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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
a Gallerist and Collector
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
Man and his
wife Juliette remained life long friends of Copley’s, both in the United States
and in Europe.
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.
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
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.)
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.
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
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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: ...my 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 else...it'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.)
with Marcel Duchamp
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:
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
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
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.)
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
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.
Letter Edged in Black Press & S.M.S.
(S.M.S. Issue No. 1)
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
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 months....it 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.
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.)
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
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 collections. 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.
Years: Connecticut and Key West
(William Copley in Key West.)
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.
* * * * * * * * * *
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:
and 3 are taken from William N. Copley’s memoir of this period in his life
of the Artist as a Young Dealer.
Note 4 taken from "MAN
RAY: PARIS - LA"
Presented by the Track 16 & Robert Berman Galleries: http://www.track16.com/exhibitions/manray/press.html
Link to the Obituary that appeared in the New York Times after CPLY's death in 1996: