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LA Gallery History Copley Galleries by Jonathan Griffin

William N. Copley in Paris c. 1951. Photograph by Mike de Dulmen. Image courtesy William N. Copley Estate, New York.

No One Wanted to Buy Our Pies:
A History of The Copley Galleries, Beverly Hills, 1948–49

by Jonathan Griffin

Los Angeles has long been a place people come to realize their destiny, to fulfill their greatest inner potential. It is also a place where people are free to perform whatever role they choose for themselves, and where they stand a good chance of being accepted as such.

These two possibilities—self-realization and self-invention—are patently at odds with each other. In Los Angeles, the person striving to live their best life can easily be confused with the person who has wound up simply performing that role. Hence the proliferation of surfboards gathering dust in garages across the city, and the prevalence, in certain circles, of tight, exaggerated laughter and nervous eyes.

When William Nelson Copley moved with his new wife to Los Angeles, in 1945, as with many young men recently discharged from wartime combat, he did not know who he was or who he wanted to be. Married at the age of 26, he became a father soon after. He found himself trapped by the role that he’d imagined might offer him purpose and individuation.

Bill Copley found his escape, and his fulfillment, in art. Over the course of his life—he died in 1996, at the age of 77—he threw himself into a multitude of roles, including artist, gallerist, patron, publisher, and collector. He amassed (and later dispersed) one of the greatest collections of art in the United States at the time. As a painter, he created an incomparable body of work that is both transgressive and winsomely charming. He lived in Paris, New York, Connecticut, and the Florida Keys—often finding himself close to the nexus of the avant–garde. But his journey began in Los Angeles, in the 1940s, at a time when the city was not known as a place to find either art or artists.

William N. Copley, Rosarita Beach, 1948, oil and sand on canvas, 23 ¼ × 29 ½ in. Image © William N. Copley Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Copley’s entire life was a struggle—both internal and external—with the hands he’d been dealt, good and bad. His father, Ira C. Copley, was a utilities magnate and Republican congressman, who in 1921 had adopted him at the age of two from the New York Foundling Hospital. While the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19 was the likely cause of Bill’s orphaning, throughout his life he harbored a hunch that his birth mother had been a sex worker. A diminutive and sickly child, he never fit in with his hearty and conservative midwestern family; he was further destabilized when his adoptive mother, Edith, died when he was ten.

Ira Copley died in 1947, leaving his two sons and step-daughter to divide up responsibility for his business empire. Bill, who had grown up in considerable comfort, was suddenly a man of seemingly limitless means. He had no interest in the family businesses, however. In Los Angeles, he had become fast friends with his wife’s brother-in-law, John Ployardt, who was an artist—or the closest to an artist that Copley had then known.

Ployardt drew storyboards for animation studios and, while working with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky on Walt Disney’s Fantasia in the late 1930s, had become an ardent devotee of European Surrealism. Copley was infected by Ployardt’s enthusiasm. “Surrealism,” he later wrote in a reminiscence titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Art Dealer, “made everything understandable: my genteel family, the war, and why I attended the Yale Prom without my shoes. It looked like something I might succeed at.”

“Late one whiskied evening,” as Copley wrote, the pair decided to open a gallery for Surrealist art. “In the white haze of the morning after, we were both too proud to perish the thought.” Los Angeles had few commercial galleries at that time, most of them rather conservative outlets in the lobbies of grand hotels. The preeminent gallery, the Stendahl Art Galleries, had started out at the Ambassador Hotel in the 1920s. Earl Stendahl, who had graduated to dealing in fine art from his family’s confectionary business, showed California Impressionism and, later, Mexican Muralists including Siqueiros, Rivera and Tamayo as well as European Modernists such as Matisse and Chagall. In 1939, Stendahl hosted Picasso’s Guernica (1937)—one of only two commercial galleries included in the painting’s U.S. tour. By the late ‘40s Stendahl was operating his gallery from his home in Hollywood’s Outpost Estates, conveniently situated next door to his biggest clients, Louise and Walter Arensberg.

William N. Copley, St. Valentine’s Day, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 35 × 46 in.
Image © William N. Copley Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Copley found his fledgling appetite for Dada and Surrealism unsatisfied in Los Angeles. Even the city’s museums and non-profit spaces, which included the Los Angeles County Museum and the Pasadena Art Institute (later the Pasadena Art Museum) were timid in their acknowledgement of the Modernist avant–garde. It is telling that there were no L.A. museums willing to show Guernica. A new free private museum, The Modern Institute of Art, was set up by a group of philanthropists including the Arensbergs and the actor Vincent Price. It opened on Rodeo Drive in February 1948, and closed just over a year later, financially insolvent.

Having made their rash resolution, Copley and Ployardt set out to find some artists. They began with the Surrealist closest at hand. Man Ray had fled wartime Paris for Los Angeles in 1940, and found, to his disappointment, Hollywood to be largely indifferent to his presence in the city. His studio was off a courtyard in the Villa Elaine apartment building, near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine Street. One day, Copley and Ployardt knocked at his door. After some initial gruffness, Man Ray—won over, presumably, by the duo’s naiveté and enthusiasm—agreed to an exhibition at their gallery, on the condition of ten percent guaranteed sales and complete autonomy in curating his exhibition.

Just as valuable was Man Ray’s introduction of the young gallerists to his old friend Marcel Duchamp. In the Spring of 1948, Copley and Ployardt flew to New York to meet him. At the time, Duchamp claimed to have retired from art, but he generously connected them with his dealer Alexander Iolas, in whose gallery they had a chance encounter with Joseph Cornell, who they took to lunch and persuaded to lend a selection of his shadow boxes for an exhibition. Thanks to Duchamp, they also visited Roberto Matta, who agreed to a show. Isamu Noguchi, unconvinced by the notion of a Surrealist gallery, declined their invitation.

Buoyed with success from their trip to New York, Copley and Ployardt drove overnight from Los Angeles to Sedona, Arizona, where Duchamp had wired his old friend Max Ernst, recently married to Dorothea Tanning in a double wedding with Man Ray and Juliet Browner, telling him to expect a visit from two young gallerists. Somewhat cut off from the outside world, Ernst and Tanning hospitably welcomed the strangers. After staying for several days, Copley and Ployardt departed with two more exhibitions for their program. As with every other show, they gave the artist a guarantee of ten percent sales—a promise that would have some far-reaching consequences.

William N. Copley, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst, c. 1949–1950. Judith Young-Mallin Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art Library and Archives: Box 16, Folder 8. Image courtesy William N. Copley Estate, New York.

Copley Galleries, 257 North Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, c. 1948–49. Image courtesy William N. Copley Estate, New York.

They rented a bungalow on Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, and had an expensive brass sign made that read ‘Copley Galleries’. On September 30th, 1948, they opened their first show: a survey of 30 paintings by René Magritte, all lent by Iolas. There was a lavish invitation and a publication; at the crowded opening there were abundant cocktails as well as a pet monkey, acquired by Ployardt, which scampered amongst the guests. No works sold. The next day, the hungover gallerists were visited by a local collector who agreed to buy two paintings by Magritte. Copley would later claim that was their only successful sale.

By the Spring of 1949, with enormous overheads and virtually non-existent revenue streams, the Copley Galleries had closed. In the few months of its operation, however, it had witnessed some glorious triumphs. Following Magritte, an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s mesmerizing assemblage shadow boxes was priced between $100 and $200 per piece. Cornell apparently felt the price was too high—a view seemingly shared by the Copley Galleries’ clientele. Exhibitions by Roberto Matta and Yves Tanguy included spectacular paintings that were appreciated primarily by the gallerists. Copley wrote: “The pattern was the same: grand opening, lots of booze and some celebrities, suspicions of success, teasing interest in specific paintings, even one sale that was never paid for.”

Man Ray’s exhibition was remarkable because of the close involvement of its subject. A retrospective of his paintings going back to 1914, including the famous Observatory Time: The Lovers (1932–4), also featured sculptures such as Gift (1921)—an iron with thumb-tacks glued to its base—and Man’s photographs and ‘Rayograms’. In the gallery’s patio, the artist hung a sign advertising ‘Café Man Ray’; French onion soup was served with baguettes and red wine.

Most ambitious of all, from a logistical perspective, was the retrospective of paintings by Max Ernst which received loans from Germany, France, and England, as well as the collaboration of the New York City dealers Pierre Matisse, Julien Levy, and Alexander Iolas. Copley and Ployardt even towed a trailer full of Ernst’s paintings from Sedona to Los Angeles. Improbably, it snowed the day of the opening—a surrealistic event that added to its mythos.

Max Ernst (exhibition view), Copley Galleries, 1949. Image courtesy William N. Copley Estate, New York.

Copley may have exaggerated his own failure to sell any paintings. Records recently located by art-historian Timea Andrea Lelik suggest that pieces by Tanguy, Man Ray, and Ernst found buyers. Nevertheless, following the significant outlay of the Ernst exhibition, the Copley Galleries’ bookkeeper made an undeniable case that the business was not viable.

In order to uphold his guarantee of ten percent sales for each exhibition, Copley had bought much of the work himself. As a result, in the space of six short months, he amassed the core of a first-rate collection of European Surrealism. Observatory Time (The Lovers) would fetch $750,000 at auction in 1979, when Copley sold the majority of his collection at Sotheby Parke Bernet for a record $6.7 million. Even more valuable, to Copley at least, were the friendships that his early dalliance as a dealer had bought him. When he remarried, in 1953, Man Ray was his best man. A photograph from 1966 shows Magritte, Duchamp, Ernst, and Man Ray at the opening of a retrospective of Copley’s own paintings at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Around that same time, Duchamp invited Copley to his New York studio to view an installation he had been working on, in complete secrecy, since the 1940s. Its title was Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage (1946–66); Duchamp asked Copley to purchase the piece, in accordance with his very specific instructions about its permanent installation in the Philadelphia Museum of Art following his death.

It’s impossible to quantify the impact of the Copley Galleries. If Copley is to be believed, few people saw its exhibitions (at least, not in the light of day, its boisterous booze-fueled previews notwithstanding). But countless people have since been inspired by the mere fact of its existence, as improbable and fleeting as a snowstorm in Beverly Hills. Some may even have opened galleries themselves. Among the gallery’s regular audience was a ragtag bunch of local children. Copley and Ployardt welcomed these visitors, even arranging for one keen 16-year old to visit Man Ray’s studio. That boy was Walter Hopps, who less than ten years later would go on to found perhaps the most famous gallery in Los Angeles’ art history.

The Copley Galleries can scarcely be considered a failure, despite its shortcomings. On what terms does a gallery succeed or fail, anyway? Most galleries are manifestly commercial enterprises, but the story of the Copley Galleries—as with so many other influential Los Angeles galleries—makes clear that the long-term significance of a gallery is less to do with the number of units it shifts than with the work it shows, and the spirit in which it operates. Sales do not equal importance; nor, sadly, is importance a guarantee of sales, as Ployardt and Copley discovered. “No one wanted to buy our pies,” Copley wrote. “In that sense we’d paid the price for the education.”

Jonathan Griffin is a critic based in Los Angeles. A contributing editor for Frieze, he also writes for Art Review, Art Agenda, The Art Newspaper, The New York Times and the Financial Times. His book On Fire is published by Paper Monument.