Wegamn became known for video in which his dogs were cast in roles one would expect humans to play. "On view from September 14 - October 28, 2007, artist William Wegman presented "Around the Park," a new site-specific video work on four outdoor monitors near Madison Square Park's popular food kiosk, Shake Shack. The seven-minute-long video commission starred Wegman's favorite cast of iconic Weimaraner dogs as they enjoy a fall day in Madison Square Park. The curious figures engage in mundane tasks, from waiting in line for a Shake Shack lunch and making security rounds in a park vehicle, to taking a visit to the park's Jemmy's Dog Run." (from Youtube)
William Wegman was born in 1943 in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and grew up in a small town nearby called Eastern Long Meadow. His father, George, worked in the local Absorbine factory, and the family enjoyed a pleasant, middle-class suburban life. Wegman started making art at a young age with crayons, as many artists do, and then latter began to work with Windsor & Newton watercolors. While some people never really understand the ideas of perspective, he mastered it at the age of four, which is a major accomplishment for a young child.
Wegman is a photographer, painter and filmmaker, and is best known throughout the world for his photographs of his Weimaraner dogs. Wegman is an artist who refuses to limit his media and is equally at home in painting, drawing, film, video, writing, and photography.
He received his B.F.A. in 1965 from the Massachusetts College of Arts in Boston and his M.F.A. from the University of Illinois in 1967. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin at Wausau, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of California at Long Beach. It was while he was teaching in Madison that he discovered the film and started making artistic films. While working with film he began to see the aesthetic quality of photographic images.
In 1970, he and his wife at that time, Gayle Lewis, moved to Los Angeles, and Gayle really wanted a puppy. Wegman was at first hesitant to get any dog, but it was decided by flipping a coin that they would get a Weimaraner. The dog, called Man Ray, after the famous photographer from earlier in the century, soon became the object of many of Wegman's works.
In these early photographs, Man Ray was posed in many ways. Sometimes the dog was positioned in relation to square or rectangular boxes, sometimes standing on the boxes, or stepping up on them, or stepping down from them. These photographs, based on images of Minimal art current at that time, humorously played with the notions that the minimalists had taken so seriously. Although the Wegman's lived on food stamps for a while, critics and collectors began to pay attention to his photographs and videos and he became part of the Conceptual art scene in L.A.
Although Wegman is now famous for his photographs of Man Ray, at the time he was doing much more than photographing the dog. Much like a performance artist, he was exploring photography and video, as well as painting and drawing. An example of the conceptual explorations in photography is a series of images, titled "Dropping Milk," that shows him holding a glass of milk, the glass slipping out of his hand and the final frame shows a glass of milk sitting upright on the floor in front of him. The fact that the glass is upright makes the viewer think because the glass should be shattered on the ground.
Wegman moved to New York City in 1973 at the age of 30. His first studio, on 27th Street, was so bad that he began to work in an abandoned factory in East Hampton. The office of that factory with its awful wood paneling is seen in the video "Spelling Lesson," where Wegman patiently explained Man Ray's spelling mistakes to him as the dog listens. By the mid-1970s, Wegman's work was receiving both critical and popular acclaim and he was given one-man shows by the Sonnabend Gallery at both its Paris and New York galleries and his videos began to appear as short spots on Saturday Night Live.
For a period of time in the 1970s, frustrated with the small space of his studio, Wegman switched to drawing as his media. A turning point in his career came in 1978, when, at the invitation of Polaroid, he began to photograph Man Ray again, this time with a large-format Polaroid camera. These experiments with the new technology helped Wegman find new ways of seeing, reinvigorated him as an artist, and helped introduce him to a much wider audience. These Polaroid photographs of Man Ray established Wegman's fame. They had become so popular that by 1982, the year that Man Ray died, the Village Voice named the dog "Man of the Year."
In 1982, he moved into a former synagogue in the East Village, which he used as a studio. Since 1997, he has lived in Chelsea in an old schoolhouse with his third wife, Christine Burgin, their two children and several Weimaraners. They also maintain a home in Maine.
The success of his dog photos was sometimes frustrating due to the over identification of Wegman's art with his dogs and the popularity of the dog photos. Nonetheless, Wegman is a serious photographer who uses his media to subvert commercialism into absurd images. Although Man Ray died in 1982, Wegman continues to photograph other dogs, most notably Fay Ray and one her daughters, Bettina.
Wegman has won several prestigious awards for his work. These awards include Guggenheim Fellowships in 1975 and 1986, and the Creative Artists Public Service Award in 1979. He also received grants to support his work from the National Endowment for Arts in 1976 and 1982.
Major retrospective exhibits of his work have been held at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 1979; the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1983; and the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1990.
His style is hard to clearly define. Although it has aspects of Dada, Surrealism, Pop Art, and Conceptual art, it cannot be clearly defined as any of these. He has experimented with many different types of media, and although he enjoys remarkable commercial success, he remains very much part of the world of avant-garde art.
Page author: S.H.