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Foundation HCB : John Coplans : La Vie des Formes


The HCB Foundation presents an exhibition of John Coplans‘ work(1920-2003), in collaboration with Le Point du Jour, center for publishing art in Cherbourg- en-Cotentin. The works on display, from French collections, testify to the audacity of the British artist, famous for the uncompromising representation of his own body.

Emigrating to the United States in the early 1960s, John Coplans was first a painter, art critic, museum director and curator, before devoting himself fully to photography in the early 1980s.  At the age of sixty, after having spent twenty years promoting the work of other artists, he retires to reconnect with the experience of creation. He then developed a photographic practice in which he represented his naked body, in black and white, often fragmented, his head always out of view. He used for all these images made between 1984 and 2002 the generic title Self Portrait; Descriptive titles and sub-titles specify the body part or posture depicted.

A primary, singular and impersonal object, the body is the medium for a jubilant, ceaselessly renewed exploration of the life of forms. Often reduced to the representation of the aged body, Coplans’s work responds to a more playful and universal aim, inscribed in a long history of artistic forms through the play of metaphorical relationships to nature or sculpture. It redefines the very meaning of age – not as a progression towards the end of life, but rather as an opportunity for a long-lasting inscription of the human species and an enterprise of remembering primitive forms.

The absence of the face and the choice of the fragment as a plastic element released a flow of inventions and formal analogies that seemed inexhaustible and ceased only with the disappearance of the artist. Coplans’ images are by turns contained and explosive, funny, provocative, always carefully thought out. They respond to a requirement for clarity that transfigures expressionist pathos.

The exhibition The Life of Forms revolves around three sets. Small prints made at the start of Coplans’ photographic career (Torsos, Dos, Mains, Pieds, etc.) were followed in 1988 by large formats and montages combining several body fragments to form a single but disjointed image. A connoisseur of the history of the arts, Coplans has incorporated into his own experience the research of artists whom he has studied, exhibited or rubbed shoulder with, such as Carleton Watkins, Constantin Brancusi, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Jan Groover, Philip Guston or Weegee; a selection of their works is presented in the exhibition.

John Coplans was born in London in 1920. The son of an art-loving doctor, he spent part of his childhood between London and South Africa. In 1937, aware of the global danger posed by Nazi Germany, he joined the British army. He fought until 1945, in East Africa then in India and Burma.

In 1946, John Coplans began artistic studies but quickly gave up. He settled in London. For ten years, he painted and contributed to the rise of abstract art, in the movement of lyrical abstraction, then of Hard Edge.

In 1960, Coplans emigrated to the United States and settled in San Francisco. In 1962, he participated in the creation of Artforum. The magazine quickly established itself as a monthly reference for art and design news. The first of its kind on the West Coast, it supports and unites artists, helping to bring out the “Los Angeles scene” and “the art of the West Coast”. Coplans was its editor from 1971 to 1977 (in New York, where the journal moved in 1967).

John Coplans was also curator, director of the Art Gallery of the University of California at Irvine (1965-1967) and Senior Curator of the Pasadena Art Museum (1967-1970). From 1978 to 1980, he directed the Akron (Ohio) Art Institute. It was during this time that he carried out his first photographic experiments.

In 1980, he decided to stop these activities to become an artist again and devote himself to photography. He settled in New York. From 1985, he exhibited regularly in France and in Europe. In 1988, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) organized the photographer’s first major exhibition, presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York that same year. John Coplans died in New York on August 21, 2003.



Jean-François Chevrier and Élia Pijollet



The exhibition is co-produced with Le Point du Jour in Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. It will be presented there from January 29 to May 15, 2022.



The exhibition is accompanied by a book published by Le Point du Jour: John Coplans. A body, under the direction of Jean-François Chevrier.

Format: 14 x 20.5 cm (paperback) About 40 illustrations

Approximately 196 pages

22 euros

ISBN: 978-2-912132-97-0

Publication date: October 2021


John Coplans : La Vie des Formes

October 5, 2021 – January 16, 2022

HCB Foundation

79 rue des Archives

75003 Paris

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