About the Artist

William Nelson Copley (b. 1919, New York, N.Y.; d. 1996, Sugarloaf Key, Fla.) was an American artist active in the postwar period through the late 20th century who is celebrated for his pioneering body of work that vividly explores humor, eroticism, and social critique. Primarily a painter, and proudly self-taught, Copley employed an anomalous figural style in works dealing with a range of provocative themes and subjects, including repeated forays into the realms of sex, politics, and autobiography. Deeply influenced by the work of the Surrealists, Copley pursued a poetic dimension in art, aiming to stimulate amusement, wonder and self-discovery—and he pursued these qualities when such concerns were out-of-step with the dominant artistic trends of his time. In an artist’s bio submitted to the Whitney Museum of American Art in the mid-1970s, Copley wrote, “My style, whatever it is, has to do with discovering myself.” In total, the artist’s visual corpus includes paintings, drawings, collages, sculptural objects, prints, artist’s books and multiples.

With a background as a writer and newspaper reporter, Copley first established himself as an artist in Los Angeles after the closure of the ambitious but short-lived Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, California, which he co-ran with his brother-in-law, the artist John Ployardt, in 1948–49. Having started painting several years earlier, in 1946–47, when he was 27, Copley received early encouragement from artists Max Ernst, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp—friends he made during the tenure of his gallery. Copley, who received no formal training, embraced a primitive painting style which he came to view as capable of being more direct and powerful.¹ Dropping the vowels from his adoptive family’s name, Copley signed his work CPLY and thereafter regularly used the signature as a moniker for his art practice.

The artist’s early work developed from an initial influence of René Magritte, whose method of “assembling images” Copley reconfigured for his own poetic ends.² By the mid-1960s, Copley’s visual language was distinguished by loosely narrative images featuring curvilinear figures (often rendered without faces), bold contour lines, luminous colors and flattened pictorial space. The artist also devised a distinct vocabulary of recurring motifs, which he later described as a “private mythology” of personal images and characters. The male figure in a bowler hat, the nude or semi-nude woman, the embracing couple, the policeman, the sex worker, the automobile, and numerous other elements served as jumping-off points for his narrative and pictorial ideas. At the same time, his work canvassed a vast terrain of literary and art historical references, spanning everything from the paintings of Heironymous Bosch and the Pre-Raphaelites to the poetry of Robert W. Service. His work also referenced, parodied or paid tribute to his artistic heroes, among them Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte and Francis Picabia. With regard to these maverick artists, Copley’s friendship with Marcel Duchamp provided a preeminent source of energizing influence.

Copley held his first exhibition in a Los Angeles bookstore in 1951 and moved to France shortly after, living and working in Paris and Longpont-sur-Orge until 1962. While in Paris, Copley worked in the studios of the legendary Impasse Ronsin and showed at Galerie Nina Dausset in 1953—the first of numerous one-person exhibitions the artist staged in Europe. By the mid-1950s, Copley moved his studio to a property in the nearby suburb of Longpont-sur-Orge, where he lived and worked until moving to New York City at the end of 1962. Copley spent ensuing years based in New York City, Roxbury, Conn., and finally the Florida Keys. Alexander Iolas—Copley’s primary dealer from the late 1950s through the early 1980s—showed his work regularly in New York City and Paris, where Iolas debuted some of the artist’s key series of works. In later years, Copley showed with Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York City and Chicago, followed by David Nolan Gallery in the 1990s. In Germany, Copley’s work was popular among a cadre of dealers, among them Rudolf Springer, Hans Neuendorf, Reinhard Onnasch, Renate Fassbender, and Fred Jahn.

Throughout his career, Copley gleefully rejected artistic orthodoxy, often exploring the comic, literary and personal realms while many artists adhered to the tenets of Abstract Expressionism and its repercussions. A recent assessment by the late curator Germano Celant saw Copley’s “self-narration” as prefiguring similar strategies advanced by a number of feminist and queer artists, calling it “an anticipation of values stemming from the authenticity of experience, something that received no attention and found no expression in the history of art between the war and the 1960s.”³ At the same time, his work anticipated many developments in contemporary art: first with the advent of the Pop Art movement in the 1960s and later with the return to idiosyncratic figuration in painting from the 1980s and new millennium. Copley’s work—along with that of Joan Brown, Neil Jenney, Judith Linhares, and others—was included in curator Marcia Tucker’s celebratory survey “Bad” Painting at the New Museum in 1978. 

Parallel to his art practice, Copley was also a historically significant art collector, art patron, publisher and writer. With his second wife, Noma Copley (née Ratner), the artist used funds from an inheritance to found the William and Noma Copley Foundation in 1954 (later renamed the Cassandra Foundation). Its philanthropic activities included giving annual grants in visual arts and music; publishing a series of artists’ monographs; as well as purchasing and financing a gift of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnés to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1968, Copley launched the Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc., which published the unclassifiable artists’ magazine S.M.S. The magazine ran for six issues, showcasing groundbreaking facsimile multiples in diverse media by new and established artists.   

Major exhibitions of Copley’s work have been held at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1966); Kunsthalle Bern, Bern, Switzerland (traveling) (1980–81); Kestner-Gesselschaft, Hannover, Germany (1995); Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany (1997); Frieder Burda Museum, Baden-Baden, Germany (2012); The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, and Fondazione Prada, Milan (both 2016). His work was included in documenta 5 (1972) and documenta 7 (1981), Kassel, Germany, as well as other important group exhibitions: Pop Art USA, Oakland Art Museum, Oakland, California, (1963); “Bad” Painting, The New Museum, New York (1978); Westkunst, Museen der Stadt, Cologne (1981). Copley has been the subject of recent exhibitions at ICA Miami, Miami, Fla. (2017) and Philara Collection, Düsseldorf (2023–24). His work is held in public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Tate, London; Ludwig Museum, Cologne; and many other institutions. ∎

1. Transcript, Interview with William N. Copley by Florine Lyons, 1974.

2. Diane Tepfer, “Copley, William Nelson,” Grove Art Online, 2003.

3. Germano Celant, “Poetry + Paintings = [I Brake for Blondes, 1983]”, William N. Copley (Milan and Houston: Fondazione Prada and the Menil Collection, 2016), 15.