PRINT February 1992


I’d rather laugh in bed than do it. Get under the covers and crack jokes, I guess, is the best way. “How am I doing?” “Fine, that was very funny.” “Wow, you were really funny tonight.” If I went to a lady of the night, I’d probably pay her to tell me jokes.
—Andy Warhol

According to Plato, art had no place in his ideal society. In mine, it would be right near the top.
—William Wegman

PICTURE A LOG HOUSE in the country, with a lawn and an evergreen tree, and a girl with red hair, all floating in space. Sweetly reassuring, this cabin in the sky. William Wegman takes us into his confidence: a painting represents a dream, and this is how it’s done. It’s all so easy. chose red for the girl’s hair and bacon rind to accent the picture. Green then became a good choice for the lawn color. “ This is Wegman’s Hope, from 1985. his first year of painting since his student days. A fantasy of the good life crosses paths with the ideals of good painting—balancing of formal elements, constructing with complementary hues, arriving at a harmonious arrangement, just as, in our dreams, all our desires are fulfilled. Just make sure the requirements and rules are obeyed and you’ll be satisfied: ”I think it makes a nice, simple picture and I am more than happy with it.“ But Wegman’s candor, that intimate tone and offhanded gesture that draw us in and lull us into reverie, is a ruse, a trick, a joke, a confidence game. Can we really have it all, this perfect congruence of esthetic success and idyllic retreat? Somewhere along the way, art ideals get mixed up with domestic bliss; painting becomes clouded by reality. Art always gets interrupted, displaced by life, by smells and smoke and grease. Life and art aren’t the same. To confuse them is a joke. So much for the ”cuisine" of painting.

Now that I’ve explained the joke, in my own clumsy way, have I ruined it for you?

LIFE—WHAT IS ACTUAL, real, everyday experience—always falls short of unrealistic, imposed cultural ideals and philosophical systems. The desire for perfection forces the world into false, coherent constructions, explains behavior away by a discourse of sense and seriousness, where conformity to the unblemished “truth” must end up stifling eccentricity, accident, error. But every day our lives stumble over the oddball, the imperfect, sometimes, it seems, just to keep us guessing and laughing. People who lust after the ideal are always disappointed, and we learn to avoid them, because they lose their sense of humor and are boring.

In Wegman’s world, we are our eccentricities, and never live up to—for instance—physical ideals of beauty. But the discrepancy is no cause for despair, except for adolescents. We set the conformist desire behind us and concoct personal style in its place. Photographing himself for Reduce/Increase, 1977, Wegman may don a wig and a see-through party dress, but his breasts will always be too small, his waist too wide, the legs in need of a good shave. Any attempt to universalize the ideal can only lead to silliness, burlesque. The drawing Perfect Hair, Perfect Teeth, ca. 1975: on the left, a boy with -perfect,“ well-groomed blond hair, but bad, crooked teeth; on the right, his twin, with ”bad," colorless, thin hair, but even rows of—blond teeth. In an ideal world the world of beer commercials—a world where blonds, like paintings, are prized for their rarity, teeth would be blond. But no such teeth exist.

Anjelica Huston is beautiful even when she’s not funny, because her exaggerated features don’t quite add up. To be scary, she opted for an incongruous blond wig in The Grifters, a calculation that made her all the more disharmoniously funny.

Candice Bergen is always more beautiful when she’s cracking a joke.

SURPRISE! On the occasion of the current retrospective, the fundamental appeal of Wegman’s work—its humor—is mentioned in the various catalogue essays, but it is not addressed. For Wegman to be a serious artist, worthy of adult consideration, must we transform him into a Woody Allen wannabe? “It’s occurred to me that you are dealing with a deep sense of loss and anxiety...concern about the end of the world.... By the way, is Wegman a Jewish name?” asks the sober David Ross, without a trace of irony. Alain Sayag would nominate the artist for president of the ASPCA: “The dog is also a symbolic figure representing faithfulness. From the recumbent statues of the tombs of Saint-Dénis to the bronze dog of Shibuya Station in Tokyo, which goes on waiting for its master even after his death, the dog has always been the emblematic figure representing constancy.” Or Peter Schjeldahl: “At issue is the primitive reality of personal being, which persists darkly in the face of attempts to render it rationally lucid in the social-democratic system or to blend it into the oleaginous feeling-stuff of capitalist mass culture.”1 Well, yes, but Wegman is also a good-natured comedian. The philosophical world-view of total homogenization and endless repetition is too ludicrous to be taken seriously. One cannot really argue against hegemonic systems, not only because they don’t anywhere apply, but because it would require discourse—bulk, rhetoric, philosophy. The more affirmative action is to hurl a punch line, deliver a swift, disarming retort. To go any further would mean entering into a power struggle with the opposition, on their own turf.

It’s enough to know that we can eat the same hot dog as Queen Elizabeth. Who wants to get into a squabble over the crown jewels?

UNIVERSITY ARCHITECTURE, 1973, is a drawing of a bunch of bland, elongated white boxes, a series of knocked-down pedestals. To Wegman it is not oddity that seems strange, but uniformity, regimentation. Coming of age when he did, at the height of high minded Minimalism and Conceptualism, he was well versed in the prevailing ideological disputes of the day—the idealist commitment to conformity, the esthetic rigidity, the attempt to rid art of irregularity. The autonomy of Minimalism—the look-ma-no-hands look was attained by the banishment of the human body as a reference. It was the post-Minimalist strategy to reintroduce the instability of the body back into the picture. To Hide His Deformity He Wore Special Clothing, 1971, with its Richard Serra-esque Masonite “prop” resting on a pair of shoes, acknowledges the issue of the sculptural support, but, in doing so, suggests an ambulatory Minimalism—an oxymoron if there ever was one. In asking “How did the Serra cross the road?” Wegman questions the autonomy of the sculptural “project” by unmasking the psychological repression, and the fear of the abnormal, that lurk behind the anonymous blank surface. Wegman’s Sawing, 1972, puts the action back into the scene of Serra’s Sawing, 1970. in a seesawing, left and right, showing the saw and the artist who wields it. The idealizing of process—as impersonal, abstract, “inherent” in the material—is shown to be a fiction, a form of magic, an illusion as unreal as the Immaculate Conception.

The “prop” in Wegman’s work may be a pedestal, or some pun on the sculptural support (like an ironing board), but it can also be a ball, an alarm clock, or a T-shirt that shrank in the dryer—in other words, a theatrical prop. Like all great comedians, Wegman keeps things simple; like Lucille Ball, he uses things one can find around the house. Sometimes the sculptural and theatrical prop coincide: in Heels, 1981, two sets of high heels act as precarious “lifts” for the sculptural “body”—one pair for Wegman, one for his dog Man Ray. Or the supporting prop may come from above: two strings taped to flying ears, turning his later canine subject, Fay Ray, into a pop-eyed marionette. The prop must always be carefully chosen, even if rendered as nonchalantly as a Halloween costume: a long sock and a pair of tusks for Elephant, 1981, a set of spray-painted Styrofoam wedges for Dino Ray, 1981. (Guess why children love this stuff.)

Wegman is a whiz at using lighting, composition, and masquerade to imitate various episodes in art history, and his genius is to do so in the most economical way possible. A joke must be as carefully constructed as an abstract painting or a pair of earrings. As an impressionist (like Rich Little) and stylist (in both senses of the term), Wegman in the ’70s recreates the studio ambiance of Conceptualism in photography and video of an appropriately grim and severe black-and-white, with an emphasis on the cruddy and the “sincere” to signify “intellectual.” With the introduction of color in 1979, he emulates the often cheesy extravagance of Pattern and Decoration: the prop becomes, literally, a fashion accessory. Inhabiting the theater of Robert Kushner and Kim MacConnel, where draped fabric becomes tropical paradise, Wegman begins to construct his routines around the high gloss of frivolous, glamorous antiglamour: nail polish on claws, paws with green rubber flippers, rouge on fur, and a variety of dresses and gowns, capes and hats, as well as a pair of absurdly exaggerated false eyelashes. Extrapolating from the inappropriate accessory, Wegman employs camouflage—a kind of allover accessorizing. The first Polaroids, a series from 1979 starring Man Ray shrouded in black on a black background—continuous with the field, as the jargon of the time went—evidence a completely contrary, antiphotography position, as well as being the funniest Ad Reinhardt joke ever. The idea of photography as a revelation by light is rendered impossible. Rather, for Wegman, it is not “light” but living, breathing, irrepressible life that reveals and betrays: Man Ray’s feet in Black Triptych, or his nose in Leopard/Zebra, an eye in Guise. A bit of reality always pokes through the attempted disguise: we can’t push it under the rug, hush it up, or box it in (Corner Piece).

And this impossibility was only possible because of Man Ray, who came with his own array of fabulous accessories: pink tongue, long nails, floppy ears, turdlike tail, and, above all, that camouflage coat, dark and absorbent, reflective, but also blending, as if in sympathetic vibration with the world around him.

IN THE CALIFORNIA SCHOOL of Comedy, Ed Ruscha does a terrific stand-up on the banality of the Lost Angeles apocalypse, and Bruce Nauman can still manage some humor between primals creams. Wegman, a student of this school, has retained a certain tenderness and empathy, often because the humor is at his own expense. (He never points fingers.) He won’t, for example, ask anything of his dogs that he’s not willing to do himself, even if that means getting down on the floor and lapping up a milk spill. No one cries over the spilt milk; instead there is a kind of confident joy in accepting our frailties and mistakes, our forgetfulness and slips of the tongue. Dog knocks over vase of roses, but our concern is for his bleeding, bandaged foot. My favorite color on (drawing of a barn)s is (swatch of red watercolor) but on people (word crossed out) I mean (childish drawing of blobby human) its (swatch of blue). In this 1980 replaying of Jasper Johns’ False Start. 1959, Wegman presents a series of dashed displacements: replace the noun “barn” with a drawing of a barn (a kind of picture-writing), then immediately forget that nouns are to be so replaced, and write the word “people.” Substitute a patch of color for the word for it, as that may seem more direct, more literal, “real,” then disrupt that by positing “blue” people, which doesn’t literally signify anything. But the string of replacements and reversals has as its punch line a point. The mistaken attribution is in fact emotionally sound. Wegman will not deny color’s emotive power or language’s capacity to express feelings. It isn’t only a matter of the abstract paradoxes of sign and signified: we must allow for the allusive human element always to have the last word, even if the emotion is expressed by a dog. In a kind of apotheosis of transference, Wegman, in Blue Period, 1981, projects the Old Guitarist’s poverty and hunger onto Man, who, with his gelatin-enhanced cobalt coat, looks down longingly at a bone gone blue.

IN PHOTOGRAPHY, TIMING is all, and so it is with comedy and careers. An artist must have supreme discretion to know when a particular gesture, a certain prop, or a repeated bit of business intensifies or destroys humor. He must also know when to move on or risk becoming a purveyor of schtick. Wegman’s paintings were at first little more than elaborations of his drawings, with words and things gently colliding on vaporous, “painterly” backgrounds. As the paintings got bigger, he had to change, and enlarge his repertoire, much as he did when Man Ray demanded an enlarged role by dint of his talent as a character actor. So now we have luscious washes of luminous, layered color, applied with bravura, setting up the context of the soggiest, most disreputable painting style imaginable: Greenbergian abstraction, of the late, liquid variety.

These paintings could be mistaken for the best Helen Frankenthalers Helen Frankenthaler never painted, and Wegman does to them what we always secretly wanted to do—turns them into landscapes and seascapes and blushing, shimmering skies, just like we’d dreamt they should be, with skyscrapers and buses, palm trees and swimming pools. Into these cliched idealized spaces, these sunset canyons and dramatic tidal waves of paint, Wegman discreetly drops his incongruous “accessories.” In this expanse, opening out before us like the entire world, continents meet, clashing cultures visit one another as welcoming neighbors, a pagoda is right down the block from a steeple-topped chapel. The humorous imagery is as swift as always, but also fleeting and delicate, like butterflies going in and out of focus. There are the funny little scale shifts, like giant crabs next to miniature dolphins, and gravity-defying boats floating by airplanes in an ocean mist melting into clouds, unencumbered by any rational coordinates. Without resorting to parody, irony, or spoof, Wegman has moved into this new, unchartable territory, coming from the quick, laughing-out-loud setup and payoff to a universe filled with leisurely dinner-party conversation.

But one with storks trading unheard witticisms with donkeys.

Jeff Perrone is an artist who lives in New York.


1. Martin Kunz, ed., William Wegman: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs. Videotapes, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990, pp. 19. 49, 1984.

The retrospective exhibition “William Wegman,” organized by Martin Kunz with the Kunstmuseum Lucerne, remains at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the last stop on its travels, until April 19.