People tend to forget that William Wegman makes paintings, and that he has made them for almost 20 years. This is partly because he hasn’t shown them much, but mostly because he’s so known for his photographs of dogs. His current Sperone Westwater exhibition of two mural-sized paintings and 14 smaller works is delightful if also dismaying. It suggests an artist who bravely seeks offbeat ways of making art, but once he finds them, starts repeating them. In a way, this has been Wegman’s problem for some time.
When I mention Wegman to undergraduates, they look askance; someone asks, “You mean the dog guy?” and my heart breaks a little. During the ’70s, Wegman was way more than the dog guy. In those days, as art students tended toward lockstep minimalism, messy installations, derivative formalist paintings, and epistemology as art, Wegman seemed to offer a way out. He was a blast of fresh air, an affable iconoclast with an irreverent sense of the banal, and a maker of some of the wittiest, sappiest videos ever. (I still remember him teaching his dog to spell, and spraying an entire can of deodorant under his own arm.) Back in the day, Wegman was a port in the storm for those put off by art-world sanctimoniousness and navel gazing—a reminder that art could be entertaining and hilarious, and that it didn’t take much to do this, which gave his work the beauty of economy.
In 1971, Wegman began photographing Man Ray, the regal, agile, hammy weimaraner he bought for $35 after tossing a coin (“Tails it’s the dog”) who he almost named Bauhaus, but didn’t because he wasn’t “black and white and square.” In Man Ray, Wegman found his muse. The first pictures of him are simple, sweet, and smart—black-and-white studio shots of the dog as art object (Man Ray contemplating a bust of himself, licking milk off the floor, or posing on pedestals). Soon the pictures got more polished. They turned much slicker, and initially much better, in 1979, after he accepted an invitation from the Polaroid Corporation to use its new large-format camera.
Then Wegman went dog-wild. He photographed Man Ray (who died in 1982) repeatedly. In 1986, he began doing the same to a gaggle of weimaraners, starting with the demure Fay Ray, her daughter, the placid Batty, and her son, the willing Chip. In numberless pictures we see dogs in ludicrous, fishy positions—on boats, beds, boxes, and ladders; dressed as ladies, gentlemen, fishermen, and farmers; outfitted as elephants and dinosaurs; posed with cats, kids, topless models, and other dogs.
These pictures brought Wegman a lot of notoriety, art-world and otherwise. In 1982, this paper dubbed Man Ray “Man of the Year.” In 1983, Sanford Schwartz called Wegman’s collection of Man Ray pictures, Man’s Best Friend, “the most original book of photographs since Robert Frank’s The Americans.” Wegman was a crossover success. He appeared on TV so much (Sesame Street, The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, David Letterman), I thought he’d get his own show. He produced calendars, books, magnets, T-shirts, greeting cards, ads, films, prints, and posters. Wegman became the Jim Dine of dogs. He went mainstream, but at a cost. Now he’s a near parody of himself. Last year he did a vacuous little book called How do you get to MoMAQNS? in which a dapper weimaraner takes the No. 7 train to the museum and gazes at a Rousseau. Thus did one of my heroes become “the dog guy” to younger artists.
Throughout it all, however, Wegman made paintings. Good ones. This isn’t his best exhibition of them, but it does show him perfecting an innovative, squirrelly technique. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly for this artist, all the works involve the exact same technique. Wegman, who revels in surreal juxtapositions and cornball Pop-Dada comparisons, attaches postcards of tourist attractions to surfaces, then connects them by painting or drawing on or between them. In The Tilted Chair, one of the two large works that make this show worthwhile, a postcard of the London Bridge connects via a painted causeway to a tropical island that sports the Seattle Space Needle, which stands across the river from New York, which is situated near a turnpike next to a Gothic cathedral. In Vacationland, two hitchhikers sit on a curb that turns into a map of Florida just west of Frankfurt, not far from the Grand Canyon.
These two paintings look like giant cheesy postcards themselves, and have a wonderfully whimsical, decorative festiveness. They’re one-man exquisite corpses, vaudevillian romps filled with Technicolor sight gags and optical puns. From afar, they’re suave, if bland. Closer in, things flow into one another comically. The problem is, once you get the gimmick, there’s not much else happening. Invention turns into device, device into shtick, and shtick into its doppelgänger anagram, kitsch.
At 59, Wegman remains one of the wiliest artists around. He’s a charmer, and far from tapped out. Although these paintings are excellent jumping-off points, it would be nice to see him play with different surfaces and materials, delve into process and other painterly styles (as he has so effectively in the past), experiment more, toy with the subject, and create an overall image that’s more gripping. Then, he could go as wild as he did with the dogs.