...And Stay Out! (1994), acrylic on canvas, 35 3/4 x 48 in. (90.8 x 121.9 cm). Artwork © William N. Copley Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy Kasmin, New York.
William N. Copley: LXCN CPLY opens April 4 at Kasmin, New York
March 22, 2024

The William N. Copley Estate is thrilled to announce the opening of William N. Copley: LXCN CPLY, on view from April 4–May 11, 2024, at Kasmin, New York (297 Tenth Avenue).

The exhibition will explore the artist’s repertoire of recurring imagery and will be the first to center Copley’s development of his signature visual language. LXCN CPLY draws this thread through five decades of the artist’s career, focusing on an intimate selection of exemplary paintings and drawings from the late 1940s through the 1990s, alongside archival material, documentation and key objects relating to the work on view. Kasmin has co-organized the exhibition with the William N. Copley Estate, which Kasmin has represented since 2010.

More from the gallery’s press release:

LXCN CPLY will illustrate how Copley’s practice developed a distinct alphabet of images that the artist repeatedly returned to, even as he explored diverse subject matter and source material. These elements—among them the well-known Everyman figure in a bowler hat and the humorous nude, or undressed woman—often functioned as building blocks for narrative images that explored eroticism, provocative humor, and social critique. But Copley’s use of these images also pointed inward, toward subconscious imagery and the private realms of autobiography and self-discovery. “My paintings are a little like statements, like a poem is a statement,” the artist said.

A proudly self-taught artist with a strong literary background, Copley was deeply influenced by the Surrealists, whose works and social circle he immersed himself in when he began painting in 1946–47. René Magritte, in particular, provided a powerful influence on Copley’s earliest works and several of Magritte’s paintings, such as L’alphabet des révélations (The Alphabet of Liberations) (1929) and Le libérateur (The Liberator) (1947) likely illuminated the ways in which juxtaposing images could, as Copley later described, “open the mind to subtle relationships.” (Copley exhibited both works in his Beverly Hills gallery in 1948.)

In his earliest works, Copley fixated on certain key images that became integral to his poetic language. In Pourquoi Pas (1948)—the earliest work in the exhibition—Copley portrays a young boy being escorted by a lawyer, jailer, and nude woman to a guillotine. The work prefigures, according to curator Toby Kamps, the “symbolic self representation” that goes on to characterize Copley’s inquiries into the social and cultural codes of his time, as well as his own inner desires, fantasies, and fears.

Like the Surrealists, Copley utilized the subconscious as a vehicle for self-discovery. The late curator Germano Celant invoked the mind’s tendency to leap from one unrelated image to another when describing Copley’s work as “a system composed of confusion and fusion that comes close to the flow of automatic writing—produced in a sequential and unconstrained rhythm, following a stream of consciousness.” By the end of the 1950s, Copley employed his alphabet of images as a kind of extension of his subconscious, intentionally improvising with a set of basic elements like a “cast of characters in a play,” as Copley stated. He compared the technique to the principles of the commedia dell’arte, a form of improvisational Italian theater from the 17th to 19th century populated with distinctive stock characters. Copley’s uses of patterning as mise-en-scene, seen across depictions of floors, walls or backdrops, and clothing, are equally imbued with meaning and pictorial experimentation.

As a post-war painter who served in World War II, Copley was sensitive to the tenets of Surrealism, in part as a response to the brutality and absurdity of war. He grappled with mortality through the use of wry, absurd imagery, which curator Stephanie Seidel articulated as a translation of the “threat of violence and death into slapstick humor.” And there is no lack of pleasure in Copley’s paintings. Romantic union and eroticism provided essential themes for the artist whose embracing, occasionally gender-blurring couples (Tristan and Isolde, 1970) and many nudes lounge freely, and play with costume, dressing and disguise. Copley also explores fantasies and fetishes such as voyeurism in early works including Bidealisme (1951). This work announces Copley’s use of the bidet as a key element in numerous works to follow. In Untitled (1957), another transgressive image, Copley incorporates the motif of the dove as a crucified bird, reflecting an early example of the artist’s iconoclasm.

The paintings on view reveal Copley’s delight in combining key elements from his own visual language. Free Sample (1981), which was displayed in documenta 7 in 1982, presents a variety of vignettes drawn, or “sampled”, from Copley’s past works. Mack n Madge (1962) riffs on the format of the full-page newspaper comic strip. Copley had an affinity for the weekly comic strip as a former newspaper reporter and fan of the artist George Herriman (author of Krazy Kat). This painting, realized the year Copley returned to America after over a decade living in France, brings to mind curator Walter Hopps’ description of Copley as “a very real and crucial link between classical Surrealist art and the new American Pop art.” Mack n Madge chronicles the international misadventures of Copley’s recurring bowler-hatted man and female nude from courtship through until their deaths, all the while pursued by a cop. …And Stay Out! (1994), a key work in the exhibition, captures the artist’s strategies and obsessions and brings together a chorus of recurring characters. The painting unites the priest and police officer—figureheads of the church and state—clashing over a woman on a toilet. Nearby, a dachshund, an abiding companion for the artist, sits while doves fly behind the bars of a jail window. In this work, as in so many others, Copley’s poetic commedia comes alive again.

LXCN CPLY is the sixth solo Copley exhibition staged at the gallery since Kasmin began representing the artist’s estate in 2010. Previous exhibitions of Copley’s work at Kasmin include William N. Copley: The New York Years (2020), William N. Copley: Women (2017), William N. Copley: Drawings (1962-1973) (2015), Patriotism of CPLY and All That (2012), William N. Copley: X-RATED (2010). In 2022, Kasmin presented William N. Copley: The Paris Years at Art Basel in Basel.

For press requests, please contact press@kasmingallery.com.

To request a preview or more information, please contact info@kasmingallery.com.