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John Coplans, 83; Art Critic Who Turned Photographer Late in Life

August 22, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

John Coplans, an influential art critic, magazine editor and curator who successfully reinvented himself as a photographer at the age of 60, died in his sleep Thursday in New York City after a long illness. He was 83.

Coplans co-founded Artforum Magazine in June 1962. Within five years it ranked among the most important journals of new art, pushing older rivals like Art News, Art in America and Art International to the side. In 1974 Coplans received the Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism from the College Art Assn.

John Rivers Coplans was born in London on June 24, 1920, and raised in South Africa. He initially set out to be a painter. After service in both the British air force and the British army during World War II, which took him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (now Myanmar), he briefly studied painting in London. Finding the schools inadequate, he instead frequented the city's art museums. There he was influenced by such shows as "Four Abstract Classicists," the first show in Europe of postwar art from Los Angeles, and "New American Painting" at the Tate Gallery. Sensing that art's immediate future lay in the United States, he began to consider a move.

The sight of post-nuclear-holocaust San Francisco in the 1959 science fiction movie "On the Beach" reminded Coplans of South Africa; within a year he had divorced his first wife and moved to San Francisco. Coplans taught at UC Berkeley but, disappointed by what he regarded as the department's anti-intellectual view of art, he began to consider starting a magazine to initiate a dialogue. With salesman John Irwin as publisher and, soon after, former gallery director and city welfare officer Phil Leider as editor, Artforum was launched.

Faced with a conservative cultural milieu, and having exhausted its credit options in San Francisco after just a few issues, the magazine soon relocated to Los Angeles, where a market for new art was starting to develop. Coplans was determined that Artforum would be influential on both coasts. "The thing was how to get the Eastern establishment to read about West Coast art," Coplans told an interviewer in 1975. To ensure that New York would pay attention to Los Angeles, he began to include East Coast writers in the magazine.

Coplans continued his involvement with Artforum, mostly as a writer, even after it once again relocated -- this time to Manhattan -- in 1967. But his title, editor at large, was mostly honorary, and he received almost no income from the publication.

Having organized the first American show of Pop art at the Oakland Art Museum, in 1963, Coplans accepted a job as director of the gallery at UC Irvine. During the two-year stint he organized an important show of paintings by Frank Stella. In 1967 he became senior curator at the Pasadena Art Museum, where he mounted the influential exhibition "Serial Imagery," which proposed that artists' repetition of motifs reflected techniques inherent in an industrially based culture. He also organized survey shows of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Donald Judd, and he gave Robert Irwin, Richard Serra and James Turrell their first museum exhibitions.

Coplans left Pasadena for New York in 1971, as the troubled museum spiraled into bankruptcy and became the focus of a takeover by industrialist and collector Norton Simon. Coplans published a scathing account of these events, titled "Diary of a Disaster," in the February 1975 issue of Artforum, where he had returned to assume the editorship. He abruptly left the magazine to become director of the Akron, Ohio, Art Museum in 1978. Coplans later told The Times that he had been asked by the publisher to either buy the magazine or quit.

Two years later Coplans was back in New York making photographs. At 60, he embarked on the career as an artist that had eluded him as a younger man.

Self-portraiture was his focus, although his face rarely appears in his work. The large-format, black-and-white, close-up images picture Coplans in excruciating detail. He dubbed them "auto-portraits," partly because they depict his own nude body and partly because they were made with the aid of a live-feedback video camera and an automatic shutter. Folds of flesh became mountainous landscapes, intertwined fingers assumed the proportions of torsos and legs. Skin became the plane of conjunction between photographic realism and painterly scale.

Coplans' photographs were the subject of a well-received 1997 retrospective at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens. His work is included in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Suffering in recent years from macular degeneration that severely impaired his eyesight, he began a series of pictures of fragmented body parts inspired by the bombing of the World Trade Center, not far from his Bowery studio. They were published last year in an oversize volume, titled "A Body," and examples were shown in Los Angeles at Ace Gallery.

Coplans is survived by his wife, photographer Amanda Means; a son and daughter from an earlier marriage, Joseph, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., and Barbara, of Leeds, England; and two granddaughters, Stefania and Saskia.

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