Out of the Vault–William Copley and the Instant Art Collection

Installing S. M. S. (Shit Must Stop) Number 4, 1968; note Roy Lichtenstein’s Folded Hat, vinyl hat construction, Purchase, with funds from Kit S. Basquin, George and Angela Jacobi with matching funds from Johnson Controls, and Jacques and Barbara Hussussian. M1995.290. Photo credit Nate Pyper.

Installing S. M. S. (Shit Must Stop) Number 4, 1968; note Roy Lichtenstein’s Folded Hat, vinyl hat construction, Purchase, with funds from Kit S. Basquin, George and Angela Jacobi with matching funds from Johnson Controls, and Jacques and Barbara Hussussian. M1995.290. Photo credit Nate Pyper.

William Copley (1919-1996) was an American art entrepreneur who was involved in every facet of the art world at one time or another during his career.

Copley worked as a painter, writer, gallery owner, collector, patron and publisher. He began painting in the early 1920s and identified with the Surrealists.

Surrealism was an art and culture movement that began in the early 1920s and persevered through the 1960s. It had a major influence on abstract expressionism, postmodernism and popular culture. It was founded in Paris by a small group of writers and artists who found that the conscious mind repressed the power of imagination, creating taboos in our culture and guilt in our actions.

S.M.S.1 was an experimental magazine created by Copley during the turbulent year of 1968.

Installing S. M. S. (Shit Must Stop) Number 4, 1968; note Roy Lichtenstein’s Folded Hat, vinyl hat construction, Purchase, with funds from Kit S. Basquin, George and Angela Jacobi with matching funds from Johnson Controls, and Jacques and Barbara Hussussian. M1995.290. Photo credit Nate Pyper.

Installing S. M. S. (Shit Must Stop) Number 4, 1968; note Roy Lichtenstein’s Folded Hat, vinyl hat construction, Purchase, with funds from Kit S. Basquin, George and Angela Jacobi with matching funds from Johnson Controls, and Jacques and Barbara Hussussian. M1995.290. Photo credit Nate Pyper.

Copley published S.M.S. under The Letter Edged in Black Press, which he orchestrated from a rented loft on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The space became celebrated for its utopian morale and welcoming working conditions, which included “a buffet perpetually replenished by nearby Zabar’s Delicatessen, an open bar, and a pay phone with a cigar box filled with dimes.”2

The Letter Edged in Black Press produced six issues of the periodical and it was made available only by subscription, as a way to bypass the gallery system and provide its collectors with an “instant art collection.” Each issue was designed as a portfolio with an index of works, but lacked any other edifying materials, thus avoiding any predetermined editorial or social commentary for its readers.

The artwork in each issue ranged from Dada to Pop, and took many forms of expression, including photography, audio pieces, drawings, poetry and performance. Beginning in February of 1968, a new issue was published bimonthly and sent out to all subscribers. The periodical only lasted one year.

The goal of this subscription-based art collection was inspired by the Fluxus Movement (1959-1978), which encouraged diverse artists, both famous and unknown, to come together in publication and performance. Fluxus artists did not agree with the authority of museums to determine the value of art, nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art. Fluxus artists not only wanted art to be available to the masses, they also wanted everyone to produce art all the time.

S.M.S. did just that, bringing disparate artists together without the established boundaries of the art world onto an equal playing field. Regardless of reputation or medium, each contributor received $100 for their inclusion. Among the many artists and composers represented are Christo, Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Man Ray, Richard Hamilton, Claes Oldenberg, John Cage, H. C. Westermann, and Yoko Ono.

Now, the question of course remains… how would these Dadaists and Fluxus artists feel about these periodicals being housed and displayed in museum collections–especially when their main tenets were to dismiss and mock the world of “high art” and the norms of bourgeois culture often associated with galleries and museums, and of course the authority that these institutions have on determining the value of art? Personally, I would like to think that their other ideology, of wanting art to be available to the masses, would be connected by our mission to collect and preserve art, presenting it to the community as a vital source of inspiration and education–though I may be viewing things through rose-colored glasses!

The following are additional photographs from the installation of issues 1 and 2. Enjoy!

Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art, Catherine Sawinski begins to layout Issue #1 in the case. Photo credit Nate Pyper

Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art, Catherine Sawinski begins to layout Issue #1 in the case. Photo credit Nate Pyper

Exhibition Designer, David Russick is on hand to give the display that little something extra! Photo credit Nate Pyper

Exhibition Designer, David Russick is on hand to give the display that little something extra! Photo credit Nate Pyper

The cover design of S. M. S. Number 2 was designed by Marcel Duchamp; it is a removable record that can actually be played.

The cover design of S. M. S. Number 2 was designed by Marcel Duchamp; it is a removable record that can actually be played.

The final display.

The final display.

The Herzfeld Print, Drawing and Photography Study Center is located on the Mezzanine Level of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Functioning as both a research space for classes and individuals, the Study Center houses the majority of the works on paper collection at the museum. The Mezzanine rotates through prints, drawings and photographs in our collection generally on a quarterly basis on our feature wall just outside the Study Center. We also feature cased works, such as artist books and other works, like the S.M.S. periodical. The museum has all six issues in our collection, and currently issues 3 and 4 are on view; to be followed by issues 5 and 6. We invite all visitors to view these works, and despite their un-abbreviated name, they really are suitable for all ages!

The Study Center is open by appointment for researchers 18 and up. Please feel free to contact: studycenter@mam.org or 414.224.3817 to schedule an appointment for your own private viewing and research. Requests should be as specific as possible and be scheduled at least two weeks in advance.

1 S.M.S. stands for “Shit Must Stop”.
2 Carter Ratcliff, “SMS: Art in Real Time,” from SMS: A Collection of Multiples. Exhibition Catalog. Published by Reinhold-Brown Gallery, NY. Oct. 1988.

–Tina Schinabeck, Collections Manager of Works on Paper

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