who first showed his work at her gallery in 1993, and noted that in 2001 Coplans had received the ribbon and medallion of France’s Officier de L’Ordre des arts et des lettres at a ceremony held at the Pompidou. Richard Calvocoressi, the son of one of Coplans’s fellow trainee Camaronian soldiers in Scotland during the 1940s, having become in adult life director of The Dean Gallery, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art located in Edinburgh, Scotland, recalled the series of coincidences that led to Coplans’s solo exhibition there in 1999. Amanda Means then closed the speakers’ tributes and introduced the moving images to follow on the program.
Group portrait of members of the Coplans studio at the Cooper Union memorial in May, from left to right: Joe Rodriguez, photo mounter; Editha Mesina, studio assistant 1984 – 1994; Amanda Means, Coplans’s widow; Bradford Robotham, studio assistant and estate matters; Jennifer Sawyer, printer; and Ernie
Smith, photo mounter; photograph © Deborah Garwood, 2004
These clips from film and video footage of Coplans at various points in his career were fascinating in themselves. As mentioned, Means integrated them into digitized format for the memorial (assisted by Fountainhead Films). They included a grainy, black and white film of the professorial Coplans lecturing enthusiastically on Weegee’s photographs and films during a Berkeley teaching stint ; a video of Coplans working in his studio during the 1980s with assistant Editha Mesina and then commenting on the exhibition of his work at MOMA in 1988; the artist with his second assistant, Bradford Robotham, who is now hard at work on estate matters; clips describing Coplans’s 2001 award from the French Government; installation shots of the solo show at The Dean Gallery; and last but not least, there was Amanda Means’s eloquent poem and visual love letter of her ongoing memories of John. All this was followed by a sequence of the self portraits alone, unto themselves.
At the memorial nearly all of the speakers mentioned Coplans’s wartime adventures. Coplans had told these stories often to make various points, but also because he relished them. The gist of it all is that during WWII he had been a British soldier serving with the King’s Rifles in East Africa, Burma, and Ceylon. The peripatetic soldiering was something like an armed version of his childhood experience, which had entailed moving between London and South Africa several times.
In retrospect, the nomadic pattern of Coplans’s childhood and military service formed an indelible template. After the war he embarked on an artistic career in London, then emigrated to the US at the age of 40, and established new career phases in San Francisco as a co-founder of Artforum and editor; in Pasadena and Akron as a museum director; and finally in New York as an artist entering a new critical discourse that he had helped shape. When he was finally tethered to a studio in New York after the age of 60, he began to conceive of his photographic self portraits as yet another form of travel – a portal to time travel. By this he meant going back in time. For Coplans, the primordial cauldron of human consciousness was bottled in the body, not the head. He brought out the body’s elixir of archaic, classical, modern, and postmodern figuration through physical gestures drawn from the interplay of life and art.
John Coplans. Serial Figures.
Andrea Rosen Gallery
Coplans’s last series of self portraits dates from 2002. The upright posture of the human body was Coplans’s final pose as his eyesight began to fail and he had difficulty walking. One after the other, 23 works measuring 77 inches x 34 inches overall line three of the gallery’s walls. Coplans’s intention had always been that viewers would decipher the portraits perceptually – by which I think he also meant viscerally – rather than rationally. Part of the conceptual interest of his work, as critics have noted, lies in the way separate photographic frames break the body into sections. Involuntary perceptual responses strive to integrate them. In this installation, for example, the eyes quickly recognize a standing figure that is actually composed of 3 rectangular prints separated by 1″ intervals mounted upon a single mat within a narrow black frame. The kinesthetic impluse then tries to connect the parallel intervals that separate individual figures, but never quite succeeds due to the interruptions. The figures are forever on the go.
Pugnacious, vulnerable, majestic, their animated rhythm recalls themes Coplans had explored in other serial installations. Allusions to sculptural friezes of antiquity, Matisse, or Rodin, marching or dancing in a crowd come to mind. More to the point, this series poignantly conveys the memory of physical strength and metaphysical battles with aging.
In the anterior gallery, a synopsis of Coplans’s roles as a writer, curator, and editor can be found. It’s wonderful to see an early copy of Artforum, with a quote from Coplans’s editorial explaining why the magazine adopted its unusual square format, silkscreened onto the wall. This gallery contains works by artists Coplans had supported at this phase of his life, shown alongside his critical catalogues and monographs. From Ellsworth Kelly to Weegee, Warhol, Smithson, Brancusi’s photographs, Carlton Watkins’s photographs, and the eccentric ceramic vessels of George Ohr, his taste for extremes of earthy chaos and sublime form is evident.
John Coplans: Early Photographs
Skarstedt Fine Art
The exhibition at Skarstedt covers a time when Coplans was experimenting with size and scale, from 1984 to 1988. He had not yet hit on the idea of using seriality in his own work, for all he had written about it as an art critic. His first compositions recall aspects of Brancusi, Rodin, and ancient sculpture in their fragmentation and truncation of rounded form. One of Coplans’s most often reproduced photographs can be seen in its modest actuality. “Self Portrait (Back with Arms Above),” (1984) is a great stupa of flesh topped by two tiny fists. This early print of it measures 28 inches x 22 inches, but its scale is huge. Coplans later enlarged the image for other exhibitions.
“Self Portrait (Three Quarter Back, Hands Clasped)” (1986) when Coplans was 66, is part Greek decathlon athlete and part Degas bather twisting up from the tub. The slightly creepy “Self Portrait (Hands Holding Feet)” (1985) calls attention to opposed thumbs and the infantile reflex of curled toes in its close cropping and clinical isolation. Rather than an art historical allusion, it is perhaps a witty allusion to 19th-20th century theories of human evolution and behavioral psychology.
But the truncated view of his feet in “Self Portrait (Feet Frontal)” (1984) measuring 54 inches x 35 inches, deserves special note. It enlarges life scale by almost a factor of five and evokes Egyptian monumentality. Yet unlike an Egyptian figure in flat-footed profile, this individual is hoisting its body up as if to reach for something very high. Toes clench the lower edge of the composition as they ground the stout, tall pillars of the upraised feet. A metaphor for the body’s roots in the earth, it sums up his work quite well. Coplans’s deep engagement with his own body over nearly two decades gradually became a visual disquisition of his ideas about the human figure in all of its carnality, modes of expression in contemporary perception, and transcendent presence in art throughout anthropomorphic history.