Sit, Beg...Now Smile!

UPDATED 09/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

AT HIS VACATION LODGE IN THE WILDS OF RANGELEY, MAINE, the artist William Wegman is doing his Kate Jackson imitation.

"I was on Letterman in '81," he says, "and while I was waiting to go on, this mogul-y guy comes along, grabs [my dog] Man Ray and says, 'Kate needs a hook.' She puts her face next to Ray's, grins,"—Wegman demonstrates—"and they take a picture, a publicity shot, I guess."

He shakes his head and laughs. "I always remembered that: 'Kate needs a hook.' "

For Wegman, of course, his celebrity dog Man Ray and now Ray's successors, Fay Ray and her puppy Battina, have always been so much more. They are his muses, the baleful-eyed stars of dozens of his signature photographs. They are his family. (Twice divorced, Wegman, 47, now owns two generations of weimaraners in hopes that he'll never be dogless.) And, in a sense, they are his "hook" as well, for it is his wry, affecting dog photos and videos, not his paintings and drawings, that have beguiled the public's eye and brought both fame and acclaim. Sometimes that frustrates him.

"Holly Solomon, my dealer, calls the paintings my underdogs," says Wegman, whose new retrospective, including noncanine as well as canine works, opened last month in Boston and will tour nationally. "I feel that way too, but I don't worry as much as Holly. She has to sell them."

Commanding up to $120,000 each, Wegman's shadowy canvases, which have been compared to cave paintings, are not impulse buys. But his newer dog photos, fetching $6,000 apiece, move briskly. His work sells well enough for him to spend most of his time creating more of it. At his ramshackle lodge in Rangeley, Wegman has been devoting the summer to shooting and painting. With help from three technicians, his assistant, his girlfriend (gallery owner Christine Burgin) and his sister Pam, he puts in long days behind a huge Polaroid camera that surrenders, after 80 seconds, a lush 24-by-20-inch color photograph.

The labor is often exhausting and always absurd: Fay, Battina and three of her siblings (owned by assorted friends and family) must be hoisted onto bicycles, swathed in thrift-shop gingham—whatever strikes the artist's fancy. The dogs sometimes tire before the photographer, but they seem to tolerate the posing and even the cleanups (in the service of art, Man Ray was once showered with flour for Dusted, painted with gel for Frog/frog II) and eagerly come back for more.

"Working breeds have to have some serious life," Wegman maintains. "They don't like to just sit around and be petted." Their master, who clearly adores them, likes the work too. "It's very sensual holding them all day long," he says. "And you can look at them in a way you can't look at people—it would be too uncomfortable."

His love of animals developed early. The son of a Long-meadow, Mass., company production manager and a housewife, he remembers when he was 4 the agony of seeing his cocker spaniel, Cindy, get hit by a car. "My mother says the dog was actually hers, though, and it hated me," Wegman says. "So I completely romanticized this first dog in my life."

By the time he found a mutt named Wags in his Christmas stocking four years later, Wegman's artistic affinities were developing as well. Later a high school teacher urged him to attend Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, and once there he flourished. "It was hell being a child—I was never quite a part of things, somehow," he says. "Then, at art school, I found out about religion, philosophy, music—everything deep. I was an impossibly deep person for a while."

He studied painting, but in graduate school at the University of Illinois he decided, in '60s fashion, that painting was dead. He was teaching art in Long Beach, Calif., and constructing "overly pompous" conceptual pieces when his wife, Gayle Wegman, a fellow artist, began lobbying for a dog. They looked at weimaraners, and when he flipped a coin to clinch the decision, "it came up tails seven times." They took home the only male of the litter and named him Man Ray—after the pioneering surrealist—"because it felt right," says Wegman.

Thus began a relationship that would outlive both his marriages. (His first ended in 1975, his second—to graphic designer Laurie Jewell—in 1982.) Working together, Wegman says, was Ray's idea: "He would make these high-pitched whines when you weren't paying attention to him, so he talked me into using him." The dog also meshed perfectly with Wegman's aesthetic. Wegman had decided to "start doing things I really think about, not what I'm supposed to be thinking about," and to use "household stuff that was near to me. The dog fit that category, and I immediately saw that I had something special."

His black-and-white videos, several of which aired on Saturday Night Live in the '70s and '80s, are now considered classics. (In one a poker-faced Wegman tells Man Ray he's flubbed his spelling quiz: "It's b-e-a-c-h, not b-e-e-c-h....") His color photos—Ray as dinosaur, Ray in high heels—won instant praise for their humor and eerie beauty. "I hated making him look ridiculous," Wegman says. "But he looks quite noble, even in the silly ones." Today, Ray's portraits hang in museums like the Museum of Modem Art in New York City and the Pompidou Center in Paris.

When Ray succumbed to cancer in 1982, Wegman, by then a New Yorker, was inconsolable. "The pain of that loss," he says, "is still strong. He died in an operating room. I just torture myself over it. I wish he was in my arms."

Yet Ray's death was liberating as well. Wegman felt relieved that now he could "do something else." His painting came back to life and received respectful reviews. Soon, though, he was ready for another dog. One puppy was stolen. Another died. Finally, in 1985, Fay Ray came to live in his East Village apartment. "As soon as I photographed her," he says, "I realized I'd been depriving myself of something."

These days he devotes about half his time to dog work, the rest to oil and canvas. "Being nailed to the dog cross," as he once put it, appears to worry him less and less. "I've learned," he says with a smile, "that that's my job."

Nobody does it better. On a crisp Maine day, Fay's son Chundo, dressed in pajamas, seated at a table, waits to be served stuffed pheasant. Chundo starts to fidget—he may ruin the shot—so Wegman breaks into song.

"Ba dee ba ba da," he cries. Chundo quiets and stares. "I rarely sing this kind of thing," Wegman says to no one in particular. "Doggie music. Chundo song...." Click.

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