You really should visit William Wegman’s sprawling Chelsea loft and art studio only when the master is at home. Otherwise his four silky gray dogs—the latest in a line of celebrity hounds that have popped up in calendars and books at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art and on Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live—will trample you. In a burst of excitement, they’ll bark thunderously, lick whatever skin you have exposed and nearly knock over Wegman’s elegant wife, art-book publisher Christine Burgin, when she tries to bear-hug them into submission.
“They’ll only calm down once Bill’s here,” she explains, opening the door to their roof deck and letting the dogs run outside.
Weimaraners are hunting dogs, built for the chase. In person they seem quite unlike the placid, curious creatures that poke their wet noses out of Wegman’s famous photographs. One wonders how he manages to get any of them to sit still, much less ride an exercise bike, lie languorously on a fallen tree trunk covered with moss or roller-skate.
Of course, he’s had more than 40 years of practice. He first photographed Man Ray, his most talented canine muse, when the dog was just a puppy, lying on a bed next to a sock. It was 1970. “Man Ray looked like the sock,” he recalls. “The sock looked like Man Ray. Man Ray looked like many things. This idea grew on me.”
This fall, Wegman, 69, gave DuJour a tour of his studio, where he has been painting a lot. “There’s an endless supply of postcards and crap,” he explains, “and books for ruminating.” He’s been spending less time behind the camera. “I don’t know why. I think my heart’s just not in it.”
Lying in the corner of the scruffy studio is a dog-free canvas in progress, one of his loopy elaborations on found postcards, where schlocky images are extended and linked together into a fabulously unlikely landscape. At the opposite end of the room are sketches for a children’s book starring one of his younger Weimaraners, the cheerful scamp Flo. By now, Wegman has published more than 20 photo books with his dogs variously cast as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Mother Goose.
Does he ever find the gimmick tiring? “How could I not? Every once in a while, I’ll go, OK, completely done—there’s nothing else I could possibly do with these beasts!”
He and Christine share a bed with the four Weimaraners and feed them homemade chicken soup. Wegman insists he still loves working with the dogs. “I’m so wrapped up in their looks. They’re gray and neutral, like a blackboard that you can write different equations on.”
But he admits that they’ve also at times threatened to eclipse everything else he’s done. “I was at a party the other night, and there was a really important collector there, sort of a big-shot New Yorker, and he’s introduced to me and goes, ‘WOOF!’” says Wegman. “It’s kind of deflating.”
Details of the artist’s palette
Location Vacation, 2011, oil and postcards on wood panel, photograph courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York
Wegman’s work has always been about much more than the dogs. There are his oddball videos, like the one from 1972 in which he sprays an entire can of deodorant under his arm while deadpanning, “I don’t have to worry about it cutting out in clutch moments.” There are his hilariously captioned, punny line drawings, and landscapes that betray his naturalist streak, stoked by many summers spent at his second home, in western Maine.
His range was on full view in “William Wegman: Hello Nature,” a recent solo show that closed in October at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. A version of the show will move to Artipelag Konsthall, a new exhibition space on a tiny Swedish peninsula reachable by ferry from Stockholm. Despite this busy exhibition schedule, Wegman says he’s become more withdrawn from the art world over the years. “When I first moved to New York, I was friends with Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra. I used to hang out a lot more,” he says. “Now I hardly even go to my own shows.”
Wegman gets a lot of fan mail. “What’s actually kind of fun is to get pictures from other people of their dressed-up dogs in homage to me,” he says. “I should probably do a book of that.”
On Set, 1994, color polaroid photograph, courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York