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William N. Copley's pop nudes on display at Fondazione Prada

Between Surrealism and Pop Art

William N. Copley's pop nudes on display at Fondazione Prada Between Surrealism and Pop Art

Ironic, over the top, with a provocative and distinctive way of making art, between Surrealism and Pop Art, Man Ray and Magritte's ideological son yet forerunner of the graffiti style later developed by Keith Haring. American artist William N. Copley – or rather CPLY, as his signature reads – is one of the most representative figures of postwar American art and perhaps one of the most underrated as well.

Now, Fondazione Prada pays tribute to him by staging a comprehensive retrospective, which not only allows us to examine the progression of Copley's pictorial style through fifty years, but also to understand him as an art connoisseur and collector.

In addition to the 150 works made by Copley over the years between 1948 and 1995, it is also possible to admire a number of books and magazines jealously collected by the artist as well as a small body of works by René Magritte, Man Ray, Jean Tinguely and Max Ernst.

The exhibition is spread over two floors in Fondazione Prada. The common thread is Copley's irreverent humour, the themes it links are sex, war and grotesque. The style is cartoony, amateur and almost iconoclastic which results in the use of a thick dashed line.

The first part of the exhibition unfolds through the winding pink velvet walls of Podium's first floor and, in addition to a series of works signed CPLY, we can find some archival material – magazines, letters, photographs and publications – courtesy of William N. Copley's Estate in New York, as well as a few pieces from the artist's personal collection. Two striking ones are the five paintings of The évidence éternelle by Magritte and Imaginary Portrait of the Marquis De Sade by Man Ray.

The second part spreads through eight rooms, a sort of gradual descent into licentiousness and provocation. It starts with the "imaginary flags" made from 1957 to 1995, through which the artist facetiously reintepretates the flags of the several countries – thus, the Japan's rising sun turns into a female bottom and the Russian flag into a quarrelling couple.

The exhibition goes then on with allusions to the Cold War and the resumption of the topic of sex, through a series of paintings whose titles recall that of famous works and movies (Rape of Lucretia, Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris, Grand Hotel). We pass through a maze of painted wood screens, we cross the "ridiculous images" room where common objects like spoons and glasses are portrayed, we face a section dedicated to the "unknown whore" (ironic counterpart of the unknown soldier) and we end up in an immersive environment in which 7 shaped and carved mirrors recreate themes dear to Copley – men in bowler hats, soldiers and courtesans – that make us feel perfectly into the atmosphere of an American brothel.

The exhibition dedicated to William N. Copley will be held from 20 October 2016 to 8 January 2017 at Fondazione Prada.