I Am a Monument?
For his first act in the art world, John Coplans was known as a critic, curator, museum director, and co-founder of Artforum. Then, when he was in his 60s, he assumed a new role as a photographer. And for the last 20 years of his working life, he took his aging body as his only subject. The photographs he made are, at turns, solemn and witty, heroic and pitiable, mercilessly honest and carefully staged, sensual and erudite.
“I’m 70 years old,” he wrote in A Body: John Coplans, “and generally the bodies of 70-year-old men look somewhat like my body. It's a neglected subject matter. So, I’m using my body and saying, even though it's a 70-year-old body, I can make it interesting. This keeps me alive and gives me vitality. It's a kind of process of energizing myself by my belief that the classical tradition of art that we’ve inherited from the Greeks is a load of bullshit.”
Steeped, as he was, in the art world, Coplans made photographs informed by that classical tradition and the long sweep of the history of mostly Western art. Back with Arms Above conjures up some weird Stone Age monolith, Feet Frontal evokes the monumental columns of an Egyptian temple, and Frieze No. 2, Four Panels suggests a particularly rambunctious Greek frieze. You can play an endless game of finding the art historical references: Fingers, Walking suggests Rodin’s striding Balzac; the Upside Down triptychs, the damned of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; the mutilated Body Parts, Hans Bellmer’s grotesque mannequins; and throughout, the biomorphic forms of Arp and Brancusi.
Elsewhere he wrote of the influence of the feminist movement on his thinking, and these photographs are an exploration of not simply the aging body, but the aging male body. When Coplans struck a mock-heroic pose—say, Side View, Bent, with Large Upper Arm—or constructs Frieze No. 2, he was engaged in an act of sabotage: The hero now the clown. That transformation is nowhere more evident than in his treatment of one of Western art’s favorite subjects—the reclining female nude—that offers up not the voluptuous odalisque, but rather an old man’s hairy body.
Nowhere in all this did Coplans show his face. He focused instead on the other bits: the cracked feet, wrinkled knees, varicose veins, sagging belly, sagging butt, sagging everything. “I photograph my body,” he explained. “I generalize it by beheading myself to make my body more like any other man’s.”
Rather than a Singular Man, we get Everyman. So, for all their meticulous detailing of his old man’s body, Coplans’ photographs are a triumph of camouflage that con you, lure you, into looking. All his visual tricks—the gags and the decapitation and the trompe-l’oeil quotations from art history—end up obscuring the actual subject. If, that is, the actual subject is John Coplans and not the many problems created by the load of cultural bullshit we’ve inherited.
Coplans’ self-portraits are less creatures of the private realm than of the public square; while admittedly brazenly intimate, they’re anonymized and somehow monolithic. They serve, it seems to me, as a kind of anti-monument that, in displaying a flaccid, old-man’s body, invites you to ponder how bodies—old bodies, male bodies, female bodies—get represented. Or not.
Our Bodies, Our Selves
Like Coplans, Nancy Hellebrand is explicit about taking on the “neglected subject matter” of the human body in old age. But where Coplans uses indirection (wry wit, expansive erudition) to get us looking at something we’d rather not see—an old man’s hairy body—Hellebrand is characteristically austere.
From the beginning, Hellebrand’s work has been a master class in seeing. She has served up an armpit, a foot, the nape of a neck with a clinical eye; she has anatomized her grocery list, breaking it down to its constituent letters; she has presented the intimate belongings of older women—a dress, a handbag, underwear—like specimens pinned on a white display case.
In 2014, she began photographing older women themselves—specifically their eyes and mouths—the windows of the soul and organs of sensuality. Like so much of her work, Torn. Crushed. Ripped. Beautiful is narrowly focused and similarly intense. The sizes range from a several inches to a few feet, but all the images have been, well, assaulted: crumpled and torn like pieces of scrap paper tossed into the trash can. For Hellebrand, the crumbling—crushing, as she describes it—echoes the culture’s “antipathy for anything that’s not new, young, and obviously daring and sexy.”
Hellebrand is correct, of course, about our culture’s aversion to anything not in the bloom of youth, and women bear the brunt of that judgment. Having spent so much of their lives governed by how they look, the turning-away once they age can come as a bit of a shock. All of a sudden, they’re invisible. Hellebrand aims to reverse the process—to return her subjects to the visible realm.
And with her follow-up to the Torn series, she does just that—and, one might argue, daringly so by photographing nudes of that same cohort of old women. Sometimes the women are seen straight on, sometimes from the back, sometimes at three-quarters’ view—and, unlike with Coplans’ pictures, there are no tricks. It’s all stripped-down and unembellished.
It is precisely that economy of means—Hellebrand’s signature austerity—that makes room for her subjects. With so little to distract, we actually look. “We see who she is!” as Hellebrand puts it. And it is remarkable just how much can be gleaned. It’s not simply the biographical hints—the wedding rings, the walker, a scar, tan lines, the tattoos—but also something in each woman’s stance that suggests a personality, a lived life: a church lady, a grandma, a scrapper.
As Hellebrand tells it, she began the series—simply titled Naked—with a focus on facial details. Over time, though, she began cropping out faces—a decision that seems, at first glance, to echo Coplans’ own. Except that, where Coplans described the “beheading” as a way to generalize—to transform himself into an Everyman—Hellebrand was looking to particularize. “Faces weren’t included,” she explains, “because faces categorically draw our attention, and in these pictures I want to see what the body reveals about one’s lifetime and who they are now.” [my italics.]
Still, as different as they may be in their approach, these two photographers share an attitude: a disposition to resist that, for Coplans, is perhaps best described as cheekiness and, for Hellebrand, as outright defiance.
Writing about the origins of this work, Hellebrand begins by detailing the humiliations of aging: the physical challenges and lapses of memory but, most disturbing, the realization that people didn’t find her all that interesting or astute anymore. Naked is her riposte: “There’s magic,” she continues, “in acknowledging and giving an old woman the interest and appreciation our culture reserves for the young. We see each old woman’s life story embedded in her flesh and posture. If this isn’t important, poignant, and beautiful, I don’t know what is.”
As a culture, we are sometimes willing to ascribe poignancy to old women. Beauty? Importance? Not so much.
On the question of beauty, Hellebrand is insistent. At the artist’s talk held in conjunction with a recent exhibition of the work, the issue was clearly on the table, with Hellebrand standing firm as her interlocutor demurred. Beauty is a word we throw around a lot, but the definition—“a combination of qualities such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight”—is hardly definitive. Which qualities coalesce to please whose senses? Who’s deciding what makes beauty?
You can argue, as Hellebrand does, that it’s our youth-obsessed culture calling the shots. And you’d be right. Do a Google image search on beauty and you get a bevy of young women, bare-shouldered and pouting suggestively for the camera. It’s a dispiriting array, and boring as well, of synthetic women all cast out of the exact same mold.
And then consider Hellebrand’s women, each her own unapologetically naked and individual person. You, too, may demur on the question of beauty, but I think it’s hard to question the import of this body of work. These images confront us with the naked fact of the aging body and remind us that youth will fade and flesh will sag, that we will all grow old.
At her gallery show, Hellebrand exhibited the images as miniatures. While I wasn’t sure about the choice for the setting—the photographs got a bit lost in the expanse of white walls—I was very much taken with the idea that holding one of them in the palm of my hand would be akin to contemplating a memento mori object.
Memento senescere. Remember you must age.
Things Fall Apart
Both Coplans and Hellebrand took to the studio to make what are, in effect, figure studies. Isolating their subjects, they strip away context. Stripping away context, they paradoxically force a political question. Both artists speak to the culture’s aversion to anything smacking of old age. Here’s Coplans: “These photographs refer to ‘body politics’ in the sense that ‘oldness’ is a taboo in American society.” And Hellebrand, on a more personal note: “Around the time I turned 70 I realized I was no longer perceived as interesting or particularly astute.”
What they leave unexplored is the life in which old bodies dwell. To survey that terrain, consider Marna Clarke’s Time as We Know It.
A document of her daily life with her partner, Igor, Time as We Know It grew out of the Autumn series of portraits she made of neighbors ranging in age from their 60s to 90s. Clarke, too, was spurred in part by the politics of aging. She writes, “In her 1970 The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘Let us recognize ourselves in this old man or in that old woman. It must be done if we are to take upon ourselves the entirety of our human state.’ She is challenging all of us to go beyond our culture’s present attitudes and treatment of its senior citizens, to shape our own futures by seeing ourselves in them.”
The Autumn photographs are, for the most part, environmental shots of people in their houses or going about their daily life. Forming a collective portrait of a coastal enclave north of San Francisco inhabited by artists and the like, they’re handsome and respectful and, up to a point, revealing.
Every bit as respectful as Autumn, Time As We Know It ratchets up the intimacy, laying bare the losses that come with aging: “decreased mental acuity, especially memory; the diminished quality of our skin, hair and teeth; mild disfigurement; as well as the need to tend vigilantly to our balance, hearing, sight, physical agility and getting adequate sleep.”
Once-mundane domestic routines have become projects. To read the newspaper requires glasses and a magnifying glass. To do the morning squats means gripping the handrail to keep steady. To change a lightbulb calls for teamwork, with Igor providing support as Marna balances on the step stool.
Once-young bodies have become fragile. After having broken his arm, Igor is in the ER to get a cast. As Marna sits on her bed, the morning light reveals the varicose veins that run down her legs. Elsewhere, she peers at the camera, her eye patched after cataract surgery.
Through it all, the couple remain staunch, dedicated to one another and to the life they have shared. Igor maintains his long-standing habits: sunning on the deck, using the hot tub, doing his squats. Together, they hang Christmas decorations and share a moment of quiet support. And they embrace.
Although sometimes you may be tempted to look away, Clarke herself never blinks. At once tender and pitiless, this report from life at the edge of doom is a lesson in how to live fully in the sure knowledge that, one day, you will lose everything. Clarke did indeed lose Igor, who died at home in August 2022, with Marna at his bedside.
For me, the most poignant image in the series catches Igor resting on the sofa, his legs and his broken arm elevated. Above him hangs one of his paintings—like a visitation from his past.
As I write this, my mother just marked her 101st birthday. Without compromising the privacy she guards so fiercely, I think can safely say that, at this age, her scope has narrowed down to her body. Age does that.
“I expected to be embarrassed posing nude at 84 years old,” one of Hellebrand’s women says, “but I was amazed at what an empowering experience it was. In one sense it was truly a landmark in self-appreciation; in another it was so easy it was almost a non-event.”
In a sense, she’s right: Our bodies—at whatever age—are a kind of non-event, something we take for granted. In another way, though, our bodies are, well, the main event. We’re nothing without them.
The body is never merely an adjunct, some sort of bit player cast only to shine the spotlight on the cerebral star of the show. For most of us, though, old age will be the first time since infancy that our body is the primary concern of our days. For the rest of the time—through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity—we work with the body. It collaborates with us as we play our games, bed our lovers, bear our children, and mow our lawns. Or so we believe.
But the truth is that the body is never secondary. Ask anyone who’s ever flirted with life-threatening illness or given birth or watched someone die.
Or ask my mother.