John Coplans, the artist who is widely known for his photographs of his naked, aging body, is going to need a smart biographer: one who is familiar with recent photography, with theoretical writing on the body, with the history of late-colonial Africa and South Asia and with the political, social and intellectual history of art since the 1960s. For Coplans traveled tirelessly as a youth, dropping out of high school to become a soldier, then a painter, writer, curator and editor. For the past 20 years, he has been busy making pictures of himself, immersed in one of the most important careers in contemporary art. He's 81.
Coplans fulfills Baudelaire's chief requirements for being a modern artist: he is a "man of the world" and possesses an immense, restless curiosity. He led African troops as an infantry captain in Ethiopia and Burma during the Second World War, then became an abstract painter in post-war London. After traveling around Europe looking at art, he moved to San Francisco, where he hounded museum curators to show contemporary San Francisco artists, lost a number of teaching jobs in reaction to his whole-hearted endorsement of Pop Art and became a co-founder of Artforum magazine.
He soon moved to Los Angeles. There he urged Irving Blum of Ferus Gallery to buy the suite of Andy Warhol soup can paintings that he had been trying to sell, explaining to Blum that someday he would be able to retire on the investment (a few years ago, the Museum of Modern Art bought the paintings from Blum for $15 million.) By the late 1960s, Coplans was writing for a number of art journals while also working as senior curator at the Pasadena Museum.
In Pasadena Coplans produced some of the earliest museum exhibitions on Warhol, Lichtenstein, Judd and Serra, among others, and wrote some of the first critical essays on them. He also rediscovered the 19th-century landscape photographer Carleton Watkins, who Coplans lifted from obscurity through his avid collecting and promotion.
Eventually, Coplans moved to New York, where a crucial friendship developed with Robert Smithson. Coplans edited Artforum through its Postminimalist phase (1971-'76), printing canonical essays by Rosalind Krauss, Max Kozloff and Annette Michelson until, Coplans says, the Machiavellian dealer Leo Castelli got Charles Cowles, the publisher, to fire him.
At the Akron Art Museum, Coplans organized the first American exhibitions of John Heartfield's photomontages and Brancusi's photographs, spent time with the photographer Lee Friedlander and began to take his own photographs. His last critical essay, on the work of Philip Guston, was published in 1980 and since then he has devoted himself to his own work.
Provocations, a selection of his critical writing, was published in 1996. It functions as both a look backward at some of his best essays and a look forward to how some of his analyses of other art anticipate his own work. Good writing about art, or about anything, should make you feel intelligent. This is what Provocations does. It's a record of an artist thinking, concerned primarily with precise visual description and followed up by an investigation of how particular works are made. An interview with Jasper Johns, for example, is a series of questions about process that subtly coaxes Johns to reveal his esthetic values.
Judgments arrive as if embedded in Coplans' careful observations. He notes that for all the mass-production techniques that Warhol utilizes, his production is severely limited, emphasizing a deliberate indifference beneath the apparent energy of the work. Self-taught and interdisciplinary in his writing, Coplans often calls on the aid of literature. He centers a Gertrude Stein poem in his essay on Seriality. He introduces an essay on Smithson's Amarillo Ramp with a stanza of Walt Whitman's Song of the Rolling Earth. You begin to wish there was art writing like this now.
Our familiarity with Coplans' own photographic output resonates in his description of a Weegee photo of a nearly naked man sleeping on a fire escape, who is "transformed by Weegee's merciless lens into the image of an aging helpless child," or when he notes that Brancusi often appears in his own photographs "as if to say for a work of art to exist, there has to be a maker, an artist imposing his will."
The book's chapters are sequenced in such a way that two of the last essays, on Watkins and Philip Guston, seem to launch him into his own project, a dark burlesque of the body's natural architecture. There is also an epilogue where Coplans instructs his son that he would like his ashes tucked between stones in Westminister Abbey, the Parthenon, Mayan temples and in Jerusalem. It all makes perfect sense, he wants to continue to be a man of the world, interacting with history, with culture.
Until that unusual biographer comes forward, Coplans continues to publish his own chronology, which he expands with every new publication on his work.
[Editor's note: Provocations, due to the bankruptcy of the publisher, London Projects, is out of print. A limited number of copies are available in the Artnet bookstore.]