Pup Art

There's more to William Wegman than those dogs.

By Michael Gross
Originally published in the March 30, 1992 issue of New York Magazine

LATE IN FEBRUARY, HOLLY SOLOMON, THE ART DEALER, gave a dinner in her 57th Street apartment after a Nicholas Africano opening. Her art-and-objet-filled rooms teemed with collectors, dealers, artists, and friends who quickly formed small clusters, drinking white wine and balancing plates of pasta on their laps.

William Wegman, a rumpled man with a mop of soft brown hair lightly streaked with gray, stood a little apart from the others. He would have seemed just a regular guy had it not been for the stunning brunette on his arm. An artist, of course, Wegman is best known for the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid photographs he has taken of his weimaraners Man Ray and Fay Ray. So it was fitting that the first fan to approach him at Solomon’s was a West Highland terrier.

Did the dog want an audition? A treat? A free print? She gave Wegman a comehither look, but he would have none of it. Looking down with an affectionate scowl, he said, “Don’t even think about it.”

* * *

WILLIAM WEGMAN’S DOG DAYS ARE OVER. His dog photos are selling better than ever-from $6,000 apiece for the new Polaroids to $20,000 for earlier ones of Man Ray. Prices for the paintings he’s been making since 1985 have hit the $100,000 mark. His time is filled with interviews and invitations. His second major retrospective of photographs, videos, drawings, and paintings (at the Whitney Museum of American Art through April 19) is drawing large, enthusiastic crowds: 60,000 since the exhibit opened in January after a tour of Europe and several American cities.

Though the popular poster and T-shirt that accompany the Whitney exhibition feature the weimaraners, the show is much broader. At 48, Wegman has survived the Vietnam-era draft, a first brush with fame, a risky dalliance with cocaine and Old Crow, and even his seemingly inescapable association with charismatic canines, to reach, in his maturity, a career peak. Already known as an artist’s artist, Wegman is now positioned for wider recognition. The 27 paintings on display at the Whitney stake his claim.

They are strikingly different from the neo-expressionist canvases by Schnabel, Salle, Chia, and Clemente that revived painting in the late seventies and early eighties. Bursting with narrative, steeped in Americana, Wegman’s latest canvases (added since the show opened in 1990 at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne) more than match the power of the twenty years’ worth of dog work that first caught the public eye.

Wegman seems to have a new idea every day. “At this point, New York has lots of artists in mid-career repeating themselves ad infinitum,” says one of his dealers, Angela Westwater. “It is such a testimony to Bill that he’s able to push himself into new work-and invest mediums he’s used before with new energy and insight.”

“He’s so prolific, it’s unbelievable,” adds his Polaroid dealer, Peter MacGill. “His videos are on Sesame Street, he’s shown in the best galleries in the world, he’s in the collection of virtually every museum, some of the most important critics cherish his work, and so does my fouryear-old. It’s amazing to see his breadth of appeal without compromise.”

“He’s one of the great artists of the latter part of the century,” concludes Holly Solomon, a Wegman supporter since 1971. “He symbolizes the range of possibility. He opened areas for everyone.”

But Wegman’s protean talent has also worked against him. He doesn’t make money like a Salle, a Bleckner, or a Schnabel, who’ve been painting steadily for years. A critical consensus is building, but unfortunately, Wegman is “becoming famous during one of the worst recessions we’ve been in,” he says. “If I’d peaked in ’88, I’d be wealthy.” Nonetheless, he knows his Whitney retrospective is a watershed. “I can see that, yeah,” he allows nervously. “Now the problem is sorting out the options.”

* * *

THE VAUDEVILLIAN’S WARNING NEVER TO follow a dog act has a certain application to Wegman. Man Ray, who died in 1982 at twelve, was a blue-gray purebred, eager to work and to please, and blessed with his breed’s ability to hold point and other poses. Man Ray’s collaboration with Wegman resulted in memorable photographs and videos-works that, as the artist puts it in his most distilled statement of purpose, “burn in.” In the video Milk/Floor, for example, Wegman crawls on all fours away from the camera and disappears around a corner, spitting a line of milk as he goes. A second later, Man Ray turns the corner, licking up the milk trail until his black nose bumps the camera’s lens.

Fay Ray followed Man Ray and gave birth to Wegman’s latest dog, Battina (a.k.a. Batty), and seven other puppies. Documenting the Rays has in a sense been Wegman’s day job since the seventies. At the same time, without the dogs, he’s produced conceptual and altered (cut-up or drawn-on) photographs and line drawings-all invested with his signature drollery. The new paintings, with their paired themes of travel and history, their epic scope, and their wide-eyed wonder, mark Wegman’s move away from dependence on the punch line. They are intimately connected to the old-fashioned American optimism that flourished during the Eisenhower years, when Wegman was a teenager. The paintings are sneakily heroic-much of their appeal lies in their rejection of pretense and bravado.

The art-world elite isn’t entirely comfortable with the mixed message put out by this shy, wry man. “The issue of humor throws a lot of people off,” says Angela Westwater. “They don’t know how to integrate it into their aesthetic.” Times critic Roberta Smith twists and turns in Wegman’s grasp. For her, despite his “growing power” and “deepening meanings,” Wegman remains “the art world’s most amusing heavyweight lightweight-and its premier dog photographer.” Says New York’s Kay Larson, “Wegman is an entertaining charmer who has the average person twisted around his little finger, but he’s not a profound or major talent.”

Wegman’s dog photographs have won praise for their pathos, ironic sophistication, gawky natvete, and telling commentaries on art, identity, metamorphosis, innocence, and sexual ambiguity. They also generate a certain uneasiness. Some wonder if Wegman abuses his dogs (he doesn’t). Others downplay his work as nothing more than an arts-and-leisuresuited version of David Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks (a perception abetted by Wegman, whose videos have appeared often on TV programs like Letterman’s, Saturday Night Live, and The Tonight Show).

“I don’t like to repeat myself,” Wegman has said. And “I don’t want to be known as a dog zombie.” But he knows that the dogs are winners-not only as meal tickets but also as art objects, surrogates, and muses.

* * *

WEGMAN DIVIDES HIS TIME BETWEEN a converted temple-the Center of the Proskurover Zion Congregation-in the East Village, 32 acres in upstate New York, and a restored lodge in the Maine mountains. His most recent real-estate find is a rented studio on Bond Street in NoHo. It looks like nothing so much as a boy’s bedroom-only bigger. This is a laboratory for serious silliness, from the digital loudspeakers at one end to Fay’s and Batty’s huge costume closet-cum-toy chest at the other. “Far bigger than any of our closets,” Wegman notes.

Hanging on one wall are several costumes belonging to Fay. Shelves hold the books that inspire Wegman’s paintings: The American Educators’ Encyclopedia, Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, Standard Treasury of Learning, A Picture Dictionary, The Golden Book Encyclopedia of Natural Science, and an old, white-covered World Book set. A huge, unfinished canvas is pinned to another wall, a graduated blue-to-tan seascape populated with swimming things. Frames and boxes lean against it helterskelter.

Today is a photography day. Wegman is working with Fay and Batty on the first in a series of children’s books-Fay’s Favorite Fairy Tales-that he’s adapting and photographing. As Wegman leafs through his previous day’s work, the dogs sniff the floor for the dirty tennis balls hidden among the plastic reptiles, Christmas-tree icicles, tin foil, wigs, fabric swatches, pillows, drop cloths, kitschy statues and paintings, a mandolin, four buckets, and a stuffed sheep that are strewn about.

Nearby is today’s set. Cinderella’s mean attic room faces a large wooden bellows camera on wheels. It is one of only five in the world that Polaroid rents out-along with two technicians who light the sets and run the camera for $1,000 a day and $30 per exposure-to commercial clients and artists like Wegman and Chuck Close.

On a typical day, Wegman says, he’ll shoot about 60 frames, of which 5 will be usable. “The magic is me and the personality of the dogs,” he says. The work is setting up each shot, picking props, and perfecting the set. Because with Cinderella he’s telling a story for the first time, the set is more complex than usual, and setting up seems to take forever. As they work, Wegman explains his casting choices. “I play with the specific character of the dogs. From below, Fay looks like loan Crawford. She looks guilty. Fay can’t be Cinderella. Batty can be Cinderella. She can be Lolita. She’s totally trusting and innocent. There’s something eternally, everlastingly cute about her.”

Finally, Wegman hoists 65-pound Fay onto a stool and easily coaxes Batty into a bed. He dresses Fay as Cinderella’s fairy godmother, gently positions her head, grabs the shutter cord, and starts calling out, “Hey! Treat! Batty? Look here! Hoo! Hah! Stay, Fay! Don’t fidget. Good girl. Wanna go out? Wanna go to the beach?” until they offer up just the right expressions and 12,800 watt-seconds’ worth of strobe light briefly freezes their faces. Wegman’s veterinarian, Dale Rubin, here on a house call, watches from the sidelines. “They love the attention,” she says. “They love working. These are fun house calls.”

A bit later, Suzanne Delehanty, director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum, the last stop on Wegman’s retrospective tour, drops by for lunch. They talk about how to hang his show and how the museum plans to publicize it with interviews, talks, and parties. “I’m told I’m good at that,” Wegman says.

“Is there anybody you want invited?” Delehanty asks.

“Yeah,” says Wegman. I expect him to name a collector, a De Menil or someone like that, but no. “My cousin Charlie Wegman lives there,” he says. “I was close to him when I was a little boy. When I was Billy.”

“Hey, Bill,” a camera assistant calls out. “You want to shoot some Polaroids today?”

Wegman regards him with mock scorn and says, deadpan, “He’s paid per exposure.”

Picking up a stuffed animal, Wegman heads back to work. “I’m only the stylist here,” he mutters. “I do what I’m told.”

* * *

WILLIAM WEGMAN WAS BORN IN 1943 AND grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts. A shy boy, he started drawing and painting watercolors with his mother when he was a toddler. “There wasn’t much strife that plugs into the usual artist thing,” he says. But there was life-threatening illness. In 1949, Wegman contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever; he believes his was the first case east of the Rockies. Because they were afraid the disease was highly contagious, his parents burned all his picture and comic books-“Everything that I liked,” he says.

Wegman recovered completely and became “a good, normal kid,” he says, a hockey and baseball player who had a mutt named Wags. But just as he doesn’t exactly belong in any art category today, he didn’t fit in then, either. “I sort of dabbled with groups,” he says. “The car guys. The guys who played sports. The college-prep types. I was a little bit lost by the time I got to high school.”

Though his early work was destroyed in the spotted-fever bonfire, Wegman kept drawing throughout high school. His senior year, he needed an A after doing poorly in Latin and algebra, so he signed up for an art course. “You have talent,” his teacher said. “You should go to art school.”

“She saved my life in a way,” Wegman recalls, “because I would not have known what to do with myself.”

Moving to Boston and the state-run Massachusetts College of Art, Wegman spent his first two years under the sway of two much older roommates, both devout Roman Catholics. “We would go to four or five churches every Sunday,” says Wegman, who was raised a Protestant. “My first work had a lot of gold leaf in it. They kept me from being too normal.”

By his third year, “I was Willy Wegman-as I was called-the artist. I wasn’t lost anymore. I was interested in philosophy, music, literature, and art in an incredibly, overbearingly serious way.” He was enamored of “manifesto” art and art movements like Dada, Surrealism, and Constructivism. “Every kid that painted had a little surrealist tear coming out of an eye,” he says, chortling.

To avoid the draft, Wegman enrolled in graduate school at the University of Illinois. While there, he married an undergraduate art student, and he abandoned painting in favor of spending most of his time in the electrical-engineering department. “It just seemed to make sense to align yourself with the forefront of thinking-information theory,” he says. “It seemed like a cop-out to be a potter.”

In 1967, Wegman and his wife moved to Wisconsin, where he had jobs teaching art at the University of Wisconsin’s Wausau campus and, later, in Waukesha. He began to work with fiberglass screen and also toyed with inflatable art. While renovating a house they lived in, “I attached one of my sculptures to the heating vent,” he says, “so that whenever the heat came up the whole house would fill up with this giant balloon. It would snake up the stairs.”

By 1968, “I was trying to enter new territory,” he says. “Wall art was a dirty word. It had to be mind art.” So he floated rows of Styrofoam commas down the Milwaukee River, dropped radios off buildings, and conceived a concerto for car horns.

In 1969, he got a teaching job as artist in residence at Wisconsin’s Madison campus. There, his work combined conceptual and performance elements. He attached a Magic Marker to a plank of Styrofoam and stuck it in a pail of acetone. As the plank melted, the marker drew a wavery line on his studio wall. He also began making photographs and videos. “The problem was the audience,” he says. “I had no audience other than my students.”

Beating the draft became another performance piece. Wegman spent weeks reading Borges and the Bible, then cut his hair short and smeared it with Vaseline for his physical exam. “I had a sweater with a hole in it and I kept biting my lip,” he says. “I developed really low self-esteem. I actually did go crazy, I think.”

His state of mind was reflected in his studio, where his work took a decidedly messy turn. He was working with mud, his own eyelashes, and dynamite fuses. It reminded him of when he was four years old and would make silly sounds and spin around in circles and tell himself no one had ever done that before. “I was making sounds and spinning again, and it did look interesting, but so what?”

* * *

MOVING TO CALIFORNIA IN 1970 TO TEACH at a state college in Long Beach helped resolve Wegman’s problem. “The fight was more [to learn] what you don’t want to be than what you are,” he says. “By the time I got to L.A., I had a handle on it.”

At the urging of his wife, Wegman bought Man Ray from a breeder for $35. He picked the puppy out because it was “strange and distant,” he’s said. At first he wanted to name it Bauhaus. “But he didn’t look like a Bauhaus,” he says. “He looked like a little old gray man. Then a shaft of light like a ray blasted down on him in this ordinary little duplex house and blew away the Bauhaus.” It was as if the God of Art were telling the dog, “Your name is Man Ray.” Though Wegman never planned on using Man Ray in his work, the dog kept blundering into the pieces he was making and photographing then. “The light in his eye just exploded in video,” Wegman says. “He was absolutely gorgeous in that medium, and he liked doing it.” Thus Wegman’s dog art was born.

“By this time, I hated self-indulgence,” he says. “I didn’t like whiny, narcissistic art.” His work was objective, cool, emotionless, ironic. His intention wasn’t to be funny, but “it got funny because video involves timing and surprise.” When people laughed, Wegman knew they’d gotten the idea. “It was sort of subversive and surprising,” he says. “They didn’t know there was going to be a dog coming around the corner. I could still sneak up on people then.”

This California period was paradisiacal. Wegman would fish and swim and play on the beach with his dog and his artist friends. But aside from some gallery interest in Europe and one sale of about 50 photographs to the painter Ed Ruscha for $4,400, his work still wasn’t selling. After his teaching job ended, Wegman and his wife lived on food stamps and his odd jobs.

Moving to New York in late 1972, Wegman signed with Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery, which paid him a monthly stipend of $500. As his renown grew, so did his income. Collectors like Holly Solomon started buying his work. Mick Dagger and Andy Warhol came to his shows. “For one little moment it was like what I’m going through now,” he says. But he wasn’t ready. “I just freaked out and kind of hid.”

His marriage faltered, and Wegman began spending his nights at the legendary art bar Max’s Kansas City. “I met everybody,” he says. “I was listening to real artists. Kosuth. Sonnier. They were all there. That was so exciting. But I was also starting to be rather sad.”

Wegman was an alcoholic, and in New York’s pressure-cooker art world, his drinking got out of hand. “I couldn’t handle the scene, but I was eerily drawn to it,” he says. “I was trying to be a real artist, trying to fit in.” In the process, he lost sight of himself. He and his first wife divorced in 1975, though they remain friends. Around that time, he’s said, he found himself able “to purchase expensive drugs that I could not previously afford.”

Combined with his drinking, the cocaine he began snorting had a pernicious effect on his work. “It drove me to isolate myself,” he says. His videos-which were just beginning to get wider exposure on Saturday Night Live-lost their humor. “It was like an Edvard Munch painting,” he says. “I’d go into my video room and come out screaming.” He began locking himself in his darkroom and drawing for hours at a time.

By 1978, he was married again and living in his third New York studio, on Thames Street near the Battery. Though this new stability briefly made him happier, his drugging and drinking soon escalated again. As a result, his relationship with Sonnabend deteriorated. Then the building on Thames Street burned down.

Sonnabend chose that moment to cut off his stipend (by then $ 1,000 a month). “The fire was traumatic,” Wegman says; “but I’m sure she saw me going over, the edge before that.” Leaving his second wife in New York, Wegman moved back to California late that year, took another teaching job, and fell in with a group of rock-and-roll-oriented performance artists. “It was fun,” he says, “but of course it bought right into my problem. Take coke. Get paranoid. Drink to mellow out. Fall down.”

* * *

JUST WHEN WEGMAN’S LIFE WAS SPIRALING downward, the curtain went up on the second act of his career. Ever since she’d first bought some of his early photographs, Holly Solomon had stayed a friend. In 1975, Wegman had even summered with her family in Lake Placid. Now their relationship grew closer. He left Sonnabend and signed up with Solomon’s gallery.

Back in New York in 1979, Wegman began showing at Solomon and, after initially resisting it, accepted Polaroid’s invitation to use its new large-format camera-producing his first work in color since 1966. Man Ray, who’d moped during Wegman’s hermetic phase, was delighted to go back to work. But the high life kept dragging his master down. Besides his art dealer, he also had a drugdealer who traded him cocaine for drawings. “I couldn’t function socially anymore,” Wegman says. By 1980, he was trying to stop, “but I would slip now and then,” he says. “I was always kind of sick-hung over or something-when I went to do the work.”

That work was increasingly important to him. Man Ray was ten, and Wegman knew he was starting to lose him. “That year, I used the dog a lot,” he says. But by 1981, Man Ray was on his last legs, and Wegman wasn’t doing much better. “I was a demon,” he says. His condition began to worry his friends. “There came a point when Bill had to make a decision,” says Solomon. “He had to decide to cure himself.”

Wegman entered rehab that year and emerged “liberated, healthy, spiritually awakened,” he says. Six months later, Man Ray died. “I wanted to leave my life and really start over,” Wegman says. His second marriage “didn’t survive the trauma of my recovery.”

Though Wegman was devastated by the dog’s death, his career prospered. A book of Man Ray photographs had been published in 1981, and his first retrospective was mounted the next year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. No longer able to photograph Man Ray, he began drawing again and taking photographs of props, drawings, and people. “It was a renaissance for me,” Wegman says. “I was socially acceptable again. I started to be invited places. But everyone kept looking for the dog pictures, and they weren’t getting them.”

In the mid-eighties, Wegman got two more dogs, but one was stolen and the second died a week after he adopted it. “There was something spooky going on,” he says. “Man Ray didn’t want me to get another dog.” Meanwhile, he’d been having dreams about painting, “and the only way to find out what my paintings would look like was to start painting and see if my dreams were true,” he says.

Encouraged by Solomon and several artist friends, Wegman isolated himself in Maine, at a lakeside camp he’d first visited as a teenager, and began to paint. The first small paintings-done on birch bark-were colorful versions of his cartoonish drawings.

“When he got back from Maine, he called and said, `I think I’m painting. Will you pay for canvases?'” Solomon recalls. She did, he painted more, and she showed them in her gallery. Then she encouraged him to make larger paintings. Around the same time, the Pace/MacGill Gallery arranged to show Wegman’s new Polaroids. (Later, another gallery, Sperone Westwater, started to show some of his drawings and larger paintings.)

Meanwhile, Wegman had found another dog. He was lecturing in Memphis when a breeder asked if he’d take one of her weimaraner puppies. “I met Cinnamon Girl, which was her name,” he says, “but I really didn’t want another dog. I got on the plane, but I couldn’t get her out of my mind.” The next day, he called the breeder and she shipped the dog north. Wegman renamed her Fay Ray and within a year began using her as his new model.

Working with her gave him a sense of completion. “She was so vulnerable,” he says. “She held the page differently than Man Ray. Somehow, working with the dog changed my heart rate and made me a better painter. With the photographs, I know what I’m doing. With painting, it’s kind of unknown. Now I realize I’ll never not photograph these dogs. As long as I have one that’s willing to do it, I won’t deny myself that pleasure. I am the guy with the dog, and it would be stupid to think otherwise.”

The new balance in Wegman’s life was immediately visible in his work. The new Polaroids of the dogs began to sell for thousands rather than hundreds of dollars. With that money, Wegman bought a larger place in Maine in 1990, finally getting a studio where he could comfortably work on larger paintings. And after a few other relationships, he fell in love with the beautiful brunette, Christine Burgin, a Yale-educated dealer in conceptual art.

“I still can’t believe she’s my girlfriend sometimes,” Wegman says when she comes to the Cinderella shoot. “1 look at her … Christine Burgin.” He sounds awestruck.

As our interview ends, Wegman recalls something his roommate at art school told him twenty years ago. “He said I had this personality that waves a flag to get attention, and as soon as I do, I run and hide. I don’t need that anymore, because I’ve already got it. It’s like when you build a but in the woods. You work a lot at it, but the last thing you want to do is go and live in it. You just want to build another one.”

He doesn’t seem unhappy with his plight. Indeed, he seems like a happy guy, I tell him. “Oh, great,” he replies sheepishly, cocking his head just like a dog. Then he allows himself a little smile. “I am,” he says.

©1992 Michael Gross