the day he was born: a piece from John Coplans
Body Parts: A Self Portrait.
the Mind’s Eye
Parts: A Self Portrait by John Coplans
Teaching Museum and Gallery, through April 11
Is John Coplans the author of the photographs now on view
at the Tang Museum? Or is he more of a performance artist,
collaborating with a photographer to produce these images
of his elderly, naked self?
The final part of an extended photographic project begun in
1984, Body Parts, A Self Portrait presents 26 equal-sized
diptychs, each a pair of semi-abstracted close-ups of the
83-year-old Coplans’ nude body in all its worn glory. Completed
shortly before he died in 2003, the work continues the exploration
of form, perception and self-image begun in the earlier work,
but with the added twist of creating curious, often bizarre
combinations through pairing.
In all the photographs, the question of authorship is valid,
because Coplans was always in front of—not behind—the lens,
directing the activity and imagery by means of a video monitor.
In this latest group, it becomes even more significant in
light of the fact that Coplans had become functionally blind.
Unable to see, he abandoned the video hookup altogether and
directed entirely from his imagination.
The resulting sequences of images range from the delicate
to the grotesque, drawing in equal measure from the natural
state of Coplans’ deteriorated physique and the unnatural
shapes he discovers both within the pictures and through their
juxtaposition. It is a worthy pursuit with the happy end of
playing with our perceptions of both physical appearance and
Apart from the appealingly subtle tones of black and white
achieved with the use of 4-by-5-inch Polaroid positive-negative
material and the subsequent expertly made 17-by-22-inch silver
prints, there is the somewhat unpleasant fact of time’s signature
on the old man’s body. Wrinkles, spider veins, blackened toenails
and shiny, depilated skin are all rendered in sweet shades
of gray. Then, the pictures are joined to make surrealistic,
beastly figures—many-limbed, double torsoed, creeping low,
rising up, motoring along or merely grappling.
Many of the combined forms are pachyderm-like, weighty and
plodding; some appear truly freakish, while others are more
dreamily envisioned. All reveal an openness that is strikingly
childlike, and a welcome sense of humor. But there is a dark
side, too, to this work—Coplans began this series shortly
after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, in the vicinity
of the fires, with the awareness that burned and dismembered
bodies were being found in the rubble there.
It is only coincidence that Coplans died, too, after completing
these pictures. They are not elegiac in feeling; rather, they
look unblinkingly at old age, and in a very fresh way—then
they start anew with the wacky pairings to go well beyond
that artistic tradition and link with others. It feels more
like a beginning than an ending, more optimistic than sad.
A hardcover book was published in conjuction with the exhibition,
a joint venture of the Tang and the List Visual Arts Center
at MIT. In a prologue to the book (which reproduces all 26
pairs in very fine duotone offset), Coplans gives a cogent
and concise history lesson on the art of the grotesque. His
writing completes our understanding of his work without preaching
or condescending—such excellent writing comes as no surprise,
considering that he was once the editor of Artforum,
and is the author of several important monographs on artists
such as Cezanne and Warhol.
And, yes, I believe he is also the author of the wonderful
and wondrous pictures in this exhibition—even if he himself
couldn’t see them except in his mind’s eye.
A dialogue on the art of John Coplans will be at the Tang
Teaching Museum, Skidmore College, at 7 PM tonight (Thursday,