Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dribs and Drabs

Robert Boyd
  • Dream About Mark Flood
I dreamed that Mark Flood had made two animated automata, one a homunculus (specifically one identical to Tejadora by Liliana Porter) and one life size. For some reason, I had to pack them both up in a box. Fortunately, the lifesize automaton was made of papier mache, so was really light. (The rest of the dream had to do with studying a really hard kind of math for a college class and taking a funicular railroad to the top of the cliffs of Galveston.)


Liliana Porter, Tejadora (From the series: Trabajos Forzados), 2009, Pink wool and figure, 110 x 27 cm x variable

  • The Family Fang 
I just watched a movie called The Family Fang, directed by Jason Bateman adopted from a novel by Kevin Wilson, about a pair of adult children whose performance artist parents used them in their cruel performances. It's not bad but not great.



While I was watching it, I couldn't but help think of Hillerbrand+Magsamen, the Houston husband and wife artistic duo who use their own children in their work. Their use of their kids as performers in photos and videos is not cruel, but I've often wondered if as the kids grew into teenagers if they would come to resent it or be embarrassed by it. For example, in the piece below, their son stands in his underwear and breaks plates. I can imagine that at a certain age, that will be an embarrassing artifact for him! In The Family Fang, what the parents did is devastating to their adult children. In the case of Hillerbrand+Magsamen, it may be slightly embarrassing as the children age. But it doesn't seem like the kind of thing that would permanently damage them.

Family Portrait from Hillerbrand+Magsamen on Vimeo.
  •  Swag from NADA
So I went to Frieze and NADA in New York last week. NADA is the New Art Dealers Alliance and they hold a couple of art fairs every year. Printed Matter was set up at NADA, so I bought a couple of things there:


A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) edited by Max Schumann


Bizness is Bizness by Kikifruit

A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) is about the artists' collaborative Colab that was started in New York in the 70s and is responsible for some important institutions (ABC No Rio) and exhibits (The Real Estate Show and the Times Square Show). It's less of a history than a collage of images and texts in more-or-less chronological order.

The second item is Bizness is Bizness by Kikifruit, a zine composed of full-bleed drawings of clowns and sexy blondes. I got it because I liked the deliberately crude drawing and found the drawings funny.


The Pit zine

The Pit is a Los Angeles gallery that was displaying work at NADA. The artist whose work I liked best at the Pit was a guy named Andrew Sexton who made these furniture-like sculptures.


Andrew Sexton

The Pit made a zine that they gave away at NADA.

The Lamb is a London art gallery and they were showing art by a Peruvian artist named Fernando Otero. His art intrigued me because it was installation based and incorporated old-fashioned stadia rods, which were tools used by surveyors.


Fernando Otero installation at the Lamb booth at NADA

The people at the Lamb gave me a Spanish-language catalog from an exhibit by Otero, Ya Nada Volverá a Ser Igual.


Fernando Otero, spread from Ya Nada Volverá a Ser Igual

Packet is biweekly art magazine from Brooklyn that is designed to look like a syllabus given out to students at the beginning of a semester. Every six issues, they are collected into a big packet (similar to course packets of readings for a college class). I got the Packet collecting issues 74 to 79.


Packet, issues 074-079


spread from Packet, issue 76, by Catherine Murray


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Who Doesn’t Like Penises: A Few Questions for Tod Bailey

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

 
 Tod Bailey, Redneck Disco, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 48x60

To promote its exhibition of oil paintings by Tod Bailey, the Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs “borrowed” a few sentences I wrote in a 2008 newspaper article about Bailey. I had to laugh at that tiny bit of plagiarism, my words were hardly brilliant. In fact I was flattered because the gallery owner Ted Casablanca is famous in the entertainment industry. This fellow had a long reign as a bitchy gossip columnist.

Casablanca apparently has vision and guts. After viewing digital images of Bailey’s art, he flew to Houston, spent time in Bailey’s studio and offered him a show, financial and personal skin in the game that marks a committed gallerist. Casablanca seems to share my opinion that the under-known Bailey is an exceptionally exciting painter, so with his Palm Springs exhibition approaching on May 14, I decided to ask Bailey a few questions:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: As long as we’ve been acquainted, you’ve been reluctant to talk too much about your art because you believe the paintings should speak for themselves, and think it’s stupid to explain them or create a narrative.

Tod Bailey: Yea, it’s bullshit to talk about it. It’s just canvas and paint. I go through the process and this is what comes out, a painting, and I feel uncomfortable saying all this stuff. But collectors want to hear something, and some people believe the artist’s words and titles can be a helpful tool, I don’t know.

VBA: Regardless, when I wrote about you in 2008 you stated decisively that emotional distress, pain and fear, inspired the art. You painted haunting representations of the human figure in fragmented forms to symbolize emotional discomfort and the psychically fractured self. The artworks expressed violence and cannibalism, your Medusa painting is an example.

TB: Back then I had crazy shit stuck in my head, psychologically I was a mess, angry about my past and fearful of rejection. I composed figures in fighting and wrestling poses, with contorted faces, real fear and confusion in their faces. But I don’t paint that way anymore. I’ve been evolving and kicked away detrimental and distracting things, and am allowing good things to come into my life, and feel happy now, and I want that to come out in the paintings. I’m not fighting myself anymore and I believe I can see this in the paintings. Those frightening things I used to paint, admittedly that was my true nature then, but all that warped perspective was imagined in my head, it wasn’t reality. I think different now, and the paintings represent that.

VBA: You think different now because you’ve discontinued assailing your brain with excessive amounts of cocaine and booze, bound to exacerbate emotional fragility.


Tod Bailey, A New Primavera, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 99x72

TB: Precisely. I was very sick. But I’ve been straight for two years.

VBA: Although just as vibrant and expressive as paintings from the past, the new works feel infinitely more controlled, more focused, your marks appear purposeful, brushstrokes more definitive. The colors remain intensely sensual.

TB: I am very interested in colors and line and in learning what the paint does. Does the painting feel true? I want to make art that is beautiful. You know that Rumi quote - let the beauty we love be what we do.

VBA: Even deep into dissipation my friend, you can’t deny you painted a few lovely paintings.

TB: Sure, there were some beautiful ones. I actually made many beautiful paintings, very drunk, but the window of open mindedness began to close, and I became stuck in misery, when the booze quit working cocaine helped, then that quit working, so what worked in the beginning stopped working and I spiraled, was even unable to read and retain, which was a horror. I can take from the past what worked and what didn’t, same with the paintings. I’m connecting back to myself, and I focus on what succeeds. Picasso said, “I do not seek. I find.”

VBA: Tod, the way I see it your art was shifting into more lyrical expression back in 2012 when Jay Wehnert organized your exhibition “Some Assembly Required” at Nau-Haus Art. You showed seductively colored quasi abstract gestural and angular figures that were memorable. Say something about your up-coming show in Palm Springs.

TB: My exhibition “Happiness is Freedom…and a Nice Penis” opens on May 14 at Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs, and runs through June 6. I’ll be showing 19 oil paintings all made within the last two years, between 2014 and 2016.

VBA: I’m wondering how good ole boy comportment will be received in glitzy Palm Springs, where you’ll predictably use hick words like “Howdy.” Will they will find you peculiar?

TB: Sure, but I hope they’re attracted to the art. I’m looking forward to connecting to people I don’t yet know, and hope they connect to me, and to my art.

VBA: Will Joe Bob attend your show?

TB: Joe Bob can’t make it to Palm Springs, but my dad is my biggest fan.


Tod Bailey, Portrait of Munch and I in His Garden, 2015, Oil on Canvas, 68x60

VBA: We’ve discussed through the years the fact that you see your university art training as formative. 

TB: I do. For my journalism degree, I studied art and art history as electives. My art history professor was a Yugoslavian woman named Ivana Spalatin, a brilliant artist gypsy who was personal friends with Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell, and she introduced me to their writings, follow your bliss, and that impacted me significantly, to realize I could be part of this beautiful thing called art by which man expresses life, that life and art are integrally linked, and that art forms a continuum, all the eras artistically expressed humanity, and she was so passionate about relating this. It inspired me to study comparative religions and mythology and literature, and to understand bigger truths, which was important for someone brought up in a tiny religious town. It made me want to become an artist. Ivana was living with a graduate student named Conrad Richter, a brilliant painter, a brilliant guy, a real crazy fucker, and he taught me how to stretch canvas, and I learned so much watching him paint. Trenton Doyle Hancock told me he learned a great deal from Conrad.

VBA: Some might be surprised by the extent of your literary knowledge. Compared to most, I consider you an expert on Faulkner.

TB: Yea, I read Faulkner and need to re-read it, that guy was whiskey crazy out of his mind, and still made those beautiful sentences, was so aware of the humanity, the suffering, he wrote of frightening things, poverty, abuse, slavery, people not necessarily enslaved but enslaved in their own families or things they were unable to escape. His characters could not escape their history, their story.

VBA: Describe your painting process. Do you approach the canvas with a set idea, and preliminarily lay it out? Do you first make a sketch? Or is it all spontaneous, like stream of consciousness?

TB: It’s like stream of consciousness, what is called automatism, Pollock did it, Gorky too, he spoke about it. For me it’s more authentic to paint that way. I make plenty sketches though, but not as preparatory works for the paintings.

VBA: Your paintings usually include sexual references, which the gallery obliquely phased, “filled with sexual energies.” Collectors enjoy trying to recognize the painted figures’ dismembered penises and vaginas.

TB: They are often rendered in abstracted form, or hidden, like the triangles for the females, and circles for boobs and butts, but it’s not a big deal, all the painters did it, sexual expression is a primary subject throughout the history of art, so yea there are lots of dicks. Only a few basic shapes exist in the world, a circle, square, cylinder, and triangle, and artists have used them to express human essence since the Neolithic. Sex is how we got here, who doesn’t like penises?


Tod Bailey, Orgy On The Inside, Oil on Canvas, 2015-2016, 48x48

VBA: Comment on art historical influences. It’s easy to detect genuflection to Picasso, de Kooning, even Matisse. You admire Guston.

TB: Of course I use what I admire in other painters, it’s impossible not to.

VBA: Your time with Dick Wray must have been influential.

TB: Oh, I have Wade Wilson to thank for the introduction. Dick was ill, but painting, so we agreed I would assist him part time in his studio. He told me, “don’t be passive as an artist or as a human being, make a lively and living response to life.”

VBA: I’ve noticed that the mythology of Dick Wray bad-assery persists even though the guy was sober for years before his death. One night after he died, I was in a gallery which showed some of his art and overheard an artist nostalgically proclaim, “I saw Wray pissing outside!” He was a prolific painter and known as a dedicated teacher, many would be surprised to hear Wray bought one of your paintings because he never did that.


Tod Bailey, Self Portrait as Harpy, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 72x48

TB: I learned so much from him, loved his work, and his passion for painting. When Dick was dying, he could only paint a short time and then had to rest, and one day he went to lie down and said, “you probably think I’m a pathetic old fuck,” and I said, “No sir, I think you are remarkable.”

VBA: A dying man struggling to paint brings to mind that lovely quote by Professor Elsen, “art remains like an act of love, a potent gesture of life, a fist clenched against death.” Contemporary Arts Museum’s Bill Arning also bought one of your paintings.

TB: Yep, Bill owns “Butthole Petting Zoo.”

VBA: An absurdly Rimbaudian title. I got so excited months back when “Papercity” published that article featuring the interior of David Lackey’s home. Lackey has exquisite taste in art and antiques, such discernment, and there grouped over his fireplace was one of your paintings. You need to thank “Papercity’s” editor Catherine Anspon for that sweet bit of exposure.

TB: That was nice.

VBA: Readers might be interested in hearing about your day job, assisting part time with art maintenance and restoration, for galleries, and collectors. Houston’s fat cats have important sculptures on their “grounds” which require cleaning and maintaining.

TB: I help clean.

VBA: You’re probably reluctant to discuss rich clients’ private art collections. Child, I’m remembering the fun we had in Italy. Don and I were on one of our trips, and you were living there, moved there to follow a woman, and we hooked up and toured hill towns, and Donnie treated us to that elegant meal near Siena, with the prosciutto and melon and figs and those yummy wines.

TB: And this dumbass was too drunk to taste anything.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Rokudenashiko Found Guilty

Robert Boyd

 

As I mentioned last post, Rokudenashiko was to be judged shortly on whether or not she had distributed obscene materials by distributing electronic three-dimensional files of her genitalia to supporters of her crowd-sourcing campaign. According to The Tokyo Reporter, she has been found guilty and fined ¥400,000 (about $3700).
Presiding judge Mihoko Tanabe fined Megumi Igarashi 400,000 yen for mailing links for the download of 3D-image data of her genitals to donors of an art project.
Tokyo Metropolitan Police first arrested Igarashi, 44, in July of 2014 for the distribution of the data. She was arrested again in December of that year for displaying a plaster cast of her vagina in an exhibition at an adult shop in Bunkyo Ward between October of 2013 and July of the following year.
The prosecution had claimed during the trial that Igarashi’s works too closely represent genitalia to be considered art, according to the Asahi Shimbun (May 9). “The shape is such that it is clearly female genitalia,” the prosecution said. “It can not be said that there is a higher artistic quality that lessens its obscene nature."
Igarashi, who goes by the pseudonym Rokudenashiko (or Good For Nothing Girl), maintained that she made the works to remove the image of female genitalia being obscene. “These are art works,” the defense said. “They are not obscene.”
The court ruled in favor of Igarashi in the exhibition of the plaster casts. ["Tokyo court fines ‘vagina artist’ ¥400,000 in trial over ‘obscene’ art", The Tokyo Reporter, May 9, 2015]
This is a disappointing result, of course. I doubt she'll have trouble paying the fine (she has lots of supporters to step up and help her if she needs it), but now she is an official criminal. Presumably she can't really risk distributing any more pussy art. The article ends with a little bit of gossipy news--that  Rokudenashiko is now engaged to Mike Scott, the leader of the Celtic rock band The Waterboys. Scott composed a song in her honor, which you can hear below.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Jailing of Rokudenashiko for Making Art from her Pussy

Robert Boyd


Rokudenashiko and her manko kayak (photo by Eigo Shimojo)

Last year, there was a flurry of news about Rokudenashiko (the pen-name of Megumi Igarahi) who had made a vagina-shaped kayak and found herself arrested for obscenity. I suspect it struck most Americans and Europeans who read about her as absurd—vaginas are not particularly controversial images in the West, where nearly gynecological photos and video has been an element of easily accessible pornography (including Japanese pornography) for decades. Furthermore, we tend to think of fine artists as a somewhat protected class—in the U.S. at least, where in 1973 the Supreme Court in Miller vs. California defined obscenity thus:
The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. [Emphasis added]
(I’ve often wondered if the conviction for obscenity of cartoonist Mike Diana in 1991 was in part due to the low status of comics making it hard for them to be judged on the basis of serious literary or artistic value. Maybe now that the status of comics as art has risen in the U.S.,  it would be harder to obtain an appeal-proof conviction of obscenity for a comic.)


Rokudenashiko and her manko kayak (photo by Eigo Shimojo)

It turns out that Rokudenashiko is a mangaka (comics artist) who has created a book, What is Obscenity?: The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and her Pussy, about her arrest and trial that combines comics, photos and prose to describe her bizarre legal experiences. Her pen name means “good for nothing” in Japanese, and she was a typical struggling cartoonist before achieving notoriety as a “manko” (i.e., "pussy") artist. The book was translated by Anne Ishii and published by Koyama Press.

Rokudenashiko specialized in non-fiction comics, and when she saw an ad for vaginal reconstructive surgery, she thought it might be a good subject for a first person non-fiction comic. After she had the surgery and documented it in manga, she had the idea of making a mold of her manko. She made a cell phone cover out of it and decorated it, calling it a “Deco-man.” A columnist saw it and suggested she do a workshop on making Deco-mans.

The problem was that pussy is quite taboo in Japan. She was accused of being a pervert and a sex addict, and her husband divorced her. She tried to make a living creating manko art, but it was impossible to publicize the work. News outlets were interested in covering her story, but wouldn’t show pictures of her artwork unless the images were pixilated. But a random positive encounter with a fan revived her spirits as did a positive response overseas (a manko diorama was exhibited at an erotic art festival in Seattle in 2012). But her artwork was still being made from the mold she had made, which limited the size of her pieces.  (Note that this book publishes the manga in the traditional format--you read the book from "back to front" and the panels from "upper right to bottom left".)


 Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p. 154

Rokudenashiko decided to create a digital file of her pussy that could be made into a sculptural object of any size using three-dimensional printing technology. She decided to make a kayak with a manko on top because it was a form of transportation that required no license and presumably because a kayak is already somewhat pussy-shaped. But producing a three-dimensional printed object of that size was quite expensive. She decided to fund it via a crowdfunding campaign. As a premium for contributors, she gave away copies of the digital file of her pussy. This is what she was arrested for—distributing three dimensional digital files of her own pussy.


 Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.23

She was arrested and taken to jail. Made to do a perp-walk in front of TV cameras, she got no love from Japan's traditional media, which called her a "so called" artist. As she was lead into the police station and officially arrested, her thoughts were about how it would make a great non-fiction comic story. And right she was! A lot of this part of the story was about Rokudenashiko's unrealistic expectations (formed from watching cop shows on TV) and the reality (the police try to intimidate her into signing a document saying that they had read her her rights, when they had totally forgotten to, and how they told her multiple lies about how much she would have to pay for her lawyer and how they had a scientific committee that had already compiled a report on how her art was obscene).

After processing her, they transport her to a women's prison, where she will be housed until it's time for her trial. Prison in Japan is a highly regimented and totally dehumanizing experience. She shared a cell with four other women who had been arrested for various minor crimes--one was an illegal alien, one had assisted her husband in a burglary, and one was in for a minor assault. Rokudenashiko's crime was so insignificant that she probably could have been released from jail if she admitted guilt and paid a modest fine. But that was unacceptable to her--she didn't think that her manko art was in fact actually obscene. Furthermore, if she admitted guilt, she wouldn't be able to make art anymore.


 Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.62

The best part of Rokudenashiko's manga shows her life in jail. The rigorous discipline and hellish trips to the prosecutor's office and to court helps one to understand why Japan has a 99% conviction rate. Police have an amazing 23 days to interrogate prisoners. As a result, many find it easier just to confess than to fight in court. Rokudenashiko had a large legal team working for her, but many Japanese prisoners don't even have lawyers. She was able to get out of jail after only a few days. She was arrested again on the same charges in December 2014. Her trial for the second charge began in April 2015; apparently a verdict is expected on May 9 of this year.

(This is the second manga I've seen about Japan's totalitarian prison regime. I highly recommend Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa who did three years in prison for possession of illegal replica guns.)

Now the utter absurdity of this incident has been widely remarked on. Japan apparently has a double standard when it comes to penises and vaginas. For example, no one is convicted for participating in the Kanamara Matsuri (aka the Festival of the Steel Phallus) in Kawasaki, Japan. This is a Shinto festival, so perhaps it enjoys protection for religious reasons.


A giant wooden phallus from Kanamara Matsuri (photo by Gulhelm Vellut)

But what about My Lonesome Cowboy by Takashi Murakami? How is this different from Rokudenashiko's manko art? The only real difference is that it is a penis spraying jizz and not a pussy.


Takashi Murakami, My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998 Fiberglass, acrylic, steel, 9.5 feet x 46 inches x 35 1/2 inches, edition of 3

So what about pussies? Can you get a mass-produced pussy in Japan without being arrested? Well, if this page from a Tokyo sex shop is any indication, the answer is yes. So the question is why did they pick on Rokudenashiko, arresting her twice for the same "crime." Part of it is obviously sexism--her manko art is art made by a woman. And she worked hard to get maximum publicity for it, so it was on the radar of the police and prosecutors. The question I'm left with is why is Japan so hung up about pussy? One of the most amusing things in the manga is the absolute discomfort that many of her interrogators have with the word itself. She insists on using it in her official statements and making people read it back to her. She revels in their discomfort because she finds it clearly absurd.


Rokudenashiko, What Is Obscenity? p.82
 
Another question is why was Rokudenashiko arrested a second time? This may have been political. After her first arrest, she started serializing "What is Obscenity?" in Shukan Kinyobi (Weekly Friday), a leftwing political magazine. This is unusual (normally this kind of thing would have been serialized in a manga weekly); Weekly Friday is known for its antigovernment stances on war crimes and its opposition to nationalist prime minister Shinzo Abe. At the same time Rokudenashiko was arrested a second time, Minori Kitahara was also arrested. Kitahara owns a woman-centered sex shop, the Love Piece Club, in Tokyo. She is also a writer who has opposed Shinzo Abe in print. So it has been suggested that the obscenity arrests were perhaps merely a pretext to silence or hurt some nettlesome government critics.

We should find out the outcome in about  week. If they do issue a verdict on May 9th, I will update this article.

Friday, April 15, 2016

George Sugarman Sighting

Robert Boyd

Hey Pan fans--you might remember a post I wrote six years ago about corporate sculpture. One of the things I wrote about at the time was how a large sculpture from 1971 by George Sugarman, called variously the Saint Paul Commission or the Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, had been purchased by commercial real estate firm Grubb & Ellis and dismembered. The firm used the dismembered parts to decorate various office properties it owned in Houston, Austin, and I believe in the Woodlands (north of Houston). (Grubb & Ellis went bankrupt in 2012, so I wonder who now owns all these scraps of Sugarman's sculpture.) Three years later, I happened across a piece of the Sugarman sculpture in Austin. And this morning, as I walked through back streets in Montrose, I found some more pieces of it.


George Sugarman, part of the Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

Unlike the other pieces I've seen, these two were not well-maintained or marked with a plaque. The black struts had bits of blue paint from what I assume was an attempt to repaint the circular elements. But they were permanent--they were bolted to the ground.



George Sugarman, part of the Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

So what did this thing look like when it was installed up in St. Paul? I have found a few photos online.


George Sugarman, Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971


 George Sugarman, Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971


 George Sugarman, Saint Paul Sculptural Complex, 1971

This last photo is quite interesting. It's from the website of Lippincott, a firm that specializes in the fabrication and conservation of large metal sculptures.  The man in the picture is George Sugarman.

Friday, April 1, 2016

RIP Jed Foronda

Robert Boyd

One of Houston's most interesting young artists just passed away. Jed Foronda was only 30 years old. I first saw his work in 2009, right about the time I started this blog. He had two pieces in the Big Show that year at Lawndale. I really liked his work in the show which was made of "excavated magazines" and wood. Here's one of them:


Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning, primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

Now in 2009, I was just starting to look at local art seriously. I decided I really liked The Wheels Keep On Spinning so I called up Lawndale and asked if they would pass on a message to Foronda that I was interested in buying it.

When Foronda contacted me, he seemed slightly suspicious. It was as if he didn't really believe I was serious, like maybe I was a scammer of some kind. So he asked me to bring $300 to a Starbucks near the Galleria on a certain day at a certain time. I met him st the Starbucks, handed him fifteen 20s and he gave me Wheel. I hung it in the front hallway of my Mom's house (and she really likes it).

Here are a couple of details of The Wheels Keep On Spinning:

 
Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning (detail), primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

 
Jed Foronda, The Wheels Keep On Spinning (detail), primer, wood, excavated Artforum, 2009

Foronda has occasionally made an appearance in this blog--see this post, this post and this one. Thirty is a cruelly young age for anyone to die. I know Foronda was well-loved by many, and my greatest sympathy goes out to his family and friends.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Art's Greatest Whoremonger

Robert Boyd

William N. Copley is the subject of a major retrospective the Menil Museum called William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY curated by Toby Kamps.

In Linda Nochlin's classic essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", she also asked "Why have their been no great artists from the aristocracy?" Obviously the relationship of the aristocracy to art is strong--the aristocracy were the primary patrons of art for a good portion of human history (and in some circles remain so today), but for a variety of reasons, they haven't been the makers of art. And why not? They would be blessed with the time and wealth necessary to support such a career if they chose to pursue it. But she concludes that there are certain social situations--economic, familial, in terms of academic support--that mitigated against this, just as they mitigated against women art practitioners. She points out that there is no inherent reason why an aristocrat can't be a great artist any more than there is that a woman can't be--to claim otherwise would be to say that the spark of genius never occurs in aristocrats or women.

William Copley was an aristocrat in the American sense. He and his brother were adopted by the Copley family and raised to be heirs to this utilities/newspaper fortune. His adoptive father had made a fortune in utilities in Illinois (and served as a U.S. Congressman). Ira Copley and his wife Edith had tried unsuccessfully to have children; three died in infancy before 1910. So they adopted James Copley then William Copley shortly thereafter. The family moved to San Diego when William was about 10 years old where Ira Copley bought San Diego's two leading newspapers, the Tribune and the Union, and merged them into one powerhouse. For readers under 40, it may be hard to imagine just how important newspapers were in the 20th century. I think they were the most important mass medium of the century, more important than film or television or radio. They had real power, and their owners were among the most powerful people in the U.S.A.

Copley was at Yale when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. He was drafted early and served in North Africa and Italy. Ira Copley died shortly after the war and left his two sons equal shares of the Copley Newspaper business. The idea was that both men would run the newspapers, but they had a falling out over politics. William was left-wing while James (like his father) was a staunch Republican. William sued James in the mid-50s to force him to buy him out of his partnership. (James's papers would subsequently be a major force in California Republican politics, and James Copley was one of Richard Nixon's major backers.)

Copley had gotten interested in Surrealism in the late 40s and met Man Ray, who was living in Los Angeles, in 1947. Copley eventually met all the major surrealist artists and built up an extensive personal collection of their work. In this regard, he was fulfilling his socially accepted role as an aristocrat, being a patron of the arts. But in 1947, he started painting. He got encouragement from his surrealist friends.


William N. Copley, Portrait of Marcel, 1951, oil on canvas, 44.8 x 37.1 cm

Copley's 1951 portrait of Marcel Duchamp is highly atypical of his work. Most of his figures have a minimal amount of detail and the faces are often completely blank. Copley's focus on Duchamp's wrinkly face marks this to my mind as a highly personal work. Perhaps Copley wanted to get it right as a tribute to an important mentor. According to Copley, Duchamp encouraged his painting. Copley called Duchamp, "My best friend." On painting, Copley wrote of Duchamp,
He taught me all I needed to know about painting; that painting was a thing to do. ... When I finally had an opportunity to show him what I did, he told me only that I should continue. That was enough to dedicate me to work.
From their meeting in the late 40s until Duchamp's death in 1968, Copley financed many of Duchamp's activities--a monograph and a catalogue raissoné, a new edition of the Box in a Valise, a reconstruction of The Large Glass (by English artist Richard Hamilton), and Copley bought Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage . . .  (which Duchamp showed to him in 1966) for $60,000 ($438,000 in 2016 dollars) on the condition that he give it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Duchamp had been working on it in secret since the 1940s.  That work demonstrates a connection between the overt eroticism of much of Copley oeuvre and Duchamp's own eroticism. In fact, Duchamp composed a dirty poem about his friend:
There was a painter named Copley
who would never miss a good lay
and to make his paintings erotic
instead of brushes, he simply used his prick
(Written in 1963). Nude women and prostitutes were eternal subjects for Copley. He liked to paint them naked or in sexy lingerie. He was married 6 times. A work he returned to on two different occasions in his life was a monument to the "unknown whore." (Which he painted first in 1965 and returned to in the mid-80s.)


William N. Copley, Tomb of the Unknown Whore, 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 190 × 285 cm

A review by Richard Flood of a solo show at Phyllis Kind Gallery in Artforum astutely observed, "It's not hard to understand Copley's neglect at the hand of American curators--the work is simply too naughty, a quality not sought after by public trusts . . . Naughty art in America has always been a private affair, something best appreciated over brandy in air redolent of cigar smoke." New Museum founder Marcia Tucker was one of Copley's greatest champions (Copley was included in her important group show, "Bad" Painting, in 1978--a show that signaled the return of figurative painting as a respectable activity). In 1986, she put on an exhibit by Copley called "The Tomb of the Unknown Whore." More of an installation than an exhibit of pictures, visitors were encouraged to leave graffiti (in chalk) on the walls. Perhaps Richard Flood would not have been surprised by some of the comments in the guestbook: "misogyny disguised as art" and "garbage," among others.

It surprises me a little that I haven't heard similar rumblings abut this current show. Copley spent a lifetime objectifying women. His paintings were often ribald and erotic. He grew up in all-male boarding schools, so a painting like Capella Sextina may have represented the ultimate adolescent fantasy for a young man in that environment.


William N. Copley, Capella Sextina, 1961, oil on canvas, 162 x 130 cm

But in one important way, these naked ladies are not particularly erotic. Copley's drawing skills were pretty limited at best. He couldn't really manage a naturalistic drawing. The figures in his work seem more like cartoons--flat colors with solid outlines, simplified figures and not much detail (often faces are completely left off). Curator Dan Nadel included Copley in his exhibit What Nerve!, which was dedicated to a tradition of "alternative figuration" in American art. It might well have been called "cartoon figuration". This has been an undercurrent in American art for at least a hundred years.


William N. Copley, On the Beach (A La Mer), 1962, oil on canvas, 116.2 x 88.9

Why is "cartoon figuration" important, lingering as it does just below art historical notice? I have a theory: it has to do with the ubiquity of comics. Not comic books--they were ubiquitous in the 1940s but fell off dramatically in the 50s and 60s--but comic strips. Above I spoke of the popularity of newspapers in the 20th century. They were a mass medium that reached just about everyone, and one of the most important, popular features of newspapers were comic strips. During Copley's boyhood in the 1920s and 30s, he surely saw comics like Popeye, the Gumps and other comic strips that featured simplified humorous figures. If there is a cartoonist I would reference in relation to Copley, it would be James Thurber. Thurber contributed cartoons to the New Yorker from 1930 through the 50s.



James Thurber, cartoon from the New Yorker, 1936

When I see Copley's somewhat shapeless figures, I see Thurber at the same time. However, this may be a case of "each writer creates his precursors", as Borges wrote in his essay "Kafka and His Precursors." As far as I know, Thurber had no influence whatsoever on Copley. And as we can see in On the Beach (above), Copley uses formal devices derived from comics that Thurber avoided (word balloons, for example).


William N. Copley, Mack n Madge, 1962, oil on canvas, 161.6 x 76.2 cm

Mack n Madge is a remarkable example of cartoon figuration. It is designed like a typical Sunday comics page from the 1930s, where the story takes up an entire page. The word balloons curiously are blank--they serve the purpose of representing the idea that dialogue is happening as we would expect on a comic strip. There is a kind of love triangle--Madge (the always-nude blonde) and Mack are hounded and stalked by the policeman. The figure of Mack, an everyman wearing a suit and bowler hat, shows up over and over in Copley's paintings. He kind of represents an eternal John. The pair are hounded into suicide by the cop (who seems to haunt their graves after death). Perhaps Copley was thinking of Krazy Kat, which had a similar triangle. But in Krazy Kat, Ignatz hates Krazy (and is continually hitting her in the head with a brick) while Mack loves Madge. The flat, simplified colors also suggest a relationship to Sunday comic strips.


William N. Copley, Harem (recto), 1958, oil on canvas, 186.7 x 190.5 cm

This hinged screen, Harem, is the first work you see at the Menil when you walk into the exhibit. Again we have the anonymous bowler hatted man, who may remind one of the similar figure from so many Magritte paintings.  And a room full of naked blonde women engaging in exercise. If this kind of thing offends you, you probably should stay far away from this exhibit. It's works like this that inspired the title of this post. I don't know if Copley was really a whoremonger, but brothels, streetwalkers, prostitutes and sexually available women are some of his favorite subjects for painting.

The catalog for the exhibit is excellent (if quite expensive). Copley was never one for grand art theories, and the essays here are blessedly free of theorizing. Toby Kamps writes a brief biographical essay, Jonathan Griffin writes about Copley as a patron of artists, Paul B. Franklin writes about his long relationship with Duchamp, and Gwen L. Allen (author of one of my favorite books on art, Artists' Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art) writes about Copley's quixotic publishing experiment in the 1960s, SMS. SMS were a series of portfolios that included work of artists that interested Copley. For an artist who seemed somewhat impervious to current trends of his time in terms of his own work, SMS was a bit surprising. You wouldn't expect Copley to respond to heavily theorized art like conceptualism or Fluxus. Allen writes,
And yet SMS suggests otherwise: that he was in fact deeply engaged with many of the most advanced artistic practices of the 1960s, including Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Mail Art, Earth Art, and Conceptual Art, as well as avant-garde music, poetry and performance.
SMS by selling relatively inexpensive editions of art was meant to be an alternative to collecting art through galleries. The exhibit has several issues of SMS on display in vitrines. Individual issues of SMS are prized collectibles now.

Copley had a gallery for about a year in the late 40s where he showed art by the surrealists. His standard deal was to guarantee them 10% regardless of how many pieces were sold. Because he sold almost none of the pieces, he ended up with a nice-sized collection of surrealist art. He continued to collect for the rest of life and built up a great collection of surrealist and contemporary art. (He said he thought all artists should collect art, a sentiment I agree with.) Because of financial reversals, he was forced to auction off much of his collection in 1979. Seven of these works ended up purchased by the Menils, including a Magritte and a Jean Tinguely which are on display in the entryway as you walk into the Menil from the North. The Menil also owns a large number of Copleys. Copley and the Menils clearly shared many interests.

After seeing and enjoying this exhibit, I'm still not sure what I think about Copley. Was he an aristocrat who willed himself into becoming a great artist? So much of his work seems risible (and he explicitly loved humor in art), and the clumsiness of his drawing is unappealing to me. But many of the works have memorable visual appeal. Maybe they would be most enjoyable, as Richard Flood suggested, in a room full of cigar smoke and booze.

William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY is on display at the Menil Museum until July 24, 2016.