The Life of Forms – The Brooklyn Rail
Henri Cartier Bresson Foundation
John Coplans: The Life of Forms
October 5, 2021 – January 16, 2022
In one of the most instructive passages of Minimum Morals, Theodor Adorno observes that well-made texts are like cobwebs, “the metaphors that rush through them become their feeding prey”: When things start to click with your subject, all that is useful on approach gets stuck there. An afternoon reading The waterfall by English writer Margaret Drabble, she described a real place in England called Gordale Scar, a roofless cave with an inner waterfall, “a beautiful organic balance of shape and curve, a wildness contained within a bodily boundary”. I thought of my current research project on John Coplans (1920-2003). His life and work were very a savagery contained within a bodily limit.
Coplans was a beautifully perverted figure and a major force in the art world of the last decades of the last century in all its fields: criticism, curation, promotion, publishing, mentorship. Later in life he returned to his artistic practice, exhibiting self-portrait photographs of his aging naked body with creditable and notorious success. His posthumous career was respectable, with, at the very least, annual solo gallery exhibitions in cities such as Madrid, Stockholm, Zurich, Bologna, Berlin, Nice, Paris and Geneva, and he had institutional solo exhibitions in museums in Essen, Reykjavik and Amsterdam, among various group exhibitions.
Last October, a retrospective of Coplans’ photographic work opened at the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris. Title The Life of Forms (The Life of Forms), borrowed from the title of the canonical book by Henri Focillon, it was organized by Jean-François Chevrier and Élia Pijollet. Chevrier, the art historian and critic, has since the 1980s written some of the most insightful writings on photography’s changing status in art history, as well as being the most active advocate of Coplans, one of the reasons why this artist’s photographs have been and continue to be more widely known and admired in Europe than in the United States.
The exhibition was accompanied by John Coplans—A Body, a paperback-sized catalog with a much-needed sixty-eight-page essay that details both Coplans’ intellectual history and Chevrier’s long friendship with him. Eleven essays by Coplans on subjects ranging from Robert Smithson (a close friend of Coplans whom he greatly admired) to photographs by Brâncuși, and Philip Guston, among others, have been included. Added to this are two statements by artists, translated for the first time into French, by Pijollet and Jean-François Allain.
By the time I saw the exhibit, I had mostly delved into Coplans’ early years: his family history, going back to the shtetl in Lithuania where his grandfather was from, his illustrious uncles and aunts, many of whom were in the medical field and served in the British Army during the Boer War, World War I and beyond, his admiration and close relationship with his polymath father, what it was like to fight in the rugged grasslands of Ethiopia and the fetid jungles of Burma against fierce Japanese infantry, what it was like to be an artist in London in the fifties, and more. I knew much more about his life than the work, having then interviewed at least fifty people who had known Coplans many times in his life. Chevrier and Pijollet focused on the work and their own memories of him – Chevrier had known him well since the 1980s – and how this intersected with the history of photography. I had a Zoom meeting with Chevrier and Pijollet a few months before, and besides, I was already a big admirer of Chevrier before I had the slightest idea that he had been involved in Coplans and his work. As part of Mick Finch’s Tableau project, which took place within a consortium of art schools in London, Chevrier gave a series of lectures and seminars on the intersection of painting and photography. and of the image form I had watched (it’s on YouTube now) at least thirty times.
The exhibition contextualizes the work as photography, but ultimately has to be seen as an empty race for something in a larger institution. Much of Coplans’ work depended on the large exhibition space. Larger photographs transpose painting and sculpture in the photograph. The variegated surfaces of Coplans’ aging flesh, as depicted in the photographs, offer a frontality close to a painting. He started out as a painter, and you can look at his skin like the skin in the painting, removed and stretched like the skin in the painting. These large works, when placed in a suitable exhibition space, complete this transformation.
My view of Coplans at this point is that of an important American artist whose work was primarily photographic. It can be understood in fragments, which, to be contradictory, in some respects, its limited size is perfect in this regard. Past reviews, life experience, brochures he designed for other artists, add to it. Perhaps the best argument for this work is that it resembles one of Adorno’s well-crafted texts – faced with Coplans’ photographs and ephemera, all sorts of notions fly towards them.
There were already two problematic aspects in Coplans’ photographs. His own ideas about them, both related, having to do with the idea of universality, which is why he says he always ruled out his head, so he could be Everyman, also why he has any printed some in such a dark way, that they pigment the skin, intending to encompass a larger racial context.
He said his work belies classical notions of beauty, but there is also the bookend of modernism itself, further demonstration that beauty itself is a mechanism. Seeing his work in Paris, I thought of Atget, of his photograph of a disappearing Paris, of Coplans who photographed his disappearing body.
An image of which I had no prior knowledge, Hand, Two Panels, Vertical (1988), a little taller than 6 by 4 feet. This is what he describes: a vertical diptych of the outside of a hand, fingers pointing downwards. In the upper frame, the wide area between the knuckle and the wrist occupies the entire frame. My research on the Burmese front during World War II – where the Coplans fought – indicated that it was the fiercest fighting in the jungle, with the most serious parallel dangers of disease. There was no front line in Burma. We were forced to get closer to a harsh and tangled landscape. There were no horizons or viewpoints, as there are none in this image.
The image was an example of the body as cosmogony: the cracked skin, the hair on the back of her hand, her fingers were cracks of lost identities, reproducing in my mind the memory of a hostile landscape forced upon you . One description of the misery of this front was that “Burma during the war was like grass trampled by fighting elephants”. This oversized image that cannot help but be seen up close, the rocks of the wrinkled skin and the hair sparingly sweeping it seemed to compress the elephant skin and ripple the grassland in a single experience.
It is also reminiscent of his art in america feature on the work of Carleton Watkins, the 19th century landscape photographer. In this essay, Coplans describes one of Watkins’ photographs as a “dreamscape of total possibility.” Written in 1978, he seemed to find a specifically neutral visuality in certain photographic skills and attitudes that continually opened up the space of the image, as he had already discovered in some work by James Turrell and Larry Bell, and earlier in the hard-edged paintings. by John McLaughlin, where mystery replaces geometric certainty. He was not immune to a kind of mystical appreciation. In light of this, it should also be noted – unlike Chevrier’s trial – that Coplans took a lot of medication. He developed an attachment to ecstasy as a vehicle for conscious exploration of past memories, his family, and also an idea of being able to time travel through his DNA to the beginnings of the human species.
The dark, menacing vertical mass of the same photograph also echoed my reading of Coplans’ fascination with Andy Warhol’s film, Empire. Coplans once described its effect as “the world turned no more, had no past or future, only an endless present pushed to a mesmerizing extreme”. In the catalog essay, Chevrier comments on Coplans’ acknowledgment of the Campbell Soup series that “he realized that Warhol had paradoxically invented a form by eliminating all traces of invention.” Several years later, Coplans discovered something so simple by framing the appearance of his aging hairy body, either in a single stroke or in a trembling continuum.
There were also a number of upside-down series, such as Upside Down #1 (1992), three slightly horizontal rectangles stacked vertically, with his chest occupying the bottom, his knee, thigh and belly in the middle, and his hand, knee and calf the top, where part of the light background appears. The body crosses it but the frames slightly disturb the continuity of its lines. I thought of this group as being influenced by the non-sites of Robert Smithson, these metal bins where the sculptor deposited rocks or sand that he collected in the landscapes of New Jersey or elsewhere, that he saw his body in these later works as an entropic material dumped into the trays of the photograph framing function.
Chevrier, who joined me, with Pijollet, to watch the exhibition, made the difference between artists who came to photography to make art, like Cindy Sherman, and artists who came to photography to make photographs , like Coplans. To overgeneralize, the difference between a photograph and a picture is that a photograph is a picture that you can keep coming back to, like a traditional painting, it reveals itself over time, while a picture rests on the novelty of its impact. Although there was and is a provocative element in the works. Coplans, according to Chevrier, “was clear about the opposition of image and image”, and again writing about Watkins, Coplans observed the “details which articulate in themselves”.
Incredibly self-aggrandizing, yet oddly humble and not a bit dark. Coplans was a caustic stroller of his own body. A quote sign, high on a wall, read, “So I walk around on myself.” And the hike he did.