Dressed in wigs and elaborate costumes, or absurdly anthropomorphized with human hands and feet, William Wegman’s Weimaraners—some 30 in all across several generations—have been fascinating, delighting, and perplexing us for more than four decades.
The popularity of Wegman’s prodigious canine-related oeuvre reaches far beyond art galleries and museums, and includes videos for both Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street, calendars, toys, kitchen magnets, and books, including the best-selling Puppies and a new collection of never-before-seen 20x24 Polaroid portraits, Being Human. His dogs have graced the covers of The New Yorker and Wallpaper, and made numerous appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show.
"I started making video and photographic works and in the process became fascinated with the media itself. Before long I was setting things up just for the camera. In l970 I got a dog and he turned out to be very interested in video and photography as well."
Most everyone recognizes Wegman’s dog portraits. But fewer remember that he was a pioneering conceptual artist in the 1960s and ’70s.
Dogs have brought fortune and fame to Wegman, now 73. And, indeed, his two current Weimaraner collaborators, Flo and Topper, are ever-present grey shadows following him wherever he walks through the warren of studios, offices, and domestic spaces that constitute the 5,300-square-foot converted nursery school where he lives in New York’s Chelsea district. “We did a shoot for French Vogue last weekend,” he tells me, pointing to a wall of large photographs of Flo and Topper decked out in an array of clothing styles. “They brought the latest fashions from Paris, and the dogs modeled them.”
Most everyone recognizes Wegman’s dog portraits (even if they might not always know the name of the man who made them). But fewer remember that he was a pioneering
conceptual artist in the 1960s and ’70s, part of a movement founded on the belief that the idea behind a work of art is more important than its execution. Yet Wegman’s “conceptual mindset” has been center stage throughout all aspects of his practice, comments his dealer, Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater. “Everyone loves the dogs. But the sensibility, the droll, not-quite-serious whimsy that made the dogs so popular, that was already there in those quirky but extremely inventive photographs and videos he was making.”
In recent years, Wegman has also been focused on painting. With Flo and Topper at his heels, he leads the way into a large, brightly lit studio, past a work table overflowing with hundreds of postcards. Several of his large “Postcard Paintings,” in various stages of completion, are propped against walls amid tubes of paint and brushes. Each begins with a single postcard, usually placed in the center. Wegman then works outward, using the found composition as a prompt to create vast surreal landscapes or acutely angled modernistic interiors. “They’re easy to start,” he says, “but almost impossible to finish.”
So how did he get here, to the kind of success most artists only dream of, spending most of his summers up in Maine, and the rest of the time in this charming and sprawling urban complex—a place big enough to fit an MG sports car in the living room? (The automobile belongs to his son, Atlas, a tech whiz and aspiring designer, who lives here with Wegman and his wife, the book publisher Christine Burgin. Their daughter, Lola, is away at college.)
Born in 1943, Wegman grew up in the town of East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where he spent his boyhood trekking through the woods in back of his family’s house. Wegman’s precocious draftsmanship talent was evident at an early age; a self-portrait done when he was nine years old romantically depicts him holding an axe, walking with his dog through a snowy forest.
The artist was a teenager in 1950s America, and that cultural moment continues to permeate his work: Radio comedy shows, advertisements, and Hopalong Cassidy serials at the local Congregational Church (which doubled as the town’s cinema) all stewed into what the critic Joan Simon has described as the “purity and perfect strangeness” of Wegman’s art.
He majored in painting at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, but temporarily abandoned conventional mediums in the late 1960s while working on his MFA at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where the composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham were then in residence. “Astronauts were about to land on the moon,” Wegman reflects, explaining his change of heart. “I thought you shouldn’t be painting pictures, or even just splashing paint on a canvas.”
Instead, for his thesis project, he constructed a 20-foot-long bubble structure he dubbed BODOH. It was located in the lobby of the Arts Building, where visitors were assaulted by deafening machine noises, bright swirling lights, and absurdist gadgetry, such as a soda machine that only dispensed empty cups. “My Uncle Everett worked for Westinghouse, and invented the mechanism for Coke machines, where the cup drops down and ice and soda go into it,” Wegman says. “Mine did the same, but without the ice and soda.”
The BODOH installation was only up for half a day before the fire department condemned it, he tells me. “Rightfully so. It was a fire hazard, really badly wired and made of very flammable polyethylene.”
Although his work at the time might have had a lot in common with ’60s Happenings and psychedelic light shows, Wegman says he never experimented with psychedelic drugs—at least not intentionally. “The only time I did LSD,” he says, “was in the late ’60s, when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin. One of my students laced my Coke with acid. He thought he was doing me a favor, to enlighten me or something.”
In 1968, with the Vietnam War raging, Wegman was drafted, but he was rejected at the induction center. “I channeled Borges and the Bible into my personality,” he tells me with a sly smile. “I kept fiddling obsessively with a hole in my sweater, and I kept wandering into the wrong line no matter how many times they told me where to go. I had a pretty good crazy thing going, and they didn’t take me.”
The University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he was teaching in 1969, was a hotbed of the anti-war movement. Wegman remembers tear-gas wafting through a classroom where he was trying to teach conceptual art to sculpture students. But for whatever reason, the artist has always steered clear of politics in his own art. “I don’t like hot subjects, like war, or sex, or politics,” he says. “I thought that was cheating. I wanted something droll and clean and clear.”
That aesthetic was evident in his 1970 photograph Cotto, a turning point for Wegman, and perhaps an insightful peek into how his brain works. “I was talking on the phone and making doodles on my hand,” he says. “I had a ring with a ruby and two diamonds, and I drew those shapes on my fingers. Later that night, I went to a party, and picked up a piece of cotto salami at the snack table. I saw that the little peppercorns in it looked just like the doodles I’d made on my hand. I raced home and took a picture of my hand next to some slices of cotto salami, developed it—and eureka!”
Wegman realized that the power and allure of photographs, for him, resided in their ease of distribution. “My idea was that a photograph should be a size that could be easily reproduced in magazines or books,” he says, “so that thousands of people could see it.”
He still regards Cotto as his best photograph in certain ways. “The work I did after that was less photographically appealing but more powerful conceptually. After that, it was not about how it looked, but what I was saying.”
From Wisconsin, Wegman moved to California, settling in San Pedro, near Los Angeles, in 1971, where he joined a coterie of influential conceptual artists, including
Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and Bruce Nauman. The beach was a block away and the light was beautiful, but Wegman struggled to make ends meet. “I couldn’t get a teaching job,” he says. “I had a painting degree but I wasn’t painting. I was doing photos but I had no training in photography. Ed Ruscha bought 50 of my photographs for $4,500 and I lived on that for a year. I was getting food stamps. So, I could squeak by. My expenses were low. A roll of film cost 90 cents. A bottle of beer now and then. That was it.”
In contrast to the large, bold, brightly colored images and text employed by Baldessari and Ruscha, Wegman’s videos and photos were understated, black and white, and often relied on subtle visual puns and for their impact. One of his personal favorites, a self-portrait called Madam I’m Adam (1970), mirrors the palindrome in its title with a pair of seemingly identical images, which he made by flipping the negative in the darkroom. “It’s like those Spot the Differences games that you see in magazines. The only clue that they’re different is my watch,” he says. “If you look closely, the numbers are backwards.”
It was while he was living in San Pedro that Wegman bought his first Weimaraner, a puppy he named after the Dada artist Man Ray. The animal would change his life forever. When he was taking pictures or experimenting with his camera, Wegman recalls, Man Ray would act very interested in what was happening. So,“very cautiously,” the artist began incorporating the dog into his work.
In one of the first resulting videos, Milk/Floor (1970–71), we see Wegman crawling on all fours away from the camera, dribbling milk in a straight white line on the floor. Man Ray then enters and laps up the milk. In the Spelling Lesson (1973–74), Man Ray sits looking quizzical, while Wegman, deadpan, reviews the results of the dog’s spelling test. The result of these unique man-and-dog collaborations, in the words of Guardian critic Jason Farago, were “artworks in which the rigors of conceptualism got wrecked on the shoals of canine indifference.”
Wegman’s reputation as a quirky conceptualist was growing in California, but his career didn’t take off until 1972, when he moved to New York and was quickly picked up by the prestigious Sonnabend Gallery. Yet, despite his newfound art world success, he admits that he wasn’t happy, and often thought about returning to Los Angeles. “I didn’t love New York when I came here,” he told me. “The scene nearly did me in. I was hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, there was a lot of alcohol and coke. L.A. was healthier for me. It took me a long time to tolerate New York.”
Many of Wegman’s most memorable pictures of Man Ray and his successors were taken with the large-format Polaroid, including Wegman’s favorite, Dusted (1988), showing Man Ray in a shower of flour that envelops him like a white spotlight.
Now, fully settled into his reputation, the artist is relaxed. He divides his time between making new work and some wholly unrelated passions—fly-fishing, as well as ice hockey, a sport he’s played since he was a teenager, and which he still indulges in four times a week at nearby Chelsea Piers. Wegman wears his good fortune with an easygoing lack of pretension, and still sometimes seems surprised by his phenomenal, unconventional success.
“When I was first starting, it was a surprise if someone that I didn’t know—or who wasn’t my girlfriend—liked what I was doing,” he reflects, scratching Flo behind her ears. “Just to have an audience is so amazing.”
It was while he was in Long Beach that Wegman got his dog, a Weimaraner who he named Man Ray, and began a long and fruitful collaboration. Man Ray, known in the art world and beyond for his endearing deadpan presence, became a central figure in Wegman’s photographs and videotapes. When Man Ray died in 1982 he was named “Man of the Year” by the Village Voice. It was not until 1986 that Wegman got a new dog, Fay Ray, and another collaboration began marked by Wegman’s extensive use of the Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. With the birth of Fay’s litter in 1989, Wegman’s cast of grew to include Fay’s offspring — Battina, Crooky and Chundo — and later, their offspring: Battina’s son Chip in 1995, Chip’s son Bobbin in 1999 and Candy and Bobbin’s daughter Penny in 2004. Out of Wegman’s involvement with this cast of characters grew a series of childrens’ books inspired by the dogs’ various acting abilities: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, ABC, Mother Goose, Farm Days, My Town, Surprise Party and Chip Wants a Dog. Wegman has also published a number of books for adults including Man’s Best Friend, Fashion Photographs, William Wegman 20 x 24, The New York Times Bestseller Puppies, Fay, William Wegman: Paintings and the upcoming Being Human, edited by William Ewing and published by Thames and Hudson fall 2017.
Wegman has created film and video works for Saturday Night Live and Nickelodeon and his video segments for Sesame Streethave appeared regularly since 1989. In 1995, Wegman’s film The Hardly Boys was screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Wegman has been commissioned to create images for a wide range of projects including a fashion campaign for Acne, banners for the Metropolitan Opera and covers for numerous publications including The New Yorker and, most recently, Wallpaper. Wegman has appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and with Jay Leno, The David Letterman Show and The Colbert Report.
Numerous retrospectives of Wegman’s work have toured Europe, Asia and the United States including: “Wegman’s World,” at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis in 1981; “William Wegman: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, Videotapes,” which opened at the Kunstmuseum, Lucerne in 1990 and traveled to venues across Europe and the United States including the Centre Pompidou, Paris and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; “Funney/Strange” which opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2006 and made its final stop at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus in the fall of 2007 and “Hello Nature” which opened at the Bowdoin Museum of Art in 2012 and travelled to Artipelag in Stockholm, Sweden. Recent museum exhibitions have included touring retrospectives in Japan, Korea and Spain and numerous gallery exhibitions including , in 2016 “William Wegman: New and Used Furniture” at Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; “Good Dogs on Nice Furniture” at Texas Gallery, Houston and “William Wegman: Paintings” at Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York. Being Human, a large scale survey of over thirty years of Wegman’s photographic work was published in fall 2017 (Chronicle/Thames and Hudson). A travelling exhibition inspired by the book is is being organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and will open at the “Rencontres d’Arles” this summer, the start of a four year tour that will include stops in Australia, New Zealand, Asia and Europe. Recent exhibitions include Dressed and Undressed at Sperone Westwater Gallery and Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
William Wegman lives in New York and Maine where he continues to paint, draw, make videos and take photographs with his dogs Flo and Topper.