John Coplans

Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panels)


On loan

FOMU (Antwerp, Belgium): New Masculinities: A Post-War History in Photography and Film

John Coplans 1920–2003
4 photographs, black and white, on paper
Support: 619 × 800 mm
frame: 1980 × 880 × 47 mm
displayed: 1980 × 3520 × 47 mm
Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2001


Self-Portrait (Frieze No.2 Four Panels) consists of four panels each containing three black and white photographs of the artist’s body arranged in a column. The panels present Coplans’s naked body from the chest to just below the knees. They depict four poses, two viewing the body from behind, one from the side and one from the front. In the back views the artist reaches across his back with one hand and holds the elbow of the other arm. In the side view, his arm is clamped to his side as he grasps his chest. In the front view, his right hand supports his left shin, raising his leg and partially concealing his genitals. At first glance, the work appears as a frieze of standing figures and the three photographs in each panel appear to have been cut from a single image. Closer inspection reveals that the sections are slightly mis-aligned with each other, mainly as a result of subtle differences in scale which the eye initially ignores or compensates for. This has a disjointed effect. Emphasising the body’s fragmentation, it also evokes the freeze-frame motion of the camera moving up and down the body. Tight cropping and the white grid created by the montage result in a claustrophobic feel, as though the artist’s body is being squeezed into a formal structure into which it will not fit. The curves of his belly and buttocks and the bends of his knees and elbows are heightened by their containment within the grid. The medium of the silver gelatin print enhances the graphic qualities of the texture of Coplans’s skin. In focus, dark pores and wiry hairs appear etched; out-of focus they have the quality of a charcoal drawing. Where included in the image, the body’s outlines are softened by the fuzz of body hair. Coplans has commented:

I have the feeling that I’m alive, I have a body. I’m seventy years old, and generally bodies of seventy-year-old men look somewhat like my body ... I’m using my body and saying, even though it’s a seventy-year-old body, I can make it extremely interesting. That keeps me alive and gives me vitality. It’s a kind of process of energising myself.

(Quoted in A Body: John Coplans, p.175.)

Coplans initially trained as painter in London but stopped making art in the early 1960s to focus exclusively on thinking about it and working with it in the roles of writer, curator, critic and founding editor of Artforum magazine (1967-79). In 1960, inspired by a seminal exhibition of Abstract Expressionist painting, The New American Painting, at the Tate Gallery in London in 1959, he had moved to the United States. When he returned to art making in the early 1980s, he returned to the goals of that movement – the expression of universal, primordial feelings located in the psychic unconscious – using photography and his ageing body as his subject. He recounted a daydream and its result: ‘I travel down my genes and visit remote ancestors, both male and female. Inspired by these journeys to the past ... I begin directing an assistant as she takes photographs of my body. To remove all references to my current identity, I leave out my head.’ (Quoted in A Body: John Coplans, p.166.) For Coplans, genetic memory is the locus for a collective unconscious, a means of getting in touch with universal feelings. He believes that perception is the only means to express the unconscious, but that this ‘expressiveness’ is ‘extra-linguistic’, something which cannot be communicated in a known language. (Chevrier, p.6.) As his photographic self-portraits evolved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Coplans became interested in the difference between what the eye sees and what the camera records. His photographs present the body as an object seen in a way which is impossible to the naked eye. In such early works as Self Portrait (Torso, Front) 1984 (Tate P11672) he had represented his ‘self’ as a section of flesh, depersonalised through its lack of an identifying face. He now went on to represent this self as multiple – a series of selves. He later explained the Frieze works: ‘A team of me, that is several of me, are exercising and rehearsing for some ancient game, say for example the Olympics, by building up our physique. This action can be taken for any period of time you wish, ancient or recent ... I’m photographing myself doing whatever athletes do to get into condition.’ (Faxed letter to Tate curators, May 2001, gallery records, Tate Archive, London.) On one level, Coplans’s photographs depict the memory of a lifetime’s wear on an old body. On another, they represent the artist’s mental journey into conscious and unconscious memories of human poses. Evoking a universal archetype, Coplans’s Self-Portraits present a visual version of a mythological body.

Self-Portrait (Frieze No.2 Four Panels) was produced in an edition of six.

Further reading:
A Body: John Coplans, New York 2001, reproduced pp.126-7
Jean-Francois Chevrier, John Coplans: Self Portraits, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Lelong, New York 1991
Stuart Morgan, Frances Morris, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, Tate Gallery, London 1995, pp.74-87, reproduced pp.82-3 no.17

Elizabeth Manchester
May 2003

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