William Wegman is wearing the standard uniform for a male artist of the Sixties generation--jeans, tee shirt and tennis shoes--and by his side is the standard accessory for the successful artist from that time--a pretty young brunette. At 46, Wegman has a mop of curly brown hair and a charming public manner. He is talking to a roomful of rich art collectors, members of the Contemporary Art Forum of the Phoenix Art Museum. They are hanging on his every word, and he has them in hysterics with his dog stories.
"All dogs are Roman Catholic, they have a strong sense of guilt," he is telling them, as he flashes a slide of a dog on the screen. The picture shows Wegman standing next to a canine and pointing accusingly at a crack in the floor. "Ray's saying, `I probably did it. I can't remember, but I probably did it,'" Wegman tells his audience.
This is no ordinary dog photograph. It is a work of art called "He Blamed the Crack on the Dog," an early black-and-white photograph featuring the world's most famous dog model, and William Wegman's pet, the Weimaraner Man Ray. Ray made Wegman's reputation, fortune and this night possible. Wegman's dog photographs are the subject of an exhibition at the Lisa Sette Gallery in Scottsdale, where the reception for and slide show by the artist took place earlier this month. The sixteen unique large-format Polaroid images concentrate primarily on Man Ray's successor, Fay Ray, with a few dog friends thrown in here and there.
In forming the portraits of the two dogs is a sense of humor more absurd than Monty Python's. For eleven years, Wegman has photographed his Weimaraners in carefully staged tableaux, draping them in vaudevillian costumes or arranging them in visual gags.
Unlike the snapshots ordinary people take of their dogs playing in the park or destroying the living room, Wegman's one-liner photographs of his dogs have brought him fame and fortune. Wegman laughingly told the crowd how Ray, nicknamed Money, paid for two of his summer homes. "Roman Dog" pays a tribute to this ability; it features a regal silhouette of Ray's head as if on a Roman coin. A triptych of Fay at the Sette Gallery is going for $20,000. And Wegman is currently the subject of a major international museum retrospective. Organized by the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland, it will travel to the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.
Yet Wegman's work is more than an expensive joke, and Fay is more than Gracie Allen to his George Burns. Dogs and babies have long been a taboo subject for serious art, but with his absurd images of dogs Wegman attacks head-on not only this taboo but by extension the whole of modern art and life. By presenting amateurish photographs of the family pet as "art," Wegman mocks the pretensions and delusions of contemporary society. His farces reflect upon everything from Playboy magazine and soft-porn jeans advertising to hallowed figures in art history. ("Theo Van" at the Sette Gallery, for instance, refers not only to Van Heusen shirts but to Theo van Doesburg, one of the founders of De Stijl.)
While he has won dog lovers' hearts with his wonderful stories of the personality differences between his two dogs, the different ways Wegman treats the male Ray and the female Fay--especially the more passive way she responds to the camera--have disturbing implications. Fay and Ray are proxies for human experience, wearing our clothes and starring in our roles, and the things they tell us about our society are not always humorous.
A native of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Wegman was born into a working-class family. His father worked at the same athlete's foot powder factory his entire life and Wegman joined him there during the summers. Deciding against a career as a hockey player, Wegman entered art school intent on becoming a painter. In graduate school, however, he abandoned painting because it signified "elitist culture and everything the Sixties were against." Painting was dead, postmodern theory said, so Wegman turned to the ever-popular conceptual format--photographs and drawings of ironic word-image combinations and visual puns.
The meeting of the dog and the camera happened by chance. Man Ray, adopted by Wegman in 1970 and named after the famous surrealist artist, got in the way of a set and turned out to be a consummate ham. Soon Ray found himself sitting at the office in a sombrero, paws hard at work on the typewriter or starring in hilarious videos where his master tries to teach him to smoke: "Don't just puff--inhale. C'mon, you promised. How do you know you don't like it if you don't try it?
" In 1978 Polaroid invited Wegman to make use of its large-format camera in Cambridge, with its greater possibilities of size and color. More than ever, Ray became a central component of Wegman's art, modeling a pair of jeans a la Brooke Shields or sitting next to a guitar as part of a still life after Picasso's blue period. The success of these photographs was phenomenal, gaining man and dog their greatest following. When Ray died of cancer in 1982, the Village Voice honored him as "Man of the Year" with a full-page color photograph.
Wegman's life underwent a period of turmoil after Ray's death. He divorced his second wife and hooked up with a string of girlfriends. After the bout with drink and drugs that seems to be de rigueur for actors, artists, pop musicians and even politicians, Wegman's gallery halved his monthly stipend. With no Ray, the artist turned to other subjects.
The public was unsatisfied with the biting photographs of women that resulted. Wegman was dating a muscle builder at the time and was posing her in conceptual photographs much as he had posed his dog--she is throwing a discus in a Greek restaurant in one, posing as an androgynous Jolly Green Giant in another. But his audience and his critics missed Ray. "One critic said it was transitional work and I interpreted that to mean until I get another dog, I'm always going to be transitional," he said about this period later.
Although he complained of being "nailed to the dog cross," Wegman broke down and bought another dog that he had seen while on a lecture trip to Memphis, Tennessee. A woman in the audience was a Weimaraner breeder and invited him to her farm. On the plane back to New York, he couldn't get Fay's face out of his mind. It was love at first sight. Despite her illustrious namesakes, Man Ray and the original star of King Kong, Fay didn't take to acting. She refused to get behind the camera until 1985, when Wegman took her to his peaceful, country home in Maine, where she agreed to model a Wonder Woman suit.
The differences in the two dogs' personalities were apparent immediately. Fay is more timid, more apprehensive, and it shows in the photographs at the Sette exhibition. She acts like the hired hand, while Ray was the star of the show.
"Ray was a pro," Wegman tells the audience at his reception. "He was from an old acting family that goes back to the Twenties in Hollywood." From Tennessee, Fay is the typical retiring Southern woman.
"Ray was more of an equal. He had a sense of gamesmanship: If you do this to me, I can do this to you. Fay does things because I want her to."
There is always a tension in Fay's portraits. In the diptych "Hide and Seek" at the Sette Gallery, her lithe form is balanced obediently on a stool in front of a mottled curtain. Her eyes stare intently at the viewer, as if saying, "Am I doing okay?" Even in the second panel of the diptych, when she is completely hidden behind the curtain, we continue to feel her nervous presence.
While Ray was more frequently part of a narrative, Fay is arranged in formal visual relationships, as if a beautiful object. Ray was in on the joke; Fay is acted upon.
Wegman treats Fay differently in the photographs not only because of her personality but also because of her sex. She is a female, Wegman arranges her like a Playboy centerfold and, perhaps subconsciously, parodies accepted human conventions. He places her in all the stereotypical female positions: draped in sheer, seductive material in "Decorative Dancer" and with one leg gracefully balanced on a pedestal in "Numb Leg."
"She's a female," he says in answer to a question about the different ways he treated Ray and Fay. Wegman is happier telling dog stories than talking about what his art means. "She has that racehorse quality."
Wegman's contemporaries, photographers Cindy Sherman and Judy Dater, both dress themselves up, pose in theatrical sets and transfer their identities to stereotypical figures of history and popular culture. By using his dog instead of himself in such theatrical portraits, Wegman puts his work on a more accessible, emotional level.
The dog, after all, is man's best friend, an emotional object, a part of himself and arguably his better half. "I had a revelation in the Sixties--don't work over your own head," Wegman says. "And avoid art that bossed people around instead of moving them."
But the dogs have a spiritual implication as well. Robert Cauthorn, art critic for the Arizona Daily Star, is writing a book about the meaning of dogs in contemporary art. He says that beginning in the Sixties and blossoming in the Eighties, dogs appear with greater frequency in art than any religious figure. Dogs, according to Cauthorn, are one of the last symbols of virtue that we can universally agree on. The dog's natural virtue contrasts with our jaded complexity and increasing lack of communication amongst ourselves and with the planet.
Wegman and his dogs, Cauthorn says, are trying to figure out life together. The triptych "Tight Rope" for instance, in the Sette show, features Fay Ray obediently walking a thin plank of wood. Her elegant, unquestioning form walks the social, and environmental, tightrope we have created.
But the use of the dog as an almost spiritual symbol is part of an entire movement in contemporary art searching for unadulterated, old- fashioned virtues. Cutting-edge work has reacted against the slick postmodern objects, like Jeff Koons' vacuum cleaners in a Plexiglas cabinet or a stainless-steel cast of the Jim Beam train. Concerned with pressing social and environmental problems, advanced American artists like Joan Nelson and Mark Innerst have returned to traditional ways of making art, like painting, or to traditional subject matter, such as the landscape.
While he has not given up the irony of his dog pictures, Wegman has also returned to painting and summoned the courage to retrace his steps to the Sixties. The verdict is still out on the resulting "landscapes," several of which are in the back gallery at Sette.
From murky, neo-Romantic surfaces strange objects emerge. Out of the blue/green/orange washes of "Wet Desert" appears a toy camel from some child's memory. "I create what I think is a promising mess, and then once I've gotten myself into the mess, I think, what can I do to get out of it?" Wegman has said.
But don't despair, dog lovers. Wegman has always dallied in other media and always returned to his secure breadwinner. He plans to continue photographing Fay, and in the closing months of 1989 added another dog to his family when Fay gave birth to a litter of eight.
Bettina, the only puppy he kept, has already made her debut. The starlet is pictured collapsing in a director's chair and lazily chewing on its metal frame as if recovering from an incredible hangover. Typical of the youngest member of the family, enjoying her parent's established wealth, she is relaxed, self-confident and a little bit of a problem.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"William Wegman: Polaroids and Paintings," will be at the Lisa Sette Gallery, 4142 North Marshall Way in Scottsdale, through March 31. Gallery hours are: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday evenings, 7 to 9 and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.
"All dogs are Roman Catholic, they have a strong sense of guilt," Wegman tells the audience.
Wegman is currently the subject of a major international museum retrospective.
The different ways Wegman treats the male Ray and the female Fay--especially the more passive way she responds to the camera--have disturbing implications.