Whitney Story

Human Interest: Martha Wilson on John Coplans
Aug 8, 2016

Inspired by Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection, a new Whitney Stories series invites artists to discuss portraits that are meaningful to them. Here, Martha Wilson discusses honesty in John Coplans's work and her own.

Hi, I'm Martha Wilson. I'm here on the sixth floor of the Whitney Museum in front of the John Coplans piece, the portrait that he did of himself in 1994.

It's a portrait of his desire to be completely honest with his audience. His head is chopped off, so it’s not a traditional portrait in the sense that we usually understand portraits to be. The photos were taken independently, because see how the ass crack doesn’t line up here. The arm doesn’t line up over there. Here he seems to be squeezing his breast. So he’s cataloging his ugliness, front, back, and side, without a concern that it become a faithful portrait. It's an unfaithful portrait. Portraits suggest the face; there’s no face anywhere here. He’s busy undermining the whole genre of portraiture.

It’s about beauty, or the lack thereof. As I was embarking on the voyage of being a young artist in the '70s, I was attempting to sculpt my personality by occupying other bodies than my own. So one of the efforts that I was also making, in addition to dressing up in all kinds of different characters, was to beautify myself as best I could, and then to deform my face with black and white grease pencil in an effort to explore the limits of appearance. The whole idea was to sculpt my personality.

I've been having fun with growing old and not shying away from the fact that we have wrinkles, and baggy skin, and this is what it is to be an old lady. Everybody is here in their bodies until they are no longer alive. John’s sharing his personhood with us in a completely honest and open way. I think that’s one of my goals as well: to try to be honest, to try to be unafraid of looking at what is really there.


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