Find, Learn, Price Art
Enjoy the comprehensive art database we've compiled since 1987
Membership Details
Images, sales charts, bios, signatures, 30 artist Alerts and more ...
Art auction records:  Millions of references for pricing research
Or, register for Free Alerts
To track 10 artists.

Already a member?  Sign in here

William Copley

 (1919 - 1996)
William Nelson Copley was active/lived in California, New York, Florida / France.  William Copley is known for surreal-pop imagery, assemblage.

William Copley

    KAHP-lee    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Painter William Nelson Copley (1919-1996), more popularly known by the contraction of his name CPLY,  was born in New York City.  He was adopted by newspaper publisher Colonel Ira C. Copley, who owned newspapers throughout Chicago and Southern California, thus assuring a lifetime of financial independence.

Copley studied at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts from 1932-1936, and Yale University from 1936-1938.  In the U.S. Army from 1942-1946, during World War II, he fought throughout Italy and North Africa.

In 1947-1948, he was Director of Copley Galleries in Beverly Hills, Calif. in partnership with his brother-in-law John Ployardt, where he exhibited Surrealists Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell, Matta, Yves Tanguy, Man Ray and Max Ernst.  The gallery failed.  When it closed, Copley's careers as a collector and artist began.

The artist was self-taught, not starting to paint until he was 28 years old.  He worked in a pseudo-naif style that, to a certain extent, prefigured Pop Art.  From 1951 to 1964, he lived in Paris and associated with Surrealist Max Ernst and Dadaists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

Copley, in 1954, organized and directed the non-profit Copley Foundation to aid artists of his liking, which he continued to do until 1966, when he became dissatisfied with the way it was being run.

In 1955, Copley filed a lawsuit in Chicago seeking liquidation of the Copley estate, worth millions of dollars, receiving, in 1959, payments according to the settlement. By 1961, the IRS was questioning his studio tax deductions and his status as a serious artist

In New York City, where he lived and worked from 1964 to 1979, he began describing the ordinary world with humorous, comic-strip, sketchy figures and blots of color.  He worked with mixed-media, and often featured material used as camouflage, such as curtains, veils and masks.  He has shown work in exhibitions of Surrealism, Pop Art, assemblages and erotica.

In 1979, Copley sold the majority of Surrealist works from his collection at Sotheby's on November 5th, as he would similarly do in 1993, when he sold the contemporary works from his collection at Christie's, November 8th of that year.

The artist lived and worked in Roxbury, Connecticut from 1980-1991, as he did for the remainder of his life in Key West, Florida, from 1992 until his death in May 1996.

His work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

William Nelson Copley (CPLY) exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, as well as the following one-man exhibitions:
"Copley Collects CPLY", Phyllis Kind Gallery,
New York
Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
L.A.C., Lieu d'Art Contemporain, Sigean, France
Galerie Lelong, Zurich
Galerie Onrust, Amsterdam
Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York
Ulmer Museum, Ulm
Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York, NY
Kestner-Gesellshaft, Hamburg (Retrospective)
Galerie Lelong, Zurich
Nolan/Eckman Gallery, New York, NY
Galerie Zell am See, Schloss Rosenberg, Austria
Haus Am Lutzowplatz, Berlin Germany
David Nolan Gallery, New York
Galerie Fred Jahn, Munich
Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York and Chicago
Galerie Klewan, Munich, Germany
Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago
Galerie 1900/2000, Paris
Kewenig Galerie, Frechen-bachem, Germany
Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York

Les Krantz, "American Artists, Illustrated Survey of Leading Contemporary Artists"

Copley Foundation
The William and Noma Copley Foundation was incorporated in Chicago as a non-profit foundation in 1954. Its aim was to aid and encourage creative individuals in the fields of painting, sculpture and music composition.  Grants were awarded by a board of directors from nominations made by the advisers.  The Foundation's advisers were Jean Arp, Alfred Barr, Jr., Roberto Matta Echaurren, Max Ernst, Julien Levy, William Lieberman, Man Ray, Sir Roland Penrose and Sir Herbert Read. The officers and directors were William Copley, Noma Copley, Marcel Duchamp, Barnet Hodes (also called Barney), Eleanor Hodes and Darius Milhaud. Music and art award responsibilities were divided between husband and wife. Noma Copley collaborated with Milhaud, whose music recommendations were nearly all accepted.  William Copley generally made the final decisions on the visual art grants, based on the recommendations of his artist friends.  In 1966 William Copley became dissatisfied with his Foundation association, preferring to be known as a painter rather than a philanthropist.

The Foundation published a series of monographs from 1960-1966 to highlight those artists who received awards.  The British Pop artist Richard Hamilton was chosen as editor, not only for his well-known talents in layout and design, but also, as one of Duchamp's protegées, for the respect given him by the international art community.  A total of 10 monographs were published on Hans Bellmer, Richard Lindner, Bernard Pfriem, René Magritte, Thomas Albert Sills, Eduardo Paolozzi, James Metcalf, Serge Charchoune, Jacques Hérold and Diter Rot [i.e., Dieter Roth]. The later books, especially Dieter Rot's, explored the medium of the artist book, which Hamilton found very exciting.  He suggested that the Foundation continue in this direction and consider publishing books by non-awardees (such as Emmett Williams).  However, William Copley believed the series was straying from the Foundation's initial intentions, which could jeopardize the Foundation's non-profit tax status.

Copley Collection
The Copleys assembled an important private collection of Surrealist art.  Hans Bellmer, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Man Ray were represented in depth.  Important works in the collection were acquired abroad and imported into France.  Approximately half of the collection was purchased in France.  The collection included Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe and Chambre d'Ecoute, Ernst's Le Surréalisme et la Peinture,  Man Ray's A l'Heure de l'Observatoire: les Amoureux and Richard Hamilton's $he.  From 1964 to 1966, Marcia Tucker worked as collection curator, overseeing exhibition loans and the care and maintenance of the collection.  Most of the Copley collection was sold at auction (Sotheby's Nov. 5, 1979).  Some of the works were placed on long-term loan or donated to museums.


(For definitions of Surrealism and Copley Collection, see AskART Glossary at

Biography from the Archives of askART
William N. Copley's art was based on the traditions of Dada* and Surrealism* as well as American Pop Art*. Copley studied at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1932 to 1936 and at Yale University from 1936 to 1938. After returning from war in 1947, Copley opened his own gallery in Los Angeles at the age of twenty eight. He managed to attract the main protagonists of Surrealism to his exhibitions, including the European artists René Magritte, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Roberto Matta and the Americans Joseph Cornell and Man Ray.?

William Copley did not begin painting himself until the late 1940s. In 1951 he went to Paris with Man Ray, where he lived in Surrealist* circles for around thirteen years. During these years, the artist painted numerous humorous and ironic pictures dealing with the Surrealist traditions. In France his art flowered. A decidedly American sensibility cross-pollinated with an uncanny innocent deployment of French decorative patterning that his fellow Surrealists quite adored. CPLY became a painter who had so much of the instinct of a Chaplin or Buster Keaton or characters out of our comic strips, that by way of his art, a particular American flavor became part of the late Surrealist menu. In 1980 Copley moved to Roxbury, Connecticut, followed by a further move to Key West, Florida, in 1992.

CPLY's return to America around 1962 just happened to coincide with the emergence of Pop Art. Much to his surprise and to the delight of his many admirers, CPLY could now be seen as a very real and crucial link between classical Surrealist art and the new American Pop art.

Copley is regarded as a late Surrealist and precursor of Pop Art. His work was widely recognised even during his life-time. His first solo exhibition took place in Los Angeles in 1951, followed by further exhibitions in New York, Paris, Milan, Venice and London. In 1961 the Amsterdam 'Stedelijk Museum' bought the first Copley painting for a public collection. In 1968 an exhibition at the Berlin 'Galerie Springer' made him known in Germany. The extent of his recognition in Germany was reflected by invitations to Documenta 5 and 7 in 1972 and 1982. In 1980 a traveling exhibition visiting Berne, Paris, Amsterdam and Karlsrughe was very successful. Most recently, his works have been shown in solo exhibitions at the 'Kestner Gesellschaft' in Hanover (1995), at the 'Galerie Fred Jahn' in Munich (1996-1997 and at the 'Ulmer Museum' in 1997.
Copley (CPLY) is known for his witty, slightly titillating subjects and a colorful decorative style. Drawing on a humorous visual vocabulary of images that most often include a herringbone-suited man in a bowler hat; an umbrella, and a bevy of naked women, he created saucy little narratives. These characters occupy interiors, such as boudoirs, bathrooms (complete with bidets), and the backseats of cars. Collage* and collage-like patterns of lace, checkered tile, striped or floral wallpaper, wood grain and flags, serve to underscore the erotic activities of these cartoonish characters.  Copley surmised that " . . the kind of humor I like, (is) bumbling W.C. Fields humor and the eroticism is also bumbling. I maintain that when it comes to sex, everyone is a bumbler. That's what makes sex so much fun: since nobody really understands it, the possibilities for originality are endless."
In his work, he combined a unique sense of irony with a joyousness of living in his paintings. He explained, "My life is a quest for the ridiculous image. The visual pun is the golden nugget that we seek." Copley's work has been collected and shown by eleven museums throughout Europe and by numerous artists/collectors including the surrealists he so admired such as Max Ernst and Roberto Matta.  Twenty books have been written about him in five languages. 
More than forty years ago CPLY began his art in Los Angeles. By blind instinct or uncommon sense, he was born artistically as a natural Surrealist. In fact, he was the last of the few genuine Surrealist artists to have emerged in America. The work emerged at a time when there were precious few serious collectors for interesting new art of any persuasion; and worse, this work would have been an affront to any of the heavy-breathing intellectuals and critics who were then beginning to champion the New American Abstraction. CPLY solved this by running off to France. 
The poetry of sophisticated banality and subversive narrative play had finally come to have a real and sustaining place in American culture as the 60s unfolded. CPLY had been there all along.
Bill Copley lived and passed away in the Florida Keys which he dearly loved and they loved him back!
Submitted by Nance Frank, friend of the artist

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from
Only after he opened his own gallery in California in 1947 did William Copley begin to paint for himself.  Since then, his work has appeared in such museums as the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.; Art Institute of Chicago, and the Tate Gallery in London.  The magic in his work comes from his ability to capture his inventive imagination on canvas and the print medium.  Copley's love for intricate and complicated design is evident in any one of his works.  It is not unusual for him to blend stripes, polk-a-dots, plaids and checkers into a single, striking image.  Born in New York in 1919 and educated at Yale University, Copley has emerged as primarily a surrealist.

Mr. Copley led a charmed life that included not only painting but also art dealing and collecting and philanthropy.  Born in New York City in 1919, he was orphaned as an infant and adopted by Ira C. Copley, a newspaper tycoon who owned 16 newspapers in Chicago and San Diego.  He attended Yale University and worked briefly as a reporter for The San Diego Tribune.

But a friend introduced Mr. Copley to Surrealist painting, and he became friendly with the colony of expatriate Surrealists then in Los Angeles, including Man Ray and Max Ernst.  In 1947 he opened a gallery there to show their work, but closed it when nothing sold, his failure as a salesman of Surrealist art marking the start of his careers as a collector and artist.  Over the years he amassed one of the world's most respected collections of Surrealist art, which included Man Ray's unforgettable image of large red lips floating above the landscape.  The collection was sold at auction in 1979 for $6.7 million, at the time the highest total for the auction of a single owner's collection in the United States.

Mr. Copley spent most of the 50's and early 60's living and working in Paris, where his friendship with the Surrealists made him a welcome member of their movement. But the style he perfected was Surrealist only in its emphasis on uninhibited expressions of the libido.  His cartoonish figures had affinities to Pop Art, which they presaged, and drew from American folk art.

In 1953, Mr. Copley and his second wife, Noma Ratner, founded the William and Noma Copley Foundation, later known as the Cassandra Foundation, which gave small grants to artists. The foundation also gave Marcel Duchamp's last work, Etant Donnes, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Mr. Copley had been one of the few people to see it before then; Duchamp had worked on it in secret for 20 years.

1965 Surrealist exhibition, Paris
1963 Pop Art USA, Oakland Art Museum
1956 Salon de Mai Paris
1948 Los Angeles

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Share an image of the Artist

  Full access to biographies is
  free each Friday

About  William Copley

Born:  1919 - New York City
Died:   1996 - Florida Keys, Florida
Known for:  surreal-pop imagery, assemblage