William Nelson Copley (b. 1919, New York; d. 1996, Sugarloaf Key, Florida), a self-taught painter known by the moniker CPLY, is a crucial connecting figure between Surrealism and Pop art.Copley came to painting following a short-lived career as a gallerist and collector of Surrealist works in Los Angeles. He developed a unique style and iconography that made use of cartoonlike motifs––reduced, simple figures depicted with thick, black brushstrokes and flat coloring, most often men in bowler hats and female nudes––to critically and humorously explore topics including nationalism, eroticism, and art history.
Although it proved an economic failure, Copley’s gallery brought Surrealist artwork to Los Angeles and connected him to many artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Man Ray. The experience ultimately inspired Copley to become an artist himself. After the gallery closed in 1949, he dedicated himself full-time to his own work, following the succinct advice he received from Duchamp: “You should continue painting.”
Birdshot was included in Copley’s first New York exhibition, “Paintings by William Copley,” at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in 1958. Centered on a black background isthe silhouette of a blunderbuss, an early short-range firearm used to shoot birds, accompanied by the image of blue doves that recurs in several other of his works. The combination of title and imagery attests to Copley’s appreciation for and frequent use of the (visual) pun. “My life is a quest for the ridiculous image. The visual pun is the golden nugget that we seek,” he said.
Copley’s works are held in major public and private collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Tate Gallery, London. International exhibitions include the 1980–81 traveling retrospective “William N. Copley” presentedat the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland; Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands; and Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, Germany. Most recently, “William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY,” a traveling retrospective, was exhibited at the Menil Collection, Houston, and the Fondazione Prada, Milan, in 2016. Major group exhibitions include documenta 5 and 7, Kassel, Germany.