Never mess up an
apology with an
Iconoclastic artist William Wegman reflects on his graduate studies, photographs of Weimaraners and recent return to painting
Illinois Alumni magazine
To appreciate the unconventional nature of William Wegman’s art, consider his 1967 master’s thesis project: three rooms with walls made of inflated polyethylene, each offering different experiences (one sound, one light and one Dada-esque, with a paper cup falling when the viewer entered.
The exhibit had most faculty in the College of Fine Arts wagging their fingers and tearing their hair out, and was so poorly wired that the fire department shut it down. Wegman’s advisers gave his thesis a failing grade. Consequently, he had to stay through the summer to complete his degree with more conventional works like paintings and prints.
Not the most auspicious beginning for an artist who would become highly successful. Nevertheless, when Krannert Art Museum opened a special exhibit of his work, Wegman, MFA '67, happily returned to campus. He admits that his college years were a struggle. But, “the older I get the more glowing my feelings for Illinois,” Wegman says with a grin. “Sometimes it helps to have something to have something to bite against.”
Being something of the art school bad boy did not seem to bother him too much; he was too busy following his own muse. At the time, Illinois was a hotbed of experimentation. Wegman's curiosity took him to the departments of electrical engineering and cybernetics, as well as the School of Music, where avant-garde composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, HON '72, were in residence. One of Wegman’s most influential relationships was with Heinz von Foerster, founder of the UI Biological Computing Laboratory, whom he met through von Foerster’s son, Thomas, LAS '62.
“He was a magical person. I really hit it off with him,” says Wegman of the elder von Foerster. “I was still an MFA student studying painting, but I also had this phenomenal opportunity, to work with members of the department in interactive machines.” Hence his doomed master’s thesis.
Wegman is now world-famous, in large part from photographing his Weimaraner dogs in a wide range of poses, from surreal to silly. Despite his outsize reputation, he is markedly down to earth in his beat-up jeans, unruly gray hair and downtrodden running shoes.
His photographs of dogs are just one more example of Wegman, a youthful 71 years old, following his bliss. The whole Weimaraner “thing,” as he calls it, came about by accident after Wegman got a dog — Man Ray — that kept horning in on his photography work, literally sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.
Consequently, Wegman began incorporating Man Ray into his photographs. Nine dogs later (he’s had a total of 10), the artist is known in some circles as the “dog guy.”
“It’s been a kind of a calling card,” he concedes.
The artist continues to act on whatever inspires him. As an Illinois student Wegman was convinced that “painting was dead,” so he is somewhat sheepish about his recent return to the art form. But even in this, he has wandered outside the box, both literally and figuratively.
Wegman starts with a postcard, almost as a prompt, placed on a canvas and then paints around it, filling out the scene beyond the postcard. Often the art is so detailed, the viewer can’t immediately locate the postcard or postcards within the broader piece.
“Painting is good for my soul," he says. "It exercises different muscles. People are always expecting dogs and it’s refreshing not to have that expectation.”