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John Coplans
Photo courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery
John Coplans, 1920-2003
by Joe Fyfe

Whenever we met, during the last five or six years of his life, John did not remember me. I simply could not leave an impression on him. I wrote a book review of Provocations, a collection of his writings, a review that his wife, the photographer Amanda Means, told me that he liked quite a bit. But it always seemed that I had to be reintroduced.

One time, having brunch with Amanda and John and a few of their friends at their Bowery loft, out of nervousness I uncharacteristically dominated the conversation for good length of the afternoon. At one point late in the day, John said, "That's the first interesting thing you've said all afternoon, I have to write that down." This didn't really bother me. I had so much admiration for his fierce intelligence and creative gifts that I was immune to his sometimes ill-tempered honesty.

Everything about Coplans was rare, bracing and judicious. If he was a careerist, his strategy was to do whatever he wanted. He personified the idea that one's primary obligation as an artist is a loyalty to one's own curiosity and intellectual hunger. This principle led him along an unusually varied professional path, from painting to art writing, from creating two art magazines (Artforum, in 1962, and Dialogue, in 1978) to publishing several books (on Czanne Watercolors, Serial Imagery, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Ellsworth Kelly), from collecting 19th century photography to working as a curator and museum director (first at the Pasadena Art Museum and then at the Akron Art Institute), and then, in the last 25 years of his life, to producing his extraordinary photographic self-portraits [see Self Portrait, Lying Figure, Holding Leg, 1990, at Galeria Elvira Gonzalez.

Coplans was originally from England and grew up there and in South Africa. He never finished high school. The energy and inventiveness that marks his life appear as if from another era. He seems Victorian in the breadth of his accomplishments, in the belief that one must carry on with the work, above all. His health was poor in the last few years. He was in increasing pain and was also having terrible trouble with his eyesight but he continued to race against time working in the studio, producing prints and new images with the help of an assistant. He was 83.

JOE FYFE is an artist who writes on art. His review of Provocations appeared in Artnet Magazine on Aug. 17, 2001.