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Capella Sextina

Capella Sextina
signed and dated 'CPLY 61' (lower left)
oil on canvas
64 x 51 in. (162.6 x 130 cm.)
Painted in January 1961
Acquired from the artist by the late owners, circa 1965.
New York, Alexander Iolas Gallery, Recent Paintings by CPLY, January 1961.
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, CPLY: Recent Paintings by William Copley, May-July 1961.
Milan, Galleria Schwarz, Bill Copley, February 1962 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, David Stuart Gallery, CPLY, July 1964.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, William N. Copley, October-November 1966, no. 23 (illustrated).
Kunsthalle Bern; Paris, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum and Karlsruhe, Badischer Kunstverein, William, N. Copley, October 1980-May 1981, no. 35 (illustrated).
Miami, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sweet Dreams and Nightmares: Dada and Surrealism from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection, March-May 2000.
New York, Pace/MacGill Gallery, The Long Arm of Coincidence: Selections from the Rosalind and Melvin Jacobs Collection, April-May 2009 (illustrated).
Houston, The Menil Collection and Milan, Fondazione Prada, William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY, February 2016-February 2017, no. 236 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

A monumental work in the artist’s oeuvre, Capella Sextina fervently encapsulates William Copley’s spirited style of figuration. The undulating mass of nude figures radiates an organic stream of consciousness, urging the viewer’s gaze to move across the surface of the painting. Pairing surrealist imagery with an ornate all-over composition, the present work illustrates Copley’s vital role as a link between the European Surrealists and the new age of Pop Art in the United States. A rare and extraordinary work, Capella Sextina has been exhibited widely—first, at Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York, in 1961. Most recently, the pattern of bodies within Capella Sextina formed the wallpaper for the major 2017 William N. Copley exhibit at the Fondazione Prada, Milan.

Undogmatic in both his life and art, Copley wielded his brush as a tool of spritely liberation that emancipated art from its established boundaries. Copley used his lack of formal training to his advantage, developing a unique style that thrived on its unfettered expression. In Capella Sextina, Copley paints with a color palette of greens and reds. While the color green is commonly associated with nature, red is most often associated with passion. This powerful pairing of colors goes to the heart of Copley’s practice, by using color and tone to reveal and revel in the primal, playful sources of pleasure. Through the combination of these colors and their attendant themes, Copley presents libido in a lighthearted manner that focuses on its normality. Although Copley’s painterly style could be described as naïve, the coloration in Capella Sextina exhibits a sophistication and force of purpose that lend an exceptional degree of gravity to this work.

The title of the present work, Capella Sextina, is a play on words that refers to the Capella Sistina, or the Sistine Chapel in English. Painted on a canvas that stretches over five feet tall, the painting is reminiscent of the large frescoes that adorn the famed chapel’s interior—specifically Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. Copley wittily employs Capella Sextina to poke fun at moral propriety and taboos policed by moral authorities and represented by visual culture. Upon the completion of The Last Judgement in 1541, a bitter dispute erupted between Michelangelo and high church officials due to the nudity within the painting. Eventually, another painter was brought in to paint clothes over the nude forms, a campaign of visual censorship that one art historian wittily described as “painting panties for the pontif” (W.A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, 1979, p. 132).

There is an uninhibited fecundity in Capella Sextina that courses throughout the painting’s vibrant colors and interwoven forms. An undulating energy beats throughout the work, and the intermingled bodies elicit the image of a venous network supplying life-giving force through Copley’s paint. The rhythm of the composition is found in the interaction between the reds and greens as well as the thick, curving contours of the human figures. Copley, whose paintings are praised for their casual and light-hearted approach to the erotic, saw sexuality as a vital aspect of the human experience and featured it in many of his paintings. There are hundreds of women depicted in this painting—all similar in size and style, collectively coming together to represent the singular, universal woman in Copley’s mind. Stepping back from the painting, the curves of the women’s bodies form a winding fleshy mass that closely resembles the soft tissue of the human brain.

One of Copley’s first contacts in the surrealist art world was Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was one of Copley’s biggest advocates and urged him to develop his artistic practice. Rejecting formal training, Copley instead learned directly from the artists who surrounded him. Viewing the painting in this light, there are several intriguing similarities to be drawn between Copley’s Capella Sextina and Marcel Duchamp’s modernist classic Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. The latter painting, created in 1912, subverts the well-established theme of the female nude in painting by removing the erotic and romantic and replacing them with the conceptual and the practical. As Duchamp said, “One just doesn't do a nude woman coming down the stairs...it seemed scandalous” (quoted in C. Pierre, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, Boston, 1987, p. 44). Painted about 50 years after Duchamp’s masterpiece, Copley’s Capella Sextina breaks the rules that had by this time been established by Duchamp. By re-inserting the appealing form of the female nude and incorporating a bright and lively color palette, the work takes a step away from the conceptual and towards the graspable and enjoyable, adding in a sense of narrative amidst a world that increasingly turned to abstraction. Copley’s painting does not revert back to the thematic hierarchies of the French salon, though, and instead riffs upon his predecessors’ scandalous depictions in his exuberant and relatable style.

Copley adored Surrealism, yet he was not afraid to poke fun at what he saw as the self-seriousness displayed by his French compatriots: “The French take art very seriously, and I just couldn’t help wanting to bait them a little. They were really so damn shockable” (quoted in William N. Copley, exh. cat., David Nolan Gallery, New York, 1991, p. 9). Copley was not beholden to the paradigm of "high" and "low" imagery or themes in art. Although he took inspiration from his Surrealist friends—as seen in his incorporation of their symbolic bowler hat—Copley expanded his repertoire of motifs to include the commonplace symbols of everyday life, such as cartoon hearts and national flags. Despite his jocular prodding and stylistic departures, Copley was embraced by the French surrealist circle. His art proved vital in connecting the European and American styles and anticipated the works of artists such as John Wesley and Tom Wesselmann. Copley’s artworks contain a rawness of spirit and purity of conviction that continue to resonate with new audiences.

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