It’s been a marquee year for beloved artist William Wegman. Following two concurrent exhibitions in downtown Manhattan and the release of Abrams' William Wegman: Paintings, the artist has headed West to unveil 'William Wegman: New and Used Furniture, 1972 –2015' at Los Angeles’ Marc Selwyn Fine Art.
A captivating survey of Wegman’s use of furniture as an aesthetic and compositional apparatus, the show represents a homecoming of sorts for the East Coast artist. In the early 1970s, Wegman, then experimenting with photography and video art, became a pioneering member of the hugely influential West Coast conceptual movement that included Allen Ruppersberg, Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha.
Work from this fertile period appears in the 'Used' portion of the exhibition. Wegman’s early black and white images evince the playful, collaborative spirit of the times and feature the artist and friends interacting with found objects in his Santa Monica studio (now occupied by friend John Baldessari and virtually unchanged since the 1970s).
In the early days, Wegman’s material palette derived mostly from 'old furniture that happened to be kicking around the studio', as well as visual detritus collected from Southern California’s dirt-cheap thrift stores. An 81 panel work, titled Three to Four (1971–72), draws on traditional mathematic permutations in its documentation of the possible combinations of three artists engaging in four assigned activities: reading the newspaper, listening to music, drinking a soda and sitting in a chair. The piece is classic Wegman in its deft blend of humor, warmth and absurdity.
After relocating to New York in 1972, Wegman became an expert dumpster diver, retrieving furniture and other discarded objects he found interesting. Around the same time, he began regularly photographing a new kind of ‘found object’ – his beloved Weimaraner, Man Ray. Those early shots led to an iconic body of work employing the artist’s magisterial canines as subjects (he has owned ten over the years). Wegman’s dog pictures have afforded him a kind of celebrity that has grown beyond the traditional parameters of fine art.
The show’s 'New' segment places the dogs alongside and on top of iconic furniture pieces by Charles and Ray Eames and George Nakashima. Whether it’s the cheery modernity of the Eames’ shell chairs (provided by Herman Miller) or the warm humanistic quality of Nakashima’s sensual wood creations, the effect is one of unexpected harmony and playful seduction.
'Combining the Weimaraners and furniture informs them both,' notes gallerist Marc Selwyn. 'The dogs can add drama, humour and a sculptural quality to the furniture. In many cases, the shiny coats of the Weimaraners literally reflect the color and shape of the furniture, taking on dramatically different looks in various photographs.'
Wegman can never really predict how the dogs will respond to the props in question – even as they’ve evolved from curbside junk to exquisite new furniture pieces (including the contemporary American design Wegman captured for W*199, which he guest edited). 'The new work features two dogs, one which gave poise and a lot of psychology, while the other offered tremendous light and majesty,' Wegman says. The Eames shell chairs, in particular, posed unexpected difficulties for the dogs, which found holding a pose while standing on them difficult. 'Some things are inexplicably easier than others to work with. In fact, it was easier for the dogs to stand quietly on a bicycle than those particular chairs.'