If his partnership with Man Ray was fortuitous rather than planned back then, it now seems preordained. As a conceptual artist, Wegman had been taking the quotidian and making it strange from the moment he got to art school in the early 60s. What is more quotidian than a dog? What is stranger than a dog made to look like an elephant? Or, a dog teaching children to count, as in his video segments for Sesame Street? For that matter, how many artists appeal as much to children as to adults? Or get to have their work shown in the world’s greatest museums, and also turned into calendars, greetings cards and a series of public mosaics in a New York subway station? Some artists might be sniffy about that. Not Wegman. “I was very fierce about that,” he says. “These works were not site-specific, they could be seen and disseminated, they could have an audience that wasn’t just limited to the wall of the gallery in New York.”
Three major shows this year serve as a testament to Wegman’s restless and endlessly inventive career: the wide-ranging career survey Outside In at the Shelbourne Museum in Vermont; Being Human at Masi Lugano in Switzerland, which is on until 6 January 2020; and a stall at the Frieze Masters in London, which focuses on his early conceptual pieces, and closes today. To get to Wegman’s lakeside retreatfrom New York is an eight-hour drive through Connecticut and Vermont, and across New Hampshire, onwards and upwards until you feel there is nothing between you and the edge of the world but trees and sky – and those exotic road signs warning of moose crossing. (The signs, sadly, almost never deliver on their promise.) Just as it feels you have run out of road, you spot the tennis courts. They are made of red clay with an old-school umpire’s chair at the net. A row of white hydrangeas glows in the sun. On cue, Flo and Topper fly forth, sleek and gorgeous, leaping around the car in full-throated greeting. Wegman’s 24-year-old son, Atlas – named for the sonogram machine on which his heartbeat was first detected – bounces down the steps to shout directions on where to park. It could be the set of a Wes Anderson movie. Inside the house, old wooden tennis rackets and vintage snow shoes line a wall. Christine Burgin, a distinguished gallerist and publisher who married Wegman in the early 90s, is making pasta with leeks for dinner. Lola, their 21-year-old daughter, sits near a fireplace reading a Stefan Zweig biography of Balzac. There is no TV, and no one seems to know the wifi code. Mobile phone service was last spotted at least an hour down the road. No problem, books are everywhere.Wegman first came to the area as a teenager, riding up from his home in Massachusetts for a fishing expedition with friends. “We hit a rock driving into Kennebego Lake and this guy who owned a lodge towed our car, fixed it and put us up for a week,” he recalls. The guy was Bud Russell, a local hero and coincidentally Kurt Russell’s uncle. Wegman was 14 and had already learned to paint watercolours alongside his mother (she stopped as soon he got better than her), but he didn’t think about art school until a teacher suggested it, which is how he wound up at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. “I was pretty naive when I went to art school,” he says. “And then everything was opened up – religion, art, music.”
Growing up. While the Chow Chow dogs are well known for their distinctive blue-black tongues, they’re actually born with pink tongues. They turn blue-black at 8-10 weeks of age.
At art college, he shared a room with two older, devout Catholics. “I would go to church every Sunday and feel like I was levitating,” he recalls. “I suppose if I was born in another era, it would be marijuana or LSD.” For a while he considered converting to Catholicism, but the allure wore off after a few years, in part he says because he saw that girls were crazy for him and why deprive himself? “I just sort of went, ‘Ta-da! I’m free!’” he says. “I became much more of a regular person after that… I had girlfriends.”
Since it was the 60s and the Vietnam War was exploding, Wegman wisely secured a deferment and went to the University of Illinois on a grant to study cybernetics. But he hated Illinois: “It was just cornfields and sort of bleak and no one liked me there.” He had also come to the conclusion, along with most young artists at the time, that painting was passé. He thinks his rebellion was exacerbated by his newfound friendships with avant-garde composers such as John Cage , who seemed to be doing far more interesting things. So he went to Wisconsin, as a visiting artist, but burned bridges there, too. “I liked to take ordinary things, like the library, and rearrange it to be out of sync,” he recalls. “I liked taking order and shifting it.”When Wegman moved to California in 1970 he was beginning to find his artistic voice, working with photography and video, often putting himself in front of the camera. Although dependent on food stamps and generous benefactors (Ed Ruscha bought 50 of his works for $50 a pop) he was creating a body of work that was disciplined and tight. But still inverting ordinary things to make them strange. Wegman’s early work was popular in the UK, but things changed after Man Ray. “I think England had a problem with my later work, with the dogs, especially the dressed-up stuff,” he says, before adding, “Paris has always loved my dressed-up dog things.” His own enthusiasm for London is undimmed. “I was friends with Gilbert & George ,” he says. “They were hilarious. My wife at the time, Gayle, did all kinds of crazy stuff with them.” What kind of crazy stuff? “I’m not sure, but it’s sort of dark things.” What would that involve? “I don’t know. Use your imagination…” It was only when Wegman began using the giant 20x24 Polaroid camera in 1979 that he noticed Man Ray was losing his figure. The new photos were rich in detail and exposed things that remained hidden in black and white. “I started covering him up,” he confesses. “It became really apparent he was an old dog.” By that point Man Ray was an international art star, feted on talk shows and immortalised in videos for Saturday Night Live. Wegman found it almost impossible to imagine a future beyond him. When his friend the actor John Belushi asked, “What are you going to do when your dog dies?” it hit a raw nerve. “He sort of got an evil look in his eye,” Wegman recalls. “He knew it would be dark and thought I’d just be finished.”
A Beatles hit. It’s rumored that, at the end of the Beatles song, “A Day in the Life,” Paul McCartney recorded an ultrasonic whistle, audible only to dogs, just for his Shetland sheepdog.
Wegman, it turned out, was not finished– not by a long shot. It took a few years before another Weimaraner – Fay Ray – stole into his heart, and art. She was the Bacall to Man Ray’s Bogie – and looked terrific in a gown. “Fay always played more stern characters, she looked darker,” says Wegman. He gestures towards Flo on the sofa. “This dog reminds me of Fay a lot – serious, tries hard, wants to make sure she’s doing the right thing.” He thinks Weimaraners have a neutral quality that enables them to better inhabit characters. “If they were Dalmatians or Labradors, it would be, ‘Oh, it’s a Lab dressed up!’” he says. “But Weimaraners are more spooky and shadowy.”Wegman knows anthropomorphising animals is not for everyone. “The only thing that makes me angry is when people say the dogs are being abused,” he says. “They’re just so enlarged by the work.” He recalls 1978, the year he avoided shooting Man Ray. “It was really miserable for him, I could tell,” he says. “He’d come into my studio and just slump down on the floor, like, ‘You’re not going to do anything?’” It was a miserable time for Wegman, too. His work lost any sense of humour, which didn’t augur well for his Saturday Night Live spots. His studio burned down. He was drinking too much and taking too many drugs. A friend referred to the work he was making at the time as “prison art”. Wegman didn’t contradict him. “That year and 1979 were sort of a bad period,” he says. In 1980, he quit alcohol for good.
The cameras have changed over the years – the Polaroid was retired in 2007 – and so have the dogs, though all of them are descended from Fay. After Man Ray’s death, Wegman decided there should always be an overlap between generations to mitigate heartbreak. But he is 75 now, and knows a time will come – must come – when his dogs will outlive him. “I think after these two, it’s going to be a little strange,” he says. “The fact that another dog could last until I’m 90 now.” He remembers how his father struggled to walk in his 90s. “I’d have to leave it to Christine, but she’s not so much a dog person,” he says.
Use a teapot to rinse dogs off in the bathtub without getting water and soap in their eyes.
But maudlin thoughts are not made for this happy place in the woods, so we take a bike ride with the dogs racing ahead of us. We pick blackberries in the hills, and jump in the lake, giving ourselves up to the cool submersion. There is a tennis match, too, and when it’s time to leave, the absence of a phone has been a blessing. Pulling away, there are heartfelt goodbyes, and southwards I drive – the sound of barking growing distant and faint.William Wegman’s work is on view today at Frieze Masters London. Being Human is at MASI Lugano in Switzerland until 6 January 2020 (williamwegman.com)