Before Cute Puppy Videos on YouTube there was Artist William Wegman

“In the Bauhaus.” 1999 Color Polaroid. (William Wegman )

Those endless Facebook posts of cute dogs and cats. Millions of hits for YouTube’s The Daily 'Aww' channel featuring headlines like “Puppy refuses to use stairs, plus other cute animals doing cute things.”  You can give some of the credit if you like this type of stuff -- or some of the blame if you don’t -- to conceptual artist William Wegman.

The San Jose Museum of Art has just opened a new show of Wegman’s work, “Artists Including Me: William Wegman” featuring a range of photos, drawings, paintings and videos from across the artist's career, including some loving parodies of art masterpieces.

“Hopper Origami,” by William Wegman. 2014 Oil and postcards on wood panel.
“Hopper Origami,” by William Wegman. 2014 Oil and postcards on wood panel. (| Photo courtesy of © William Wegman.)

Wegman started as a conceptual artist -- but one with a light touch, characterized by the use of visual and verbal puns in his drawings and photos. Then, while living in San Pedro and teaching at Cal State Long Beach in the early 1970's, he began to photograph and make videos of his dog, a Weimeraner named Man Ray. As a model, Man Ray seemed both mournful and thoughtful, yet as nimble a comic actor as Buster Keaton.

Wegman’s best known work since then has chronicled the adventures of Man Ray, Fay Wray, and their Weimeraner- successors in studio and natural settings that are formally gorgeous, but irresistibly ridiculous.

"Man Ray Contemplating the Bust of Man Ray" (1978)
"Man Ray Contemplating the Bust of Man Ray" (1978) (William Wegman)

These days Wegman lives in Rangely, Maine, and spends a lot of time riding a mountain bike to exercise his current models Topper and Flo.

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Wegman himself is as deadpan as the humor in his work. KQED talked to him recently about the show.

What do you make of the use of humor in fine art?

A person, who’s now a friend of mine, when he first met me, told me that he hates humor in art. And I tended to agree with him. And I think when I started to do video, my work became actually funny, not just whimsical. And the funniness comes out of a juxtaposition that is unexpected, or a reversal of direction. It’s in painting when you get into trouble when you try to make something funny, because the weight of the history of painting and art makes that collapse. One of my dealers once said in a very threatening accent, kind of Hungarian French, “some of your work is funny. Some of it is not so funny.”

How about that friend of yours who said he hates humor in art: Have you converted him?

No probably not. I don’t really like humor in art, either. But I like my stuff.

Flo in Eames Low
Flo in Eames Low (Courtesy the artist and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles (c) William Wegman)

Since you pioneered videos of your dogs doing odd and funny things, I wonder if you feel responsible for the explosion in popularity of cute animal videos on the web.

Yes, it’s all my fault.

But you know Weimeraners aren’t particularly cute. They’re kind of scary looking. Their nickname, you may know, is "the gray ghost." They don’t have a kewpie doll look to them. And that’s what made me say it’s okay to work with them. But with cute dogs, they can only be cute dogs. Where mine are transformed into many other things

Do we need more humor in our serious art?

Well, I don’t think that other artists  have to do that. When I look back and I see something I did a drawing of perhaps, and I forgot I did it, and it makes me laugh, I think wow, that’s really great.

Tell us about this video below, "Two Dogs and a Ball," which is available for viewing at a station in the San Jose exhibit, in which a pair of dogs seem mesmerized by something just off camera.

Well it’s just two dogs. I had a tennis ball in my hand off camera. I elicited movements out of them by pretending to throw it to them, or hiding it. One's just riveted. And the other seems periodically riveted. And I think the comedy happens, when one dog looks like, “Hey, what’s going on here.”

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