William Wegman: California Conceptualism at the Met

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday January 18, 2018

My father told me about a wrestling match he had seen the year before I was born where one of the wrestlers threw [the other one] completely out of the ring….My father said it was a good thing I wasn’t around then because the wrestler landed…where I might have been sitting had I been born a year or more earlier.—William Wegman

Seeming irrelevant to photography, the quote here shares the surrealistic irony of William Wegman’s early work in the medium. Struggling to find a voice when process art (which relied on photography to document activity staged exclusively for the lens) was flourishing, Wegman used the camera to record visual evidence of his off-center ideas. Employing the most basic technical refinements, they also cut through the seriousness and lack of humor in prevailing art trends.

Wegman has said that the photograph at left was “the picture which proved to be the answer and the way out” of his dilemma as an artist. Working in black and white, he went on to explore the irrationality and uncertainty of physical realities and soon engaged his pet dog, Man Ray, as an actor in those hermetic dramas. His work in photography, video, and painting often has the engaging wit of a joke or cartoon—rudimentary constructs that quickly draw the view in, then celebrate the exchange with laughter. Left: © William Wegman, Cotto, 1970; courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art

A new exhibition that opened yesterday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art surveys Conceptual art as it developed in Southern California in the 1970s. The show came about through William Wegman's recent gift to the Museum of 174 short videos that he made between 1970 and 1999—his entire career in this medium. A 90-minute selection of videos from this gift is shown accompanied by photographs and drawings by Wegman as well as drawings, prints, and photographs by his contemporaries in Southern California such as John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Douglas Huebler, Ed Ruscha, and others.


© William Wegman, video capture from Dog and Ball, 1973

When he moved to Los Angeles in 1970. his video production took off. Although he only lived there for three years, Wegman found his method: short, staged vignettes using everyday items in which expectations are reversed, puns and homonyms are pursued to absurd conclusions. The artist's key early collaborator for most of these short videos was his pet Weimaraner dog, Man Ray, who enthusiastically participates in the goings on.

In contrast to other early adopters of video, Wegman affected an aesthetic of boredom for humorous improvised scenarios in which he deflated the pretensions of painting and sculpture while also lampooning the pieties and self-seriousness of Conceptual Art—at a time when it was being codified and institutionalized. Beneath the slacker humor, however, are poignant allusions to failure and the reversal of expectations that resonate with work by fellow West Coast Conceptualist friends and fellow travelers also featured in the exhibition.

Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism, through July 15. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY Info


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