top of page

William N. Copley
Kasmin Gallery

by Jonathan Goodman, May 6, 2024

Southland, 1962.jpg

William N. Copley, Southland, 1962; oil on canvas; 45 x 57 inches, 114.3 x 144.8 cm

© William N. Copley Estate / Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York.Courtesy of Kasmin, New York

William N. Copley, the 20th-century American painter, was a complicated amalgam of a privileged education (Andover, Yale), a busy professional life as a gallerist, writer, and painter, and an original artistic leaning that included salacious, voyeuristic imagery, an affection for cartoon treatments of both high and low themes, and a sense of raw urgency that ties him to outsider art–even if he enjoyed the privileges of the upper class. His usually reductive, schematic art is not notable for a technical advance; instead, it asserts primal feelings simply. But neither can the art be pushed into a corner dominated by simplistic motives.

One would think that Copley’s life in the 20th century would have predisposed him to an intellectual style and content, one in keeping with the tenets of modernism that held sway for most of his lifetime. Yet Copley saw in emotional directness, open desire, and demotic visual skills a view of life that came close to opposing the high goals of modernist art. Despite the privileged terms of his education and social life, Copley worked in a manner that resisted the allure of non-objective art. Instead, he embraced a cartoonish portrayal of suggestive themes, where personal needs and intensities took precedence over abstract concepts like eros.

Dream states, scenarios of suggestive implications, and sometimes political, often enter into his work. In the black-and-white oil titled Southland (1962), six men in prison suits and caps (both with alternating horizontal stripes of black and white), are depicted as increasing in size as the line moves to the right. In the upper left of the composition, a bare-chested woman with a thick wave of hair seems to be peering through an opening fortified with bars. Neither the woman nor the prisoners have features defining their faces. The siren is unavailable to the men, being on the other side of the barred window. 

It would be mistaken to read a deep symbolism into the motif; this is a snapshot of frank desire, whose social critique takes more than a moment to process. But a reading combining allure with the hardship of imprisonment, and how allure intensifies the longing and oppression that is inevitably a part of incarceration, would accurately describe Copley’s scene. We cannot omit the work’s political implications; first off, his critical reading of American politics is well known–there is the American flag series he produced, with the word “Think” where the fifty stars would be. Behind the worldly narratives experienced in Copley’s art, there is a feeling of social pressure, in which the narrative moves beyond symbolism into true social engagement. This may be hard to see at first. but it does exist. 

High romance also exists in Copley’s output. In the painting of affection and emotions, entitled Tristan and Isolde (1970), the two lovers embrace; the woman, on the left, has thick, wavy hair, and wears no top, while her lover embraces her wearing a shirt only and no pants. The back wall is decorated with vertical, slanting yellow and blue stripes, while the floor is also embellished with slanted stripes, this time with a lighter and darker blue. 

Tristan and Isolde, a centuries-old story of ill-fated lovers, has been present in literature since the 12th century. Copey’s version of the narrative is new in its unabashed element of eros, but he is also retelling a story of desire central to romantic Western literature. As happens regularly with Copley’s art, a contemporary exposition of desire suggests something deeper, and maybe darker, than we first imagined. In the case of Tristan and Isolde, it works well, in part because the schematic nature of the painting emphasizes feeling at its most direct.

Tristan and Isolde, 1970.jpg

William N. Copley, Tristan and Isolde, 1970; acrylic on canvas; 60 1/4 x 60 1/4 inches,153 x 153 cm

© William N. Copley Estate / Artists Rights Society(ARS), New York.Courtesyof Kasmin, New York.

Copley’s Untitled 1982 painting is a study of two faceless figures: a woman on the left who is wearing a hat, and a man on the right, in tie and suit. Above each of them is a thought balloon imaging the other person’s head. On the left is a wall of wallpaper with crossed lines, while on the right is a background of brown with straight and slightly curving lines. Desire occurs yet again in this whimsical work of art, which lives up to its postmodern status (Copley’s art is nothing if not postmodern). As happens so often in the show, the intimations of meaning are not easy to grasp. Viewing is an important theme, but we cannot be sure of the significance of the work meeting our gaze. Happily, that adds to the painting’s ability to affect the viewer’s inner life, in large part because the lack of explanation, of specificity, intimates a deeper meaning. Copley’s surfaces are important, but they are only part of a puzzle that is more significant than it seems. Unstated intention becomes a mystery, and then mystery becomes a way of grasping ineffable form and significance, in a way that urges understanding (despite the difficulties of reading the picture!). 

Copley seems to know and not to know what he is doing. This destabilizes his art, but it also moves it into a place where the mystery is genuine. Again and again, the imagery itself could not be more straightforward, but the themes remain suggestive to the point where we must take the picture as given, on trust. Certain themes are consistently evident: there is the bathos of the voyeur, whose wishes come close to getting out of hand. The imagination is both locked in and out of hand. But Copley is also capable of true pathos; the painting of Tristan and Isolde addresses a mythic narrative with genuine empathy. 

That this work was mostly done in the second half of the 20th century underscores the (deliberate) awkwardness of Copley’s art. This period still made use of modernism, but events of a new imagination also are evident. Copley seemed to need both. His demotic flair exists in contrast to schema high-minded in intention. Desire connects the two. For some of us, eroticism may be close to vulgar, it's an open declaration a strange site for someone from Yale to emphasize. 

Copley emerges as the epitome of a sophisticated outsider artist, traversing various spheres with references that oscillate between the common and the high-minded. His imagination, consciously at odds with itself, lingers vividly in our collective consciousness. Thus, Copley stands as an enigmatic figure, defying categorization despite his associations with esteemed artists and the affluent.

bottom of page