William Wegman is somewhat of a legend at my alma mater, MassArt. He is arguably the most famous of MassArt's graduates (class of '65). Although I'd never seen him during my four years at the school, I had heard that he would occasionally develop prints on the large poloroid machine in the photo department. There are only two of these machines in the United States, and our small state art school had one of them. Maybe it had something to do with Poloroid being based in the same city.
Wegman is known, largely, for his images of dogs. Art-saavy or not, if you haven't seen these dogs before, someone needs to unplug the respirator. The images are found on calendars, mugs, cards, you-name-it. The only other rival is perhaps the woman who photographs babies in vegetable costumes. I can almost smell the potpurri. For me, I don't find them interesting, in fact, I have a knee jerk aversion to them. But I found his early video work (and yes, some with the dogs) interesting and innovative. Even influential. An article in today's New York Times, Beyond Dogs: Wegman Unleashed goes into the contradiction, or how it may appear to be on the surface:
So let this be said: dogs or no dogs, Mr. Wegman is one of the most important artists to emerge from the heady experiments of the 1970's. Despite a somewhat helter-skelter presentation, the nearly 230 artworks and nearly 100 quite short videos in "William Wegman: Funney/Strange" offer a total immersion in the fruits of his inquiring mind and sardonic eye. They anoint him as the most accessible and, in his own way, richly human of all Conceptual artists.
Initiated by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, the show has been selected by Trevor Fairbrother and is accompanied by a book by Joan Simon, curator at large at the Whitney Museum of American art. Over all, it teems a bit too much with small, framed items. My initial reaction — in a moment of trans-species free-association — was that absorbing the show might be akin to herding cats. But the energetic mixing of media enables you to follow Mr. Wegman's ideas as they migrate from one form to another.
The show includes a generous sampling of his videos, setup photographs, wittily captioned drawings, once-over-lightly Color Field history paintings and postcard-happy painted panoramas. All these, along with his general do-it-yourself style, have influenced decades of artists, the youngest of whom are insufficiently familiar with the scope of his work. Best of all, this show proves that there is much, much more to his achievement than dogs.
In his long and productive career, Mr. Wegman has remained as true as any of his legendary 1970's contemporaries to the belief that the artist's job is to make something that doesn't look like art. For most of his career — longer than that of most artists his age — Mr. Wegman, 62, has fearlessly tolerated looking silly, inconsequential or sentimental while making his art with whatever, or whoever, happened to be handy, starting with himself.
It's hard not to beat up on Wegman. He is a commercial success and his work seems formulaic. He might have been called a sell-out, but then again, what would that make Warhol? At least he's more consistent. And to my knowledge, he's not a shady type of sell-out like Thomas Kinkade (see article, Dark Portrait of a 'Painter of Light', about Kinkaid's questionable business practices and personality). Wegman makes no claim for divine intervention in his work. It is, largely, what it is. A demonstration of work over time. Am I excited? I'm not sure but I'm curious to see what he has left.
Posted by on March 10, 2006 3:10 PM | Permalink