At an unusual art exhibit, a dog in a blonde wig lounges by a pool wearing a skimpy leopard-skin bikini. Another lies on a tabletop, covered in flowers and Christmas ornaments serving as the centerpiece of a table. Still another lurks in a tree. It is a dog's life, according to the renowned artist and photographer William Wegman. This month the Brooklyn Museum unleashes a Wegman retrospective entitled "Funney/Strange," featuring some 300 works of art, foremost among them his innovative photos of canines.
The poet Dante had his Beatrice. Picasso had his lover Dora Maar, whom he painted over and over. Leonardo found his inspiration in the mysterious smile of Mona Lisa. For 62-year-old artist and photographer William Wegman, his muse and model is a dog. Or dogs to be precise. Over 30 years, he has employed eight dogs, transforming their images into some of the most iconic artworks in the last half of the twentieth century. They have appeared not only in museums around the world but also on posters, coffee mugs and T-shirts.
"There was Man Ray, and then Fay Ray, no relation, and Fay had an off spring of eight but three that I used, Chundo, Batti and Crooky, and then Battie had Chip who is in a lot of pictures here because he is so damn handsome. Then Chip had Bobbin, and he had Penny so that is about where we are at now," he said.
In 1970 Wegman, a painter and respected conceptual artist, acquired a six-week old Weimaraner puppy, a shorthaired, silver-coated breed originally raised for hunting. Wegman named the dog Man Ray, after the surrealist photographer, and took his pet to the studio daily. Man Ray wandered onto sets or got entangled in equipment, clearly needing something to do. So Wegman let him pose for his camera. Thus was born one of the longest and most productive modeling careers in fashion history.
Man Ray became known for his comic, deadpan stare. In a photograph entitled "Dusted, the dog sits stoically in a black space as powder is dumped on top of him, turning him white. Wegman used flour, which becomes beautifully iridescent captured by the light.
Man Ray died in 1982. After mourning for five years, Wegman returned to his dog/man collaboration. He used a 20 by 24 centimeter Polaroid camera to create large-format portraits of Faye Ray dressed as the evil stepmother in Cinderella for a children's book, and her off-spring Chundo as Prince Charming in a powdered wig. Despite the elaborate get-ups, Wegman insists he does not overtax his models.
"Most of what I do is not much different than putting a blanket over a horse. You know the clothes are not really on them, they're in front of them, the illusion that they're walking on their hind legs to look vertical is not true. They are sitting on stools and they are elevated. I found little tricks about how to make them look different. For instance, I needed to make a dog look evil. But he was a lovely, happy dog so I found that if I walked far, far away he would squint and the camera person would be up close to him and he would look kind of demonic," he said.
One wonders whether dogs were always William Wegman's best friends, and whether he had a dog as a child. As it turns out, his first dog was named Wags, a mutt who lived for 21 years. "I was a boy growing up in a rural area in western Massachusetts. So he was fishing with me and camping out, slept in the tents with me and the huts that I would build, but I never adorned him with dresses or hats or sunglasses or any of those things. In fact, I never did that with my first dog I had as an adult, Man Ray. I never dressed him up, until I did for some reason," he said.
Whatever the reason, no one seems to mind that Wegman has let fine art go to the dogs.