A Salute to Artist and Clown

WILLIAM WEGMAN graciously acknowledges that he follows his dog's lead; that the model, in this case a dog, through some mood or gesture, shows him what he will do. This really is a question of grace, for the results are pure inspiration! In his dogs, Man Ray and Fay, he has recognized the uncanny expression of an immense humanity that wasn't human at all and has realized it with both vision and humor.William Wegman is famous for his photographs of his Weimaraners. You could say that his dogs have made him the successful artist that he is, or, that he has made them famous, since most people would recognize them and lose him in the frenzy of adoring fans. Nonetheless, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is hosting an exhibit which also includes his paintings, drawings, and videotapes in an effort to expose us to the complete artist and prove that there is more to Wegman than his dogs. With almost 150 works from the past 20 years, this retrospective is the first stop on a United States tour that went all over Europe. It is a salute to Wegman's contributions as an artist and a clown. Despite the common bond of humor, the works in the four separate media are all quite different from each other. Only two show any signs of dogs. The truth is that each medium does reveal a different side of William Wegman. One might invite a certain refinement, another detachment, and still another somethin g more in our face. By nature the drawings are witty and adolescent. They have a comic-strip image that tells a story, a joke. They delight in simplicity, a kind of straightforward and divine dumbness that approximates an idiot's wisdom, usually right on target in some offbeat way. The paintings, on the other hand, are lively and painterly in that they enjoy what paint can do and how images can emerge from that paint. They are also watery, fresh, and colorful, with a great deal of activity in terms of gesture, energy, and detail. Their subjects are large, in the landscape, from the balcony, life in the garden, on holiday, the hustle and bustle of town. They are good-natured and fun, almost bucolic - at least on the surface. The videotapes are almost childish. One gag after another in which Wegman uses himself and/or Man Ray as an instrument or subject. Most are mercifully brief and enjoyable, brimming with an inventive- ness, irreverence, and crude, impromptu charm. They can surprise. We might not recognize just what we're seeing at first; like something pour- ing down right in front of the lens with the color and consistency of heavy cream. Very heavy. It pulls away and we see that the camera is on the floor and Wegman is on his hands and knees, simultaneously spitting out this stuff and crawling backward so as to form a straight line. He turns a corner and disappears. Around that same corner seconds later appears Man Ray licking up the white liquid line until finally his tongue obscures the camera. THEN there are the dog photographs. They have a certain classical and velvety elegance and intimacy to go with their cockeyed reality that makes them so appealingly dreamy. It seems unfair to compare them to everything else. However interesting it is to see the full scope of Wegman the artist, all this show ends up proving is that there is a reason for the popularity of his dogs; they are simply wonderful. Although Wegman studied painting at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, and even went on to get a master's at the University of Illinois, he made his mark as an artist when he began photographing Man Ray in 1970. It was the beginning of a love affair between an artist and his model that lasted a dozen years and produced some of the most powerful and memorable images of its time. The affection in his work is plain, even as it is undercut by humor, making it unique in a cool and cheerless art world. That Man Ray consented to pose, sharing his compassion and intelligence, however ridiculous the situation, lends the work its emotional touch. This is not a dog performing tricks. It is a free spirit indulging, even guiding, the lens and the artist. It is showing him and us something we have never seen or recognized and have yet to learn. To see the photographs is to believe this. The more preposterous or awkward the arrangement, the more gentle and haunting his wizened gaze, and the more profound the psychological impact. As Man Ray approached the end of his life, Wegman turned from black-and-white to color Polaroids to preserve all he could of his canine companion's camera magic. The athletic young lead had by then become something of a character actor, but he had something to give, right to the end. It wasn't until almost five years after Man Ray's death in 1982 that the artist began working with dogs again, this time with his young female Weimaraner, Fay (b. 1985). Life renewed itself with a new love, and the magic was back. Wegman and his dogs are jesters in the court of art. They clown around, recreating scenarios that benignly slide up beside us and strike a pose, showing us just how foolish our own charades are. Looking into the dog's eyes we are looking into a mirror, seeing how we feel about our own predicaments, asking how we got there, if and how we'll ever get out. It's all very funny, and then it's not. Dogs look pretty silly doing these things, but then so do we. UMOR is a seamless and essential part of life, one section in a strand of spaghetti. Wegman sticks that part up front in his work, and we call it humor. He gives us one long strand, however; one long enough for a meal. There is an innocence natural to most of the early work, to the drawings, the videos, and the photographs. It is hard to keep that alive. Life tests our sense of humor. Loss touches us all. When Wegman struggled, his dogs kept their innocence. They stood in for him, acting as his better half, a kind of alter-ego self-portrait. This is the happiest of alliances. Most artists will admit just what a difference it makes to have a great subject. Then they can get about the the business of drawing, filming, painting, or photographing. William Wegman has had the great fortune of having two extraordinary subjects, Man Ray and Fay, and he has done them extraordinary justice by listening to them.

The William Wegman show will be at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, through Oct. 6, before traveling to the Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Fla. (Nov. 8 - Jan. 5), and the Whitney Museum of Art, N.Y. (Jan. 22 - April 19, 1992).

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