As I unelegantly swan into late middle age, thrilled, as I did this morning, to once again see the first plump robin of the coming spring, the work of John Coplans, which once filled me with dread, now seems strangely sympathetic.
A legendary curator, Artforum editor and photographer who died in 2003, Coplans spent the last decades of his life, under the guidance of his dealer Andrea Rosen, documenting the contours of his aging body in black-and-white photographs. You never saw his face, only his belly, fingers, penis and other body parts pushing at the edges of the picture plane with a kind of grim, claustrophobic pride. Looking at them again today, one is reminded of nothing more or less than Bernie Madoff.
Examining the bumps, whorls and rolls of my own attenuated body, I now see Coplans as the Columbus of rot, the Vespucci of dissipation, on a voyage to discover something too painfully close to home. Coplans was a sexy guy, even in his 70s constantly on the make for the bright young thing at your elite art world parties. His self-involved nudes seemed to be the ultimate, shameless come-on.
Now that he's joined the majority, his pictures take on a profound, different meaning. The photos of Coplans’ conjoined fingers, hands peering like puppets over his hairy back, still muscley rolls of fat drooping towards the floor emerge as a testament to the glory of being human, descendants not of the apes but of the gods.
A man who during his Artforum days enjoyed the thrill of hot passions and terrible tempers, Coplans met his aging sack of woe not with rage or resignation, but with a dry, acerbic wonderment. The documents of that storm-crossed body deserve to be examined again, memento mori for the rich collector, a philosopher's stone for the rest of us.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).