Born in New
York in 1919 and educated at Yale University.
Mr. Copley led a charmed life that included not only painting but also art dealing and collecting and philanthropy. He was orphaned as an infant and adopted by Ira C. Copley, a newspaper tycoon who owned 16 newspapers in Chicago and San Diego. He attended Yale University and worked briefly as a reporter for The San Diego Tribune.
But a friend introduced Mr. Copley to Surrealist painting, and he became friendly with the colony of expatriate Surrealists then in Los Angeles, including Man Ray and Max Ernst. In 1947 he opened a gallery there to show their work, but closed it when nothing sold, his failure as a salesman of Surrealist art marking the start of his careers as a collector and artist. Over the years he amassed one of the world's most respected collections of Surrealist art, which included Man Ray's unforgettable image of large red lips floating above the landscape. The collection was sold at auction in 1979 for $6.7 million, at the time the highest total for the auction of a single owner's collection in the United States.
Mr. Copley spent most of the 50's and early 60's living and working in Paris, where his friendship with the Surrealists made him a welcome member of their movement. But the style he perfected was Surrealist only in its emphasis on uninhibited expressions of the libido. His cartoonish figures had affinities to Pop Art, which they presaged, and drew from American folk art.
In 1953, Mr. Copley and his second wife, Noma Ratner, founded the William and Noma Copley Foundation, later known as the Cassandra Foundation, which gave small grants to artists. The foundation also gave Marcel Duchamp's last work, "Etant Donnes," to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Mr. Copley had been one of the few people to see it before then; Duchamp had worked on it in secret for 20 years.
In 1980 Copley moved to Roxbury, Connecticut, followed by a further move to Key West, Florida, in 1992. Copley is regarded as a late Surrealist and precursor of Pop Art. His work was widely recognised even during his life-time. His first solo exhibition took place in Los Angeles in 1951, followed by further exhibitions in New York, Paris, Milan, Venice and London. In 1961 the Amsterdam 'Stedelijk Museum' bought the first Copley painting for a public collection. In 1968 an exhibition at the Berlin 'Galerie Springer' made him known in Germany. The extent of his recognition in Germany was reflected by invitations to documenta 5 and 7 in 1972 and 1982. In 1980 a traveling exhibition visiting Berne, Paris, Amsterdam and Karlsrughe was very successful. Most recently, his works have been shown in solo exhibitions at the 'Kestner Gesellschaft' in Hanover (1995), at the 'Galerie Fred Jahn' in Munich (1996-1997 and at the 'Ulmer Museum' in 1997.
In his final years he lived in Key West, Florida