Dart Gallery, Chicago, Illinois
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, 1991
2015: "Choice: Contemporary Art from the Akron Art Museum" 9/11/15-12/6/15, Transformer Station, Cleveland, Ohio
2007: "Prized Images: The Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media 1991-2006" 7/17/07-10/14/07, Akron Art Museum
1997-1998: "75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97-1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1993-1994: "On Nudity: The Body in Art" 10/16/93-4/24/94, Akron Art Museum
1991-1992: "Focus on the Collection: A 70th Anniversary Celebration" 11/3/91-1/5/92, Akron Art Museum
43 1/2 x 34 1/4" mount (image mounted to board.)
Self Portrait (Torso, Front), 1984
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
John Coplans has been staging ruthless photographic examinations of his own imperfect flesh for nearly twenty years. With a single-minded dedication that is either deeply narcissistic or refreshingly selfless, Coplans has created a bracing body of work that challenges traditional standards of grace and beauty. Refusing to glamorize or diminish the idiosyncrasies of his aged skin, Coplans creates photographs that stand in stark contrast to the images of fresh beauties dominating today's culture.
Before devoting himself completely to photography, Coplans enjoyed a long and varied career in the arts, including a stint as director of the Akron Art Institute from February 1978 to December 1979.1 It was during that time, Coplans recalls, that he “began making photographs in a very intuitive way. . . . I used to photograph myself at night, after work. I’d take my clothes off and photograph my hands, photograph my body, using a camera with a timer. It was a little strange—you know what I mean?”2
For an artist who claims that he began making photographs in an “intuitive” way, Coplans has a decidedly programmatic approach to the process that may seem clinical and detached. He assumes the role of a cinematic director, deciding on lighting and equipment and even the poses before actually exposing any film. He employs assistants who use Polaroid positive/negative film (a type that develops both an image and a negative in about thirty seconds) to snap preparatory study photos. Next, checking his image on a monitor connected to a video camera, Coplans refines his pose, compressing and twisting his body into assorted configurations. Sometimes the video camera is positioned to look through the viewfinder of his 4 x 5-inch format camera. When he is pleased with the pose, a final image is taken.
Coplans has used this process consistently to dissect, analyze, and chronicle his body, bit by bit, limb by limb. Some images have focused on his hands, feet, back, and knees, while others depict him reclining, positioned upside-down, or assuming the positions of figures in ancient Greek friezes. Posed against a blank white background, Coplans's hirsute body is always shown headless, a strategy he feels helps make his images more universal.
Coplans often describes his photography in terms of art history, referring to one image as "Melanesian sculpture," and to Self-Portrait (Torso, Front ) as "a seventeenth-century drawing of a face."3 Approached on a purely abstract level, the wisps and sprays of hair that adorn Coplans's torso might indeed suggest the deft lines of a Renaissance sketch. Those same tufts of hair might be seen to echo, in a humorous manner, the swirling strokes of pigment laid down by the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s. In addition, Coplans’s practice of acting out before the camera surely references performance and body art of the 1960s and 1970s, while his straightforward use of the gelatin silver print process to record classic poses recalls the earlier, mostly female, nudes of modernist masters such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston.
Coplans’s characterizations of his photographs as drawings and sculptures and his references to art history clearly reflect a desire to have his work appreciated as fine art rather than documentation. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to see the artist’s images as frank and forthright statements of what it means to age in a society that favors youth and beauty above all else.
- Jeffrey Grove, 2001
1. See introductory essay, pp. 33–37.
2. Christopher Lyon, "Seeing from Inside: John Coplans on A Body of Work," Members Quarterly, Museum of Modern Art, New York (spring 1988): 3.
3. Susan Butler, "Rebellions of Age: John Coplans and Anne Noggle," Ten•8 (April 1987): not paginated.
Coplans, John, with Stuart Morgan, ed. Provocations: Writing by John Coplans. London: London Projects, 1996.
———. A Self Portrait: John Coplans, 1984–1997. Long Island City, N.Y.: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 1997.