William Wegman: Writing by Artist
On ViewSperone Westwater
May 5 – July 29, 2022
Hanging in the entryway of Sperone Westwater Gallery is a framed sheet of paper on which, written in pencil, are the words, “wall, wall, wall, wall …” and down at the bottom, “floor, floor, floor, floor…” In the center of the page, set apart from the repetition of wall and floor, is the word picture. Deceptively simple, the written words synergize into an abstraction that not only depicts what the viewer sees—a picture hanging on a wall in a room—but brings the viewer into an awareness of their relationship to the work: wall, floor, picture. You are standing here in front of this. Immaculate, simple, and quite clever, Wall, Picture, Floor (1973) serves as a perfect point of entry for William Wegman: Writing by Artist, an exhibition of texts, drawings, photographs, and videos plucked from an ongoing practice spanning fifty years. Like all things Wegman, the work makes me laugh, but it also stays with me, begging me to continue twisting it around in my head days after the initial chuckle.
As I signed my name in the visitor’s book, the gallery assistant mentioned that many of the works in the show and its accompanying homonymous book were recently unearthed by Wegman in the process of moving from his Chelsea home and studio to a new space and have not been previously shown. Pulling from the strata of nearly-forgotten objects and ephemera, Andrew Lampert, the show’s curator who also edited the book, pieces together an abundance of samplings that align as much with Wegman’s fidelity to writing and language as with his conceptual occupations and absurd humor.
Much of the artist’s wit lies in the way he pokes and probes the mundane, coaxing it into more ironic realms. South After Six (1973) shows the face of a clock, its small hand pointing to the number six, its large hand to the letter S, drawn where one would expect to find the number two. Private Show (1978) features a photograph of a young boy sitting on a grassy hill apart from other members of his family, watching a small portable TV Wegman has drawn onto the image. Four works on paper from 1970–71 feature typewritten text on sheets of Princess Cruise stationery the artist found in a California studio he occupied early in his career. One piece from this series begins with the line, “I’m interested in knowing if the recreation and parks department will have another class in ironing this summer…” Another reads like a note from a doctor and states, “We don’t know how you did it, but you’ve got a necklace in you…” A simple drawing from 1973 of two intersecting ovals becomes something more when captioned, X-Ray of Peach in Dish (which is also the 1973 work’s title). Instead of erasing the line of the dish that should disappear behind the peach, Wegman adds a handwritten text which changes the intention of the work while questioning expectations and judgements of representational mark-making.
Wegman’s best known work, his photographs of Weimaraner dogs, is quietly absent from the show, although I did spy Man Ray, his original canine muse and collaborator (or was it Fay Ray, Man’s successor?) in a video screening on one of three monitors set up within the gallery which shows works from 1970 through 1999. In Spelling Lesson (1973–74), the dog sits at a table next to Wegman looking abashed as his human counterpoint criticizes his writing for its many egregious spelling errors. In Massage Chair (1972–73), the artist bangs a wooden plank against the leg of a very ordinary metal chair, insisting it is a new massage-giving model. Pert 2650305 (1999) shows Wegman in a kitchen holding a bottle of shampoo, reading its labeling and price tag as if the information contained therein might reveal some profound meaning. It is unfair to claim the videos show Wegman at his best—in every piece of the show, Wegman is at his best—but they are not to be missed.
For most of the show, I found myself smiling and often laughing. The exception came in a large-scale painting, OMG (2021) which shows the chaos of a house that has been destroyed. The words “crash, bang, boom,” and “damn it,” alluding to comic book exclamations and written in charcoal among representations of debris, bring an explosive energy to the image, while at the bottom, a line reads, “the 12.5 million rowhouses were wrecked.” In this work, Wegman’s amusing regard for nostalgia seemed to be replaced by a certain wistfulness around temporality and impermanence. Left and right arrows on the edges of the picture reveal that we are looking at a painting of a computer screen, and that within its realm, the devastated houses and the histories they held can be easily swiped away. Imagine what treasures might be lost.