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Tomb of the Unknown Whore

Tomb of the Unknown Whore
signed and dated 'CPLY 65' (lower right)
acrylic on canvas
44 3/4 x 63 5/8in. (113.7 x 161.7cm.)
Painted in 1965
Galerie Renata Fassbender, Munich.
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s New York, 11 November 1988, lot 191.
Galerie Schönewald Fine Arts, Düsseldorf.
Galerie Manus Presse, Stuttgart.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007.
New York, Alexander Iolas Gallery, CPLY: Projects for Monuments to the Unknown Whore, 1966 (illustrated, unpaged).
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Copley, 1966, no. 45.
New York, Onnasch Galerie, William Copley: CPLY, 1974, no. 25 (illustrated, unpaged). This exhibition later travelled to Philadelphia, Moore College of Art.
Bern, Kunsthalle Bern, William Copley, 1980-1981, p 98, no. 60 (illustrated, p. 76). This exhibition later travelled to Paris, Musée National D’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum and Badischer Kunstverein, Germany.
Vienna, BAWAG Foundation, CPLY: Easy to Read Story Book, 2003, no. 13.
Stuttgart, Galerie Manus Presse, William N. Copley, 2006 (illustrated in color, p. 13).
Stuttgart, Galerie Klaus Gerrit Friese, William N. Copley: Among Ourselves, 2009, p. 143 (illustrated in colour, p. 25).
Baden-Baden, Museum Frieder Burda, Copley, 2012, p. 241 (illustrated pp. 78-79). This exhibition later travelled to Bruehl, Max Ernst Museum des LVR and Herford, Stiftung Ahlers Pro Arte.
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.
Further details
“The Unknown Whore is certainly as important as the Unknown Soldier: they’ve both been had. Everybody forgets that a prostitute is a woman before she is a prostitute. We have a way of putting people in categories and keeping them there." - William Nelson Copley

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Lot Essay

William Nelson Copley’s paintings are an esoteric blend of Surrealism, Pop and personal fascinations, deploying bold line and colour to eye-popping and provocative effect. Coming from the same private collection, the present two works exemplify his playful eroticism and humour. Both reimagine classical tropes from art history. Tomb of the Unknown Whore (1965) depicts a grand monument with women in fishnet stockings—a Copley trademark—standing in as caryatids and lounging across its frieze. Leda (1962) transposes the myth of Leda and the swan to a modern bedroom, densely patterned and wallpapered with tiny figures. The blonde Leda looks unimpressed with her feathered suitor, who wears a bowler hat and carries an umbrella under his wing. Tomb of the Unknown Whore has been included in many major exhibitions in its lifetime, including Copley’s 1966 show at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (where it was photographed being admired by Max Ernst); the travelling retrospective William Copley, which opened at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1980; and, more recently, the 2012 survey Copley at the Museum Frieder Burda, Baden Baden. Leda was also included in the latter exhibition, having first been shown in London and Paris in 1963.

Copley lived an extraordinarily colourful life. He married six times, made and lost fortunes, and took part in some of the most exciting chapters of postwar art history. Born in 1919 to parents who are thought to have died of influenza, he was adopted from the New York Foundling Hospital by the wealthy couple Ira and Edith Copley. After attending Phillips Academy and leaving Yale early to serve in the army, he abandoned convention for a life in art. From 1948 to 1949 he operated a gallery in Los Angeles, where he represented artists such as Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, René Magritte and his own close friend Marcel Duchamp, long before they had gained any mainstream acceptance in America. He sold almost no paintings. Copley’s personal guarantee of ten percent sales to all of his artists, however, meant that he purchased much of their work himself, and he assembled what would become one of the greatest collections of Surrealist art in the United States. In 1979 these works were auctioned for $6.7 million, at the time the highest ever total for an American single-owner collection.

Copley—or his alter-ego ‘CPLY’—painted throughout his life, creating eccentric, ribald and often politically pointed works. He lived in France for much of the 1950s and early 1960s, eventually returning to Manhattan in 1962, at a time when Pop art was in its ascendancy. Andy Warhol, Christo, Roy Lichtenstein and other artists were frequent guests at his studio on Lower Broadway. As the present two paintings demonstrate, Copley’s own work remained utterly unique. ‘Extravagantly absurd, inventive, and self-expressive,’ writes Toby Kamps, ‘the works of this stubborn original remind us of the deep-seated, intensely personal nature of the artistic endeavour … he made little effort to repress his drives and neuroses. Instead, he put them at the heart of his project, creating an alter ego and a parallel universe that hold funhouse mirrors to his libidinal fantasies and rich and rollicking life’ (T. Kamps, ‘William N. Copley: The World According to CPLY’, William N. Copley, exh. cat. Fondazione Prada, Milan 2016, p. 38).

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