William Copley

San Diego, California, 1919‒New York City, 1996

The American artist, gallerist, patron, writer, and publisher William (Bill) Copley assembled one of the most important collections of Dada and Surrealist art in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. Beginning after the Second World War, Copley brought Dada and Surrealist paintings and objects of the 1920s and 1930s together with Pop and conceptual works in his unique collection, thereby highlighting the rich and ongoing dialogue between figures associated with the historical avant-garde and a new generation of postwar practitioners.

Copley was the adopted son of a publishing magnate who ran the San Diego-based Copley Press, Inc. After matriculating at Yale University and then serving in the U.S. army from 1941 to 1945, the young man returned to California and began to paint while working as a reporter for his family’s newspaper. Profoundly influenced by surrealist ideas, he befriended Man Ray, who was living and working in Hollywood. Man Ray introduced him to Marcel Duchamp, who became Copley’s close friend and mentor.

Copley’s inheritance following his father’s death in 1947 provided him with funding to start a gallery of Surrealist art in Los Angeles. In 1948 he and the artist John Ployardt opened The Copley Galleries, showcasing works by Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Matta (Roberto Sebastian Antonio Matta Echuarren), Yves Tanguy, and others, guaranteeing each artist ten percent of sales. A year later, Copley closed the gallery after failing to secure a wide market for Surrealism on the West Coast. However, the unsold stock of his Los Angeles gallery became the basis of Copley’s personal collection.

In 1951, Copley moved to Paris, where Duchamp introduced him to Surrealist artists; his own work was also included in the last two international exhibitions of surrealism co-curated by André Breton and Duchamp: the Exposition internationale du Surréalisme or E.R.O.S. (1959) at the Daniel Cordier Gallery in Paris and Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanter’s Domain (1960) at the D’Arcy Galleries in New York. In 1954, he and his wife established the William and Noma Copley Foundation, which was co-directed by Duchamp and the composer Darius Milhaud. The advisory board was composed of many of the most prominent advocates of modern art of the day, including Alfred H. Barr Jr., Herbert Read, and Julian Levy, as well as artists Jean Arp, Ernst, and Man Ray. The foundation supported an international coterie of artists with grants and publications. Between 1960 and 1966, Copley funded a series of monographs edited by the artist Richard Hamilton, which showcased the work of Hans Bellmer, Magritte, James Metcalf, Eduardo Paolozzi, and others.

Copley returned to New York in 1962 and his Upper East Side apartment became a gathering space for an informal artists’ collective. In 1968, he established The Letter Edged in Black Press, Inc. and published six issues of the collaborative portfolio journal known as SMS (“Shit Must Stop”). This “instant art collection” was available by subscription and brought together the work of historical Surrealists (Duchamp, Man Ray, Roland Penrose) along with a younger generation of artists including Bruce Conner, Yayoi Kusama, Roy Lichtenstein, Yoko Ono, and others. He continued to collect and support his artist friends with grants from his foundation. In 1966, Duchamp revealed his secretive masterwork Etant donnés to Copley, who facilitated its acquisition by the Philadelphia Museum of Art two years later, after Duchamp’s death.

Copley’s collection, installed in his New York apartment, included Ernst’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass,1944; Cleveland Museum of Art) and Le Surréalisme et la peinture (Surrealism and Painting, 1942; Menil Collection), Magritte’s La Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) (The Treachery of Images [This Is Not a Pipe],1929; Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Joseph Cornell’s large Soap Bubble Set (1948; The Art Institute of Chicago), Man Ray’s Observatory Time, The Lovers (1936; private collection), and a poem object by Breton, La femme étant à l’homme ce que le lit est aux nuages (The Woman Being to the Man What the Bed is to the Clouds, 1942; Detroit Institute of Arts). In 1979, Copley sold much of his personal collection at Sotheby’s for $6.7 million, which at the time was the highest total amount garnered by the sale of a single collection in the United States.

For more information, see:

Copley, William. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dealer, Reflection on a Past Life. Houston: Institute of the Arts, Rice University, 1979.

Celant, Germano. William Copley. Milan: Fondazione Prada, 2016.

The William Nelson Copley Collection: Surrealism. Sale cat., Sotheby-Parke-Bernet, New York, November 5, 1979.

The William Nelson Copley papers are held at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

How to cite this entry:
O'Hanlan, Sean, "William Copley", The Modern Art Index Project (August 2021), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://doi.org/10.57011/MXQE5381