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Indepth Arts News:

"Body Parts- A Self-Portrait by John Coplans"
2004-10-07 until 2004-12-31
MIT List Visual Arts Center
Cambridge, MA, USA United States of America

The MIT List Visual Arts Center (LVAC) is pleased to announce the exhibition, Body Parts-A Self-Portrait by John Coplans. The exhibition, organized by Charles Stainback, former director of the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and Jane Farver, Director of the LVAC, consists of powerful black-and-white images taken by John Coplans of his own aging body. This exhibition showcases the final series of 26 large photographs completed before the artist's death in August 2003.

For weeks [after 9/11], when the wind blew in my direction, I could smell fumes in my studio and in my bedroom. The fumes constantly seeped in; the smell reminded me of the burning of a body at a Hindu funeral pyre. A vast number of bodies were being roasted in the heart of the burning debris. Without consciously connecting the disaster to what I was photographing, I had started making images of my arms and legs and then collaging a pair of them together to make one image. After I had made four such images, I realized the connection when it was announced in the news that workmen were digging up debris and constantly finding human body parts.

- John Coplans, from Body Parts-A Self-Portrait

I found myself quite intuitively making some photos that I recognized with considerable excitement as reflecting the grotesque. However, no sooner had I made four of them than, to my consternation, I suffered a severe attack of macular degeneration in my one good eye and could no longer see properly. Perhaps with the aid of a magnifying glass, I could see any Polaroids we could shoot and I could continue the series, which is what happened, and I was able to continue working…. Of course, we do not see with our eyes, but with our minds.

--- John Coplans, on developing his final body of work

An accompanying catalogue, Body Parts-A Self-Portrait by John Coplans, includes "Prologue" by John Coplans, "A Conversation" between Jean-François Chévrier, professor, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Paris and Coplans, and black-and-white photographs in the exhibition. Published by Powerhouse Books, the catalogue is available at the LVAC for $25. A noted art critic and curator for most of his career, Coplans abandoned his criticism and curatorial work in 1980 to become, at age 60, a much-exhibited and almost immediately successful photographer. Intent on an unusual process of self-investigation and cultural reflection, he told Art Journal in a 1990 interview that "the principal thing is the question of how our culture views age: that old is ugly."

Coplans's work reveals the relentless tectonics of physical aging: the wrinkles and sags, hairlessness, and varicose veins. But the result is an eerily beautiful, touching, and monumental landscape made up of calves, arms, torso, hips, and hands, dramatically lit and emotionally larger than life. "I don't really deal with old age per se," Coplans said. "It's only a condition I'm in that I have to make use of the best I can."

About the artist

Born in London, England, in 1920, John Coplans grew up in South Africa and lived an adventurous life. As Mussolini and Hitler rose to power in Europe, Coplans dropped out of high school and spent eight years in the military. He trained as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot in 1938, then joined the British army for service in Kenya, Burma, and Ethiopia, where he learned Swahili and saw combat. After the war, as a painter and admirer of American abstract expressionist and abstract styles, he migrated to the United States, traded some paintings for a used car, and drove cross-country to San Francisco. There he co-founded Artforum in 1962, and during the mid-sixties, organized exhibitions at the University of California, Irvine, and the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), where he showed work by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and others on the outer edges of new art. During a late 1970's stint at the Akron Art Museum, he started the art magazine Dialogue. He authored books on Cézanne's watercolors, the New York photographer Weegee, and American artists Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.

When he returned to making art in 1980, Coplans settled in New York and developed a career not in painting but in photography, making what one critic called "mercilessly beautiful photographs of his self-effaced self." He had his first solo show within a year, followed by solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musee de la Veille Charite, Marseille; Frankfurter Kunstverein; Museum Boymans-van Beuningan, Rotterdam; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York.

John Coplans
Body Parts-A Self Portrait (2002)
Courtesy John Coplans Estate

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