Copley Galleries

William Copley’s eponymous gallery was a short-lived venture led by the artist and his brother-in-law John Ployardt, (b. 1916 – d. 1968). Ployardt was an artist and early animator for Disney who had introduced Copley to Surrealism. Together the two operated the first proper California venue to show art primarily by the Surrealists, exhibiting René Magritte, Joseph Cornell, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta Echaurren, Man Ray and Max Ernst. A modest bungalow on 257 North Cannon Drive in Beverly Hills was converted into a gallery space that would exhibit these six titans of Surrealism. It lasted only six months: September 1948 to February 1949.

Though by no means a financial success, the gallery provided Copley with an introduction to several key artists whose influence played a pivotal part in Copley’s artistic life. These artists were Man Ray, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, who did not show at the gallery but nevertheless provided Copley and Ployardt with major assistance in getting the project off the ground. Operating the gallery would also be the beginning of Copley’s passion for collecting, an enterprise Copley continued for the rest of his life.

By Copley’s own account, the idea for the gallery was financially insensible from the start, which did little to discourage the two young entrepreneurs. Emboldened by their youth, their drinking, (“In those days I drank perhaps more than I do now,” Copley wrote), and a shared taste for adventure, they first approached Hollywood resident Man Ray with their proposal. Copley writes about the meeting in his memoir Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer:

“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. [1]

Man Ray referred the duo to Marcel Duchamp, who Copley and Ployardt traveled to meet in Manhattan at the Biltmore Hotel. Duchamp plugged the two in with New York dealer Alexander Iolas, (who would later become Copley’s primary New York and Paris dealer). Iolas offered artist and lender contacts to Copley and Ployardt, and introduced the two to Joseph Cornell, who agreed to show at the gallery. (Cornell sold them boxes up front at one hundred dollars each). Once they made it back west having made substantial connections in New York, the two went to Arizona to meet Max Ernst on his Sedona property. Duchamp had wired Ernst ahead of time, putting in a good word for Copley and Ployardt.

Promising each artist ten percent sales, Copley inadvertently put himself in the position to acquire many works himself once the shows undersold the guarantee. Among the works he thus acquired were Man Ray’s A L’heure de L’Observatoire: Les Amoureux, (Observatory Time: the Lovers), 1932-1934; Max Ernst’s Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, 1944; and Rene Magritte’s L’Évidence Éternelle, (The Eternally Obvious), 1930. The magnitude of what Copley purchased to make good on this agreement testifies to the limited success of the business, which folded within a year and had to cancel planned exhibitions of Dorothea Tanning, Paul Delvaux and Alice Rahon.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer is Copley’s terrific memoir about this seminal period. It was first published in French translation for the 1977 catalogue of Paris-New York, an exhibition held at the Centre Georges Pompidou, (a show which incidentally omitted Copley). The memoir arrived in its original English for the occasion of Copley’s 1979 exhibition at Rice University. Titled Reflection On A Past Life, the exhibition’s catalogue solely included Copley’s memoir plus an exhibition checklist. There were no reproductions of work.

1979_Reflection_002

Reflection On A Past Life featured the first publication in English of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer”, Copley’s memoir about the Copley Galleries. Published by Institute of the Arts, Rice University, 1979.

There are many unforgettable passages about the Copley Galleries in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer. The text remains the most substantive account of the gallery and perhaps the best example of Copley’s talent for writing, which he honed first as a major in English at Yale then as a reporter for his father’s many newspapers. The adventures of Portrait also make for immensely quotable autobiography: “Surrealism made everything understandable: my genteel family, the war, and why I attended the Yale Prom without my shoes. It looked like something I might succeed at.” [2]

About the closure of the Beverly Hills gallery, Copley concludes in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer:

“We did not know that we’d made unrecorded history. 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]

[1] William Copley quoted from Portrait of the Artist as a Young DealerReflection on a Past Life. Institute of the Arts, Rice University, Houston, Texas, 1979. (p. 9) 

[2] Ibid. (p. 5)

[3] Ibid. (p. 35)

For further reading on the Copley Galleries please see:

Reflection On A Past Life, available from DAP in the US or Walther Koenig Books in Europe.

The Surrealist Bungalow, Jonathan Griffin, East of Borneo.

An American Connection: Letters from René Magritte to William Copley and Barnet Hodes, Musée Magritte Museum, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium.