1919  Born in New York City, educated at Phillips Academy and Yale University.

1942-46 Military service in Africa and Italy.

1947-48 Directs Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, CA (with John Ployardt).

1947 Begins to paint.

1951 Moves to Paris.

1963 Returns to New York City.

1980 Moves to Roxbury CT to paint, spending winters working in Key West, Florida.

1992 Moves to Key West, Florida full-time, where he lives until his death.

1996 Dies from complications from a stroke.

Early Life

William Nelson Copley was born in New York City in 1919. He was found on the doorstep of the New York Foundling Hospital at the tail end of the Influenza epidemic, which likely killed his parents.  In or around 1921 he was adopted by Ira C. and Edith Copley and taken home to Aurora, Illinois. The elder Copley, a utilities magnate, had had several runs for Congress and began purchasing newspapers in Illinois and later in Southern California. A few years after the adoption took place, Edith Copley died and Ira Copley remarried. When Bill was ten years old Copley moved his family to Coronado Island, California just across the bay from San Diego.

Bill was a sickly child and missed a lot of school. He read a lot to keep up and was later sent to Phillips Andover and Yale.

Paul Cummings: How did you like Andover?

William Copley: I hated it. I didn't like Yale very much either because I didn't feel I had any choice in the matter. My father was of the class of 1887, was always having reunions and was a very strong personality. And he felt that I should be a Yale man. So I was at Yale for three years and was a very bad student. And had one art course which was on Saturday mornings. Which was the only class I had on Saturday morning, so I never saw any art. You know, they turn out the lights, start the slides, and I'd sleep it off.

I got drafted very early. The Army and Yale sort of talked it out and thought it was the best solution to the whole thing. I had a few months to go when the war broke out. So I was actually in the Army almost four years. I was overseas most of the time.

PC: What did you do?

WC: Well, I started off in an anti-aircraft outfit. And then I managed to break my arm and I got put in an MP company. And that bored me so much I volunteered for combat and got sent to Italy. And finally got rotated home because I had gone overseas so early and I had been drafted so early. So I got rotated home and got out of the Army. But I never, never looked at a picture in my life until I was out of the Army. And when I got out of the Army I didn't know what to do with myself. I first got mixed up in politics, which I found rather boring.

(William Copley at Andover.)

When Copley returned to California he began working as a reporter on his father’s newspapers. He was supposed to start at the bottom and learn the business with his brother, James. The two Copley sons differed in almost every way. Copley joined the Communist party and James preferred the John Birch Society. Politics ultimately severed their relationship. It was about this time (1946) that Copley met and married Marjorie Doris Wead, the daughter of a test pilot for the Navy whose family summered in La Jolla, California where they came to know the Copleys. Doris’ sister was married to John Ployardt, an artist who was working at the Walt Disney studios as an animator and narrator.  The two became fast friends and it was Ployardt that introduced Copley to painting, and in particular, Surrealism. They traveled together to Mexico and later to New York to look at art, meet artists and generally submerge themselves in Surrealist ideas. They hatched the plan to open a gallery to exhibit Surrealist artists in Los Angeles and began to work toward that goal.

Becoming a Gallerist and Collector

Copley and Ployardt tracked down Man Ray, who was living in Los Angeles at the time. 

“We aroused him one morning just before noon and were told through the door to come back at a more decent hour.  Later, after he had shaved and dressed, he seemed grudgingly glad to see us.  I think he was touched by our youth and lunacy and our homage.  He was suspicious though, until he realized the extent of our lunacy and the abjectness of our homage.  He let us in. ...After the nervous social preliminaries described, he accepted to show with us and the condition of ten per cent guaranteed purchase...He reflected his gratitude by providing us with an introduction to Marcel Duchamp.”1

Man and his wife Juliette remained life long friends of Copley’s, both in the United States and in Europe.

The artist developed a particularly fertile friendship with the entrepreneurial scion of the Copley newspaper chain, William Copley, whose gallery became a locus of avant guard art in Southern California. To Be Continued Unnoticed opened at the Copley Gallery in December 1948 with an impressive display of works including the debut of the Lips that had been smuggled out of Nazi-occupied France and delivered with Le beau temps to Man Ray in his Vine Street Studio. 

Upon Man Ray’s introduction, Copley and Ployardt went to New York to meet with Duchamp. Duchamp took to the two and opened more doors for them. They met many people in New York including Julien Levy and Alexander Iolas, dealers involved in showing Surrealism. In 1948 the two opened The Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, California. They showed Magritte, Tanguy, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Matta and Max Ernst in that order. 

PC: How did you get the idea to start the gallery?

WC: I don't know.

PC: Because there were not very many galleries in California at that time.

WC: There was none. It was absolutely folly.

PC: This was in Los Angeles.

WC: In Beverly Hills. And it happened I guess over a lot of beer and things like that. Both my brother-in-law and I were terribly excited about Surrealism and felt that - and it was just beginning to be presented in New York, and we felt we wanted to try it there. And I must say it was a wonderful experience because you lived for a solid month with a room full of Tanguy's. And then you lived for a solid month with a room full of Magritte's. And the process of osmosis was quite something . And the Max Ernst show was actually the first retrospective ever held of Max's.

PC: Oh, really?

WC: ... we had over three hundred pieces....I started collecting at that time really because ... I guaranteed ten percent sales. ... I would buy ten percent of the show myself. Which turned out to be the basis of my collection. I could make up what I lost on the gallery by selling one picture. 

It was at this time that Copley began painting. He rented a studio in Beverly Hills and set up an easel. He had long been a devoted reader and writer and often said he began to paint as a means of improving his writing. He believed that artists had to be poetic as much as poets had to be visual. He was continuing to write for his family's papers as often as he could, and some of his articles were published.

(William Copley circa 1951 with some of his earliest painted works.)

Copley remembered the feeling of Los Angeles during those years: “As Man Ray once said, there was more Surrealism rampant in Hollywood than all the Surrealists could invent in a lifetime.”1  But Los Angeles was not ready for Surrealism.  Except for a few, the extraordinary shows launched at the Copley Galleries went unappreciated.

“Except from the kids. A lad of about nine or ten wandered in one day and spent a long time looking at the [Max Ernst] pictures.  Maybe he was the one who sold us the bird.  I don’t remember.  The next day he came back with a friend and they both spent a long time looking at the pictures.  Then there were four of them.  Their numbers seemed to double everyday.  They didn’t laugh or horse around.  They looked quietly, seriously, profoundly mesmerized by the fantasy of Max Ernst.  It was a mini version of the success we’d dreamed of.”2

Copley learned years later that one of those kids had been the young Walter Hopps, future creator of the Ferris Gallery in Los Angeles and Curator at museums such as the Corcoran Museum in Washington and the DeMenil Museum in Houston. Copley and Hopps became close friends and allies as adults.  

Nevertheless, the gallery was slated to close.

“It was time to listen to the lamentations of the bookkeeper.  His evidence could not be refuted.  What the venture had cost in terms of rent, maintenance, salary, printing, postage, packing, shipping, insurance, liquor, and money suddenly was staggering.  If we’d had business heads, we’d never have dared the project in the first place.  There was nowhere further to go.  No one wanted to buy our pies.  In that sense we’d paid the price for the education.” 3 

Copley closed the gallery and moved to Paris in 1949-50. He left behind his wife and two young children, Billy and Claire. He sailed from New York with Man Ray and his wife Juliette and a new girlfriend, the artist Gloria de Herrera. Marcel Duchamp saw the group off in New York. The three men would remain very close until their deaths. 

(L to R: Man Ray, Juliet Browner, William Copley and Marcel Duchamp.)

Once in Paris he continued to paint feverishly. His relationship had ended and he was a young man living alone in Paris. Gradually the artists who had left Paris during the war returned and the life became more social and more supportive. Unwittingly he had begun to build one of the world’s great Surrealist art collections, which ultimately included some of the icons of surrealism like Man Ray’s A l’heure de l’Observatoire-Les Amoureux – the image of Lee Miller’s lips floating above a nighttime landscape. 

Copley spent most of the 50’s and early 60’s living and painting in and around Paris. Somehow his work remained completely American and totally personal in its imagery and content. His cartoonish imagery was linked to American and Mexican folk art and fit right in with the POP movement in America when he returned to New York in the early 1960’s.

WC: I had no technique, except what I would discover myself. And mostly I worked in complete isolation, and I worked for long hours. And actually didn't get to show until after three or four years. So I was a sort of social hanger-onger. At that time I wasn't formally a painter in the sense that I was being shown. That came a little later.

In 1953 Copley married Noma Rathner (nee Norma Ratner) and set up the William and Noma Copley Foundation with funds he inherited from his father. The foundation had a board of contemporary artists and musicians as an advisory board and gave small grants to artists and musicians. Marcel Duchamp was also an Advisor. The English artist Richard Hamilton designed and executed a series of publications for the Foundation and became a close friend.

The years in Paris were full of joy and work for Copley. He lived outside of Paris in Longpont-sur Orge, and built a studio overlooking the gardens. He was a frequent party giver and a solid patron to scores of artists. In 1961 he was given an exhibition by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and they became the first public institution to add a Copley to their collection.            

Returning to New York in 1963 Copley fit right in with the younger pop art scene swirling around in New York.  Artists like Andy Warhol, Christo, Roy Lichtenstein and many others were frequent visitors at Copley’s studio on Lower Broadway.  There was a high energy in the art scene in New York at the time and Copley was renewed and refreshed by it

PC: ... Have they in any way ... tied you in with the Pop people? Because of your interest in...using the newspaper cartoon and telling stories in series.

WC: No, actually I never have been accused of it. I feel personally every artist ... should keep his mouth shut. Because I don't think it ever matters who did does what first. But I [was] involved in this in Paris for quite a while privately. But I've never been officially associated with it, I don't think.

PC: ... Are you interested in Pop art? ...

WC: Well, I think I always have been. ...the big difference I think between British Pop and American Pop, [was] that British Pop came out of the deprivation, the war years, [and] suddenly there was affluence again.

PC: They could buy butter and washing machines.

WC: Yes, and big ads.... And I think American Pop was quite the opposite. I think American Pop was almost a kind of self-disgust. At least it was satire.

Copley’s work drew heavily on satire, and on humor. In particular he focused his humorous views on his own understanding of differences and challenges between men and women in romantic and sexual relationships. The humor of the surrealists is not the key element that people usually focus on. For Copley it was a wellspring. With the Surrealists, Copley found a community with whom he could be entirely himself:

WC: first contacts with the Surrealists were Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Marcel, who I think are the three greatest humorists around, you know. Marcel's humor is one kind of humor. Max's is another. And mine is another. And my humor applies to the, what I like to say is the battle of the sexes: Sort of the impossibility of men and women to get together no matter how much they would like to. Yes, yes, there's difficulty there you know. I don't know, it just happens to be the way I feel. I don't think about it very much. But I never seem to be able to come up with anything's definitely true that some things are funnier in English than they are in French and vice versa. I mean Duchamp was very well aware of this. Certain of his puns are totally untranslatable. Or they may be translatable but they still don't have the impact in translation because there'll be a nuance, a nuance or maybe just through French usage that will not translate or will be not come across. 

(L to R: Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Man Ray. Photographed at the 1966 William Copley retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum. The four here are pictured holding exhibition catalogues.)

Relationship with Marcel Duchamp 

Copley's relationships with the surrealists were some of the most important and formative on his development as a person and an artist. He remained close friends with Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Max Ernst, and of course Marcel Duchamp. Marcel Duchamp died on October 2, 1968. He had been living primarily in New York since Copley met him in 1947. Copley was a frequent visitor to Duchamp's studio on Fourteenth Street once he returned to New York after his years in France. Upon Duchamp’s death The William and Noma Copley Foundation (later the Cassandra Foundation) gave Marcel Duchamp’s last work, “L’Etant Donnes” to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it is still on view.  Copley had been one of the few people who knew that Duchamp was working on such a piece, and a major supporter of the work. William Copley’s moving obituary of Duchamp that appeared in the New York Times on October 13, 1968 reflects the importance that Marcel had in his life: 

BECAUSE I knew him, I find it inconceivable to speak of Marcel Duchamp as no longer living. For those who missed the point of his greatest statement, he has not been among them since he officially ceased painting years ago.  Though he did not die that long ago he did define eternity, and he entered immortality at the time he left the easel and took art with him into creative life.

Had he been unwilling to share the experience, this would have been a fulsome obituary- and this is not an obituary.

If Marcel Duchamp ever dies, his Phoenix Rrose Selavy (a name having endless possibilities of punning transformation) mushroomed from the remains of a past he unshrouded when he inked in a moustache on the Mona Lisa, creating for himself and all of us a present in which the nouns “art” and “poetry” are forged into a single word.

The word was lying around for a long while, and it should not be suggested that he invented it.  He was the first to discover how to articulate it, and the word is Yes.

“…Art may be bad, good or indifferent, but whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.”

Or: “There is no solution because there is no problem.” This was his way of saying “Yes” to the universe, the galaxies, the magno-microcosms, the explosions, the implosions, nature.

I like to think that hearing him say this with his own lips once saved my life.  This may be mere sentimentality but I gladly risk saying it.  Isn’t the universe too grandiose, or don’t the movements of the stars lack time to hear us therapeutically?  Can vastness tolerate something as ridiculous as a solution?

Later it became “Yes” and “Chess” (fun and games with the laws of chance).  Like Mallarmè, he recognized the implications of a single throw of the dice.  Like Lautreamont he saw the beauty of mathematics.  The Large Glass penetrates considerably beyond these implications to “canned chance” or “meta irony”. 

Freedom, wherever it may lead, was the revelation of his phoenix.  Marcel Duchamp was long since with the Milky Ways.

(Published in the New York Times, October 13, 1968.)

Copley reflects on Duchamp's role as mentor:

PC:  Yes, well, you got to know him very well then, didn't you? Duchamp?

WC: Yes, we were very close friends.

PC: Did you play chess with him?

WC: I never dared play with him. It was always too much of a disgraceful experience to be beaten so badly. I would lose all self-esteem. And I never had patience for chess actually. And when I finally decided to give it up, there are two things I gave up in my life and both of them made me happy. I gave up chess and I gave up photography.

PC: Oh, I didn't know you were interested in photography.

WC: I really wasn't, you see. I was trying to make myself interested in it. One time I was standing in front of a Greek temple, and I had forgotten my camera. And I was so relieved. I said, "My God, I can look at this thing." So I got rid of all my cameras and have never taken another picture.

PC: ...Well, what, how would you describe Duchamp? Since you knew him for long time. What kind of person was he for you?

WC: Well, I would have to say a saint, you know. He was certainly the most important person I've ever known. He was a person who knew how to live more than anybody else. He knew how not to worry, how not to be upset. He knew how to get through life pleasantly. Nothing was problem for him. And I don't want to quote myself on things I've written. I always needed to see Duchamp, say, every three months if possible. Because I'd always come away with a stronger feeling about myself. He could somehow inject you with confidence and make things that seemed to be disturbing be ridiculous.

PC: In what way? You know, that's a magical quality to have.

WC: Well, it was magical. It had to do with his philosophy that he himself was able to live by so well.

The Letter Edged in Black Press & S.M.S. 

(S.M.S. Issue No. 1)

In 1967 Copley, now divorced from his second wife, Noma, met an artist named Dmitri Petrov. After much drinking and talking the two decided to publish a portfolio of multiples produced exactly to artists’ specifications and with the highest quality standards. The company they founded was called The Letter Edged in Black Press and they called the venture S.M.S. (“Shit Must Stop”). The Letter Edged in Black Press published six volumes which can be seen elsewhere on this website. The venture made works of art by talented artists, both well known and emerging, accessible to a large number of people and provided them the exciting experience of participating in a serial art subscription service.  

WC: There again, it came the way the gallery came, from drinking a lot of beer in the summertime and kicking ideas around. And one day we said let's do it...There were six...And they were meant to come out every two was the idea of keeping the work individual art, you see. We didn't want to editorialize at all. We didn't want any critical comment. I wanted something that would just open up and be full of what was going on.

PC: Like portable exhibition in a museum?

WC: Yes, with no comment. And that seemed to us the best way to do it.

PC: Who was involved in that with you?

WC: Well, there was Dmitri Petroff who was an awfully good painter in the forties and never really painted enough. But he had a very good background in Surrealism and a mentality that was rather close to mine. So that we were able to work together terribly well. And he had spent a lot of time on Madison Avenue so that he knew the techniques which I of course had no knowledge of whatsoever. And then I got a lot of help from the Sherwood Press. And then sometimes we'd just have to shop around till we could find somebody who would do the impossible. We were always looking for the impossible at that point.... And the S.M.S. really had no particular meaning except between the two of us, which was supposed to mean Shit Must Stop. It was a terribly foolhardy venture. I was between marriages and unable to paint, and looking for something to do. And I enjoyed it. The worst thing I feel about it is that I lost a good job. Because I liked it and I liked doing it. ... but I did see a lot of very good young work by young people just through having the magazine. I was quite surprised.

Just before The Letter Edged in Black folded (pardon the pun) Copley remarried for the third time (to Stella Yang) and purchased a second home in Roxbury, Connecticut. He remained primarily based in New York and spent most of his time painting. Their daughter, Theodora, was born in 1972. The couple divorced in 1974. He exhibited frequently at the Alexander Iolas Gallery and then at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in Soho and was included in many European gallery and museum shows. In 1968 an exhibition at the Berlin “Galerie Springer” made him known in Germany. The extent of his recognition in Germany was reflected by invitations to documenta 5 and 7 in 1972 and 1982.

(Tomb of the Unknown Whore installation shot at the New Museum, 1986.)

During the 1970’s and 80’s Copley made forays into hitherto unknown artistic territories: installations (The Tomb of the Unknown Whore at the New Museum), performances and new materials (mirrors, glass, and fetish objects). His work began to emphasize the erotic, even pornographic. These undercurrents of his previous subject matter came into the forefront and the reception in America was mixed. In 1974 he exhibited these works at what was then the New York Cultural Center in Columbus Circle, in New York. The show was titled “CPLY X-Rated” and was treated as a sudden departure from his fanciful images of previous periods. While the American public clearly had difficulty with the material, European audiences were not so uncomfortable and the work was well received.

The Copley Collection

On November 5 and 6, 1979, an auction was held at Sotheby’s, New York, to auction the complete collection of Surrealist works that Copley had amassed over the years. He felt that the collection had become an entity in itself and had begun to “own him." He also had consumed much of his inheritance and needed to raise funds. Some of the most important works of the Surrealist movement were included in the collection and this was the last time it would ever be seen as a cohesive collection. The Man Ray "Lips" (A l’heure de l’Observatoire-Les Amoureux), Max Ernst Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, and Surrealisme et le peinture, Cornell's large Soap Bubble Set and Magritte's Le Survivant  were among the collection. The auction was held over a two day period and dispersed one of the great American modern art collection. Copley's eye and passion for Surrealism was unparalleled, except perhaps by the DeMenil family collection that was later institutionalized at the museum of the same name in Houston.

Later Years: Connecticut and Key West 

(William Copley in Key West.)

In 1980, Copley moved full-time to Connecticut and built a studio there on his property. He spent much time with his old friends Julien and Jean Levy, and Cliff Westerman and Joanna Beale. Due to health issues, he began spending winters in Key West where he socialized and partied and painted with Tennesee Williams and others. He married a fourth and then a fifth time. In 1992 he moved permanently to his home in Sugarloaf Key. His last years were spent in relative solitude with his sixth and last wife, Cynthia Gooch, painting in the living room of their bungalow and puttering around the waters of the Keys in a flat-bottomed boat. When he died in 1996, at the age of 77, Cynthia scattered his ashes in those waters.

 *  * * * * * * *      

All italicized portions are from Oral history interview with William Nelson Copley, 1968 Jan. 30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. The interviewer is Paul Cummings. 

Link to full interview:

Notes 1,2 and 3 are taken from William N. Copley’s memoir of this period in his life entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer.

Note 4 taken from "MAN RAY: PARIS - LA

Presented by the Track 16 & Robert Berman Galleries:

Link to the Obituary that appeared in the New York Times after CPLY's death in 1996:

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