Video Transcript: You got – “P-A-R-K” was spelled correctly, that was good. Wait a minute. And you spelled “O-U-T” right. But when it came to “beach” you spelled it “B-E-E-C-H” which is like, well there’s a gum called Beech-Nut gum. The correct spelling is – we meant beach like with sand. So it should have been, like the ocean, “B-E-A-C-H.” See, that’s the difference. Well, okay I figured – but remember it next time.
Jo Reed: That was artist William Wegman with his dog and alter ego Man Ray in a 1973 video called “Spelling Lesson.” This is NEA Arts Online. I’m Josephine Reed. This issue of NEA Arts focuses on the work of artists who had received NEA grants early in their careers. Since William Wegman received two NEA fellowships, one in 1975 for video and another in 1982 for photography, he was a natural choice for this issue. Moving fluently among drawing, painting, photography, and video, William Wegman is hard to categorize. A conceptual postmodernist artist with a funny bone, Wegman is probably best-known for the photographs and videos of his Weimaraners in unusual poses and in costumes that look like surreal sight-gags. Wegman's early video works, many of which star Man Ray, combine minimalist performance with low-tech video to create unlikely moments of absurdist comedy. Wegman and Man Ray caught hold in the popular imagination. In fact, The Village Voice named Man Ray 1982’s "Man of the Year,” which was fine with Wegman since he always thought of the dog as a collaborator. But don’t let Wegman’s easy-going humor and sense of the absurd fool you. His list of accomplishments are legion. Always an innovator, he was one of the first artists to use video as an art form. Since the late 1970s, he has received international acclaim for his work in photography, and Wegman exhibits in shows around the globe. His work is in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Australian National Gallery. His photos and videos have also been a great popular success, and have appeared on television programs like Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live. He’s branched out to create a series of children’s books based on fairy tales and a number of books on dogs. In 2006, the Brooklyn Museum explored 40 years of Wegman’s work in all media in the aptly titled retrospective William Wegman: Funny/Strange. In a review of the show, the art critic for the New York Times said of Wegman: “Dogs or no dogs, Mr. Wegman is one of the most important artists to emerge from the heady experiments of the 1970s.”
I spoke with Bill Wegman in his spacious loft in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. He graciously showed me around his various studios—painting, photography, video—before we settled in for a talk. Two of his three dogs, Bobbin and Candy, settled down as well, but one-year-old Flo has a lot of energy and you’ll hear her from time-to-time, especially close to the end, when her patience has clearly worn thin! I was very curious to know how Bill started working with dogs, so I asked him to tell me the genesis of Spelling Lesson.
William Wegman: Well, it was made in East Hampton in a studio that a friend of mine’s father had relinquished and given to us. It was a factory building. New York was torturous. I had this miserable little loft on 27th Street that I was subletting and my dog Man Ray, who’d just moved from the beach in Santa Monica, was tortured by 6th Avenue and 27th Street rather than being at the beach. So I kept thinking of ways to not be in New York. But I was a New York artist, so had to kind of dart back and forth. This piece was made in East Hampton. The idea came to me on the way to the Everson Museum where David Ross was curating a video show. It was on Walnut Street. But before you came to Walnut you went to Cedar Beech, and I was sort of saying it out loud. And I said, “Beech.” And Man Ray just went berserk from the backseat of the car when I said, “Beech.” But it was beech like the tree, not the ocean. And so I went back to New York. I dreamt up that piece.
William Wegman: He had such a fantastic connection to me. Everything I said. There were certain words that he would practically unscrew his head over. “Beach” was one. My father, who he adored, George, was another. Every time I’d say, “George,” his head would unscrew, because George lives and still lives in the country in Massachusetts. So there were these key words. For some reason it took me a while to figure out, because I’d lived in Milwaukee for a while, what Milwaukee was, but there’s the word “walk” in Milwaukee. And so every once in a while he’d start getting animated. It was sort of how he picked up on the language.
Jo Reed: And when did you move into photographing him?
William Wegman: I photographed him simultaneously. He was six weeks old when I got him in 1970 from Long Beach. I was living in San Pedro, but teaching in Long Beach for one year. And I think that both video and photo were disciplines that were very new to me but ones that I felt were complimentary. With video, it was pretty much just jumping in front of the camera and dangling things there, whether it was the dog or my finger or a light bulb or whatever it was. With the photos though, I made little sketches sometimes and then would assemble them. So that came out of installation art I had been making in Wisconsin where I felt that actually I was kind of influencing the installations so they’d look better in the photograph. And then it occurred to me that what I really should be doing was making photo pieces, as they became known as, rather than documenting performances or installations. And I also liked the power aspect of being able to publish or broadcast, which both video and photography was capable of. Your work could be in a magazine and would be understood the same way whereas a performance you had to kind of be there or installation, you could only see an aspect of it but not the whole thing. I felt like when you were looking at one of my photos in a magazine, may not be as crystallized as it would be in your hands or on the wall, but for me would mean the same. So that was a major thought I had about it.
Jo Reed: When you started doing video, artists weren’t doing video.
William Wegman: Getting involved in video seemed just electric and surprising and really something that I felt that I really discovered it. I didn’t really know other artists that were using it. It was just something that happened. I didn’t really necessarily calculate this as a career. But I remember borrowing some equipment and bringing it into my studio when I was a visiting artist at the University of Wisconsin. I set the stuff up and immediately had a sense of how I could use it. And it was something that just came to me. I had made seven reels of video, one a year, from ’70 to ’77. So part of the problem, why I didn’t continue, was switching from black and white to color. I couldn’t figure out how to deal with color video. Then you needed tremendous amount of light. It made the studio hot and unpleasant back then. Now, every camera records color simply and easily and there’s none of that problem. But in the beginning with that early video, it really made the act of making color videos a torture for me. And coincided with me, started to work with Polaroid 2024 camera in Boston. So that kind of took over as my major medium by ’79, ’78-’79, I started to use that. And then I didn’t do video again until ’98 and I made two years of video again.
Jo Reed: I want to talk about Man Ray as your subject. The portraits you did of him with the Polaroid are just extraordinary.
William Wegman: That was towards the end of his life. He was nine years old. And first we would go to Boston. That’s where the camera was, in Cambridge, and so I would stop at my parents’ house and pick up possibly some of my mother’s golfing clothes. Or when I was in Boston I’d stay with my friend Betsy, a fellow artist, and borrow some of her stuff. And I didn’t really want to make these color pictures, but I found a way to and it really did make me think in terms of the beautiful again rather than just the cool.
Jo Reed: Yeah. That’s a dilemma, isn’t it? Getting trapped by the cool.
William Wegman: It is. I took an amazingly beautiful photograph and I didn’t trust it. I wanted to deny it. But then I decided, “Okay, that’s fine.” I didn’t go try to do more beautiful ones, but I had to accept that this one was beautiful. There’s a picture I’m thinking of of Man Ray where I put false eyelashes on him and he was posing next to an old student of mine when I was teaching in Long Beach, Hester. And they were shown in profile and somehow the joke was they both have big eyelashes. But you don’t see that because it didn’t register. So the way I made the work, and it wasn’t a successful photograph, was absolutely stunning. But it looks like, in fact, it was on the cover of Artforum. It was one of their most successful covers, Ingrid Sischy told me. And it was better than me, the picture, and that’s what photography gives you sometimes by accident, an amazing moment. And wasn’t one at the time I could’ve dreamt up, “I’m going to do this powerful picture of Beauty and the Beast.” It looked very masculine/feminine. It was like a double profile rather than a joke about the eyelashes.
Jo Reed: How did you manage to make so many photographs and videos with dogs without it falling into a gimmick?
William Wegman: Well, I don’t know. I was very, very careful not to overuse him. The real danger, I suppose, was when I started to make books, children’s books and so forth, and that happened with Fay, my second dog, where I made her tall one day at Polaroid. The camera’s vertical, I was trying to get things up there. So I put Fay on a pedestal and I was wrapping fabric around her, so she was some kind of a column. And my assistant Andrea was talking to me from behind and helping keep Fay up there. And it looked like her arms became Fay’s and it was startling and funny and eerie and not terribly cute like dogs dressed up tend to be. So I thought it was okay since it was menacing somewhat. It looked more like creatures from mythology rather than some cartoon or circus. So I kind of went with that. But I think then it became like a one-liner about me. “Oh, he’s the guy that dresses up dogs,” you know. “The guy that dresses up those dogs.” And that’s the way people I’m sure still remember me even though it was just a small part of the work. Man Ray, I never dressed him up as a person. I dressed him up as an Airedale once and a frog and an elephant, or just as a dog, another kind of dog sometimes. But with Fay, she became this creature that became the evil stepmother. She became like a Joan Crawford character. She became these personas. And then I’d turn her back into a caterpillar sometimes. Then when I had multiple dogs, then I had all of these characters. I had first Fay and her daughter Batty and her son Chundo and they became sort of the superstars of my children’s books. The press became, they’d go on book tours, there’d be newspaper articles, there’d be spots on talk shows. And that made this kind of work kind of almost work against them. The art world, in a way, it became I think, for some, not all, but, “He’s no longer an artist. He’s doing these commercial…“
Jo Reed: He’s popular.
William Wegman: Yeah. So, I could understand that, in a way.
Jo Reed: Don’t you think—or I’ll just tell you what I think and you can tell me if you think it. But don’t you think, in a way, what you were doing was sort of breaking down that dichotomy between high art and what’s popular? It seems to me throughout your career, something you’ve always been concerned about is having your work be accessible to people.
William Wegman:Ireally did. I was very stymied right before I had this sort of breakthrough in video and photo. I was putting interesting things on the wall like mud and hair and rotting carrots and I remember a fellow artist came into my studio and there was debris all over the floor and he said it looked really great. And it did. And that was the problem. The stuff on the floor looked really good. But I didn’t do it on purpose and I really felt like I needed to control every aspect of the work, that I needed the intention there. I needed the clarity. And one way of knowing whether this clarity was being received was if someone responded. And laughter is one way where you really know someone gets it, and I think that must’ve really appealed to me, the fact that someone just fell down laughing. But I wasn’t really necessarily after humor. But it certainly did pat me on the back, I guess.
Jo Reed: Well, it permeates a lot of your work wouldn’t you say?
William Wegman: Well I think I have a funny bone. The video pieces, most of them are funny. The ones that are interesting I’m less interested in, I suppose. The photo pieces one tends not to laugh at. The drawings that I started to make in my third year of my serious work, I suppose, by ’73, some of those are really funny, I think. And it has to do with drawings can be funny in a way paintings never can be, because of the weight of history that they have. And if they are funny then that’s complicated by their physicality, whereas a drawing, is physical, but it also is not. And I think that’s purer and funnier and whips into your head and stays there where a painting gets into your head but it’s much more powerful to stand in front of it and receive it that way. That’s why it’s always refreshing and rejuvenating to go to museums and stand in front of the de Curico that you see all the time or whatever it is. You start to live it in a different way.
Jo Reed: Now tell me when you returned to painting, to actually painting on canvas again.
William Wegman: Sure. I was a painter. I stopped painting in my first year of grad school. I kind of bought into the fact that painting was dead. When I started to have dreams that I was painting—I think it was in my mid-40s, or even late 40s—I felt like I really had to do it. But I went back to my last painting that I did in high school. I painted pictures of the Breck girl, which got me accepted at Mass Art. It was like he's good at drawing. So I made these paintings as if I never went to art school. I'd been drawing too. So it kind of looked like my drawings kind of come to life. They were a little scrappy and funky I suppose. Holly Solomon, who was my dealer at the time, was so in love with painting, to begin with, that she—she just was wonderful to show work to, and encouraged, I guess. And so somewhat embarrassed about returning to painting; but knowing that I really loved it, but also didn't know how. I thought I knew how but I didn't. I had to kind of learn how. So I really had moved far away from my drawings into doing painters the way painters would paint. My first ones, I think, well, what is a suitable subject for painting? There’s something different about painting than drawing and photos, and you have to think about what it should be. So I think one of my most brilliant decisions was that it should be on canvas and it should look like Cezanne, so I did a painting of tents—of canvas, on canvas, but they looked like Cezanne. There were always those kind of funny but historical notions about them. Since painting takes time, sometimes there are things that you daydream about while you’re making them.
Jo Reed: You had a big retrospective in 2006: Funny Strange.
William Wegman: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Which was a perfect title.
William Wegman: Yeah. Thank you. That was based on one of the drawings that I made for another show in Boston actually; which I've never told anyone because it seemed like the wrong thing to tell someone. But yeah. When David Ross was at the ICA in Boston, I believe it was, he had a show which he titled Funny Strange, and I made a poster for it. So. I think that's right. And that show I think was interesting because it showed every line of my work pretty well flushed out: photos, videos, paintings—they all seemed to be established. Whereas the show that I had at the Whitney, in '87 I think it was, it looked almost like well for this class he did these and for this class that. But the time period made the selection process, and it seemed more- had more weight, every line. I think of myself as having these four lines: the drawings, the paintings, the videos, the photos. And those are the things that I do, and they're each—each branch, each chapter is major for me. I don't weight one higher than the other.
Jo Reed: I think for many people it was really the first time they got a glimpse of how wide your net is.
William Wegman: Yeah, that's what I saw and liked about it too, that it seemed to mix it together. It seemed to mix it together and it seemed all okay. It seemed to hold up.
Jo Reed: Tell me what you're working on now.
William Wegman: Well I'm working on these paintings with postcards. And I've been doing that since '90-something-or-other; '3 was the first time I stuck a postcard to a piece of paper and started to extend it. Now the latest ones seem to have a lot of design elements, and I'm working it in as many different ways as I possibly can. I have about two billion postcards. So until I use them all up, I can't stop. We'll see.
Jo Reed: Bill, thank you so much.
William Wegman: Flo! Really.
Jo Reed: She's young.
William Wegman: Yeah.
Jo Reed: That is painter, video artist, photographer, and dog lover, William Wegman. He’s received two NEA fellowships: one in 1975 for video and another in 1982 for photography. To find out more about his work, go to Wegmanworld.com. For NEA Arts Online, I’m Jo Reed. Thanks for listening.