John Coplans: La Vie des Formes
On ViewFondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
October 5, 2021 – January 16, 2022
The invisibility of the aging individual might have perhaps become a cliché of contemporary culture, but the enduring force of John Coplans’s charge against the cult of youth—parading the things it still constrains—attests to its singularity in the medium. Photography was the last of several careers for Coplans: he dropped out of school to become a soldier, then painter, curator, and critic, serving as a founding father of Artforum. Coplans devoted himself to his own perishable bulk of wonderment when he was sixty—enlightened, curious, fearless. Across a wall at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, his words swirl: “Being old is one of the best things that’s happened to me. For the first time, I am free.”
Unfolding in three distinct acts, La Vie des Formes does careful justice to the patient, self-determined evolutions of Coplans’s one-themed oeuvre. The opening section comprises seven nudes dated 1984 to 1985, the period Coplans began systematically chiseling himself into pieces: hands, feet, torso, and so on. Flabby sacks of flesh—replete with fur, scabs, calluses, and varicose veins—spill across variously sized and framed prints: a bleak burlesque of a body alternately shy, stoic, deflated, vital, seductive, forceful, and farcical. Yet, these are not sentimental invocations of the poetry of crinkled skin, nor sardonic reflections on somatic dysfunction or decay. Coplans’s early works, as animated by the exhibition’s title, are intellectual inquiries into the possibilities of line, shape, and scale before they are expressive ripostes to antiquity’s heroic male nude.
The most rigorous aspect of Coplans’s practice is his omission of the face, although he does tease out substitutions. In Torso, Front (1984), the dense detail of his chest reveals, somewhat pathetically, a scowling face through the nipples and navel, whilst in Back of Hand, No.1 (1986), the flaccid wrinkles of his fist form pouted lips. Another work manifests as a titillating puzzle with too many limbs, resolved only by its title: Legs, Elbow, Hand (1986). There is no doubt that Coplans’s generic subtitles lend the photographs an “everyman” resonance. Yet, for all the specificity with which the body is canvassed, it is employed as prime matter rather than subject, forever edging towards what it is not: trunk, branch, root here, stones, sand, sea there. Oftentimes, Coplans outstrips the natural realm altogether and turns iconographic, as in the monolithic centerpiece Back with Arms Above (1984), which casually commands its own wall. The broad expanse of back, bent in refusal and toppled by two clenched fists, is a silvery Stonehenge, containing within it wisdom to life on a scale of everlasting myth.
Announcing Coplans’s transition to montage in 1988, the mid-section stages perhaps his most formidable works: vertical triptychs through which he flounders upside down. Where Coplans’s isolated body fragments are aligned with sculpture, these belong more to cinema. They feign the doubts of perception, with the sequences refusing to sync and the works themselves dramatically shifting in scale, from the tiny to the elephantine. Whilst the former invite us to go nearer, to skirt the violent interruptions of form, the latter implore us to retreat. It is upon moving from near to far that Coplans’s electrically-charged curves become the outer edges of what feels like a total map of the human condition. For these panels bear an ecclesiastical aura, but not the confessional kind. Between their lines, we can almost hear the reverberating cackles of fallen man.
The exhibition’s signature intervention occurs in its final act. Loosely arranged are an eclectic mix of photographs by artists whom Coplans admired, conjuring a constellation of affinities and, most curiously, compositional echoes: Jan Groover’s strewn fruits (1983); Lee Friedlander’s wonky signpost (1973); Weegee’s sprawled-out murder victims (1940); and Constantin Brâncuși’s geometric figurines (1921/1926). Most suggestive is Carleton E. Watkins’s magisterial rendering of Yosemite (1876), the craggy contours of which could easily be those of Coplans’s storm-stamped body (there is a more direct link too, for Coplans—during his curator years—championed Watkins avidly and sold his personal collection in 1981 to finance his own photography). Refusing to be pinned down, these dialogues speak to what the co-curator, Jean-François Chevrier, calls the imaginary museum of Coplans’s oeuvre: a collaborative melee between naturalism and abstraction, classicism and surrealism; one which births, over and over, a pioneering technician of a new order.
Indeed, navigating these rooms, it is hard not to be beguiled by the anatomy of contradictions that is Coplans. Here was a man who was fascinated by his own finitude yet pursued photographic preservation; a personality larger than life yet a body subject to all its natural laws. In Coplans’s epilogue to Provocations (1996)—a selection of his combative critical writings—he instructs his son to smuggle his ashes, “like drug dealers do with grams of coke,” between stones in Westminster Abbey, the Parthenon, Mayan temples, and in Jerusalem.1 It may be a pompous, even perverse fulfilment of Charles Baudelaire’s “man of the world,”2 however, what we find on these walls is a different kind of dignity; a dissolution of the ego altogether. For we don’t go to Coplans to find the man, but to know the knowledge he knows, the knowledge that hums, years later, across the surface of his photographs: the beauty, isolation, and awesome vulnerability that our bodies have in common.
- John Coplans, Provocations, ed. Stuart Morgan (London: London Projects, 1996), p.237
- Charles Baudelaire, The Painters of Modern Life, ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995) p.7