John Coplans’ Self Portrait (Frieze No. 3) was, perhaps, the most controversial piece discussed by HAMS this semester. Coplans, who immigrated to the United States from Britain after World War II, was obsessed with the idea of aging. This interest led to many studies of his own aging body during the 1960s: photographs of wrinkles on his hands, his feet, and, of course, the series of photographs we have here at the Johnson which show his groin, stomach, and buttocks. Coplans was careful to never photograph his face in an effort to not focus on himself but make his work relatable to everyone who saw it.
Among HAMS members, feelings towards the Self Portrait were incredibly polarized. Through debate, we found that members either loved or hated the piece, and both for good reasons. Those who thought that Coplans’ piece belonged in the show found it to be both startling and a perfect example of the idea of “framing self.” They believed that in Self Portrait, Coplans represents himself in a way that is both unique and powerful. He shows the most shocking part of his aging body in a way that is neither flattering nor staged. In a sense, he bares the most vulnerable part of himself to the camera, an act that leaves the viewer feeling either uncomfortable or intensely aware of the idea of aging. However, many other students thought that this piece was vulgar, too large (the two panels would take up an entire wall) and not something we wanted our exhibit to be remembered by. Although many of these students believed that Coplans’ piece was a good work of art, they urged the group to take in to account the exhibit as a whole.
In the end, we decided that including the piece in our exhibit is not wise. We believe that because of its size and shocking subject matter, Self Portrait would take away attention from other works in the exhibit. We also concluded that without a proper explanation of Coplans’ intent to explore themes of aging and self-representation, this piece can appear to be rather crude. This being said, Self Portrait is a very interesting work of art, and when the Johnson takes it out of storage for use in an exhibit, we strongly recommend that everyone go see it.
By Eva Morgan, Class of 2016