The Life of Forms – The Brooklyn Rail
Henri Cartier Bresson Foundation
October 5, 2021 – January 16, 2022
The invisibility of the aging individual may have become a cliché of contemporary culture, but the enduring force of John Coplans’ charge against the cult of youth—scrolling the things he still constrains—attests to his uniqueness in the medium. Photography was the last of several careers for Coplans: he dropped out of school to become a soldier, then a painter, curator and critic, as the founding father of art forum. Coplans devoted himself to his own perishable mass of wonder when he was sixty – enlightened, curious, fearless. On the other side of a wall at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris, his words swirl: “Being old is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. For the first time, I am free.
Unfolding in three distinct acts, The Life of Forms does justice to the patient, self-determined evolutions of Coplans’ single-theme work. The opening section includes seven nudes dated between 1984 and 1985, during which time Coplans began to systematically chisel himself into pieces: hands, feet, torso, etc. Saggy sacks of flesh – filled with fur, scabs, calluses and varicose veins – spill over prints of various sizes and frames: a dark burlesque of a body that is by turns shy, stoic, deflated, vital, seductive, energetic and buffoonish. Yet these are not sentimental invocations of the poetry of wrinkled skin, nor sardonic musings on somatic dysfunction or decay. Coplans’ early works, enlivened by the title of the exhibition, are intellectual investigations into the possibilities of line, form and scale before being expressive responses to the heroic male nude of antiquity.
The most rigorous aspect of Coplans’ practice is his omission of the face, though he teases substitutions. In Torso, Front (1984), the dense detail of his chest reveals, somewhat pathetically, a scowling face through the nipples and navel, while in Back of the hand, #1 (1986), the flabby wrinkles of his fist form sulky lips. Another work manifests as a titillating puzzle with too many members, solved only by its title: Legs, Elbow, Hand (1986). There’s no doubt that Coplans’ generic captions give the photographs an “everybody” resonance. However, despite all the specificity with which the body is approached, it is used as raw material rather than as subject, always tending towards what it is not: trunk, branch, root here, stones, sand, sea the. Often Coplans goes completely beyond the natural realm and becomes iconographic, as in the monolithic centerpiece Back with arms overhead (1984), who nonchalantly commands his own wall. The broad expanse of the back, bent in denial and knocked down by two clenched fists, is a silvery Stonehenge, containing within it the wisdom of life on the scale of an eternal myth.
Announcing Coplans’ transition to editing in 1988, the mid-section stages perhaps his most formidable works: vertical triptychs through which he flounders upside down. Where Coplans’ isolated body fragments align with sculpture, these belong more to cinema. They feign the doubts of perception, the sequences refusing to synchronize and the works themselves radically changing scale, from the smallest to the most elephantine. While the former invite us to come closer, to circumvent the violent interruptions of the form, the latter implore us to step back. It is by moving from near to far that the electrically charged curves of Coplans become the outer edges of what looks like a total map of the human condition. Because these panels carry an ecclesiastical aura, but not confessional. Between their lines, one can almost hear the reverberating cackles of fallen man.
The exhibition’s signature intervention occurs in its final act. Freely arranged, an eclectic mix of photographs by artists Coplans admired, evoking a constellation of affinities and, more curiously, echoes of composition: Jan Groover’s strewn fruits (1983); Lee Friedlander’s Wobbly Signpost (1973); Weegee’s Staggering Murder Victims (1940); and the geometric figurines by Constantin Brâncuși (1921/1926). Most suggestive is Carleton E. Watkins’ masterful rendering of Yosemite (1876), the steep outlines of which could easily be those of Coplans’ storm-stricken body (there is also a more direct connection, for Coplans – during his years of curator – ardently defended Watkins and sold his personal collection in 1981 to fund his own photography). Refusing to be singled out, these dialogues speak of what the co-curator, Jean-François Chevrier, calls the imaginary museum of the work of Coplans: a collaborative melee between naturalism and abstraction, classicism and surrealism; the one who gives birth, again and again, to a pioneering technician of a new order.
Indeed, while navigating through these rooms, it is difficult not to be seduced by the anatomy of contradictions that is Coplans. Here is a man who was fascinated by his own finiteness but pursued photographic conservation; a personality larger than life but a body subject to all its natural laws. In the epilogue to Coplans at Provocation (1996) – a selection of his combative critical writings – he orders his son to pass his ashes, “as drug dealers do with grams of coke”, between the stones of Westminster Abbey, the Parthenon , Mayan temples and Jerusalem.1 It is perhaps a pompous, even perverse accomplishment of Charles Baudelaire‘s “man of the world”.2 however, what we find on these walls is a different dignity; a total dissolution of the ego. Because we are not going to Coplans to find the man, but to know the knowledge he knows, the knowledge that buzzes, years later, on the surface of his photographs: the beauty, the isolation and the impressive vulnerability that our bodies have in common. .
- John Coplans, Provocation, ed. Stuart Morgan (London: London Projects, 1996), p.237
- Charles Baudelaire, The painters of modern life, ed. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1995) p.7
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