Eureka: William Wegman Photographs 1970-1975 @Craig F. Starr

JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against light grey walls in the front and back gallery spaces and the reception area. All of the works are made up of gelatin silver prints (as single images and diptychs, and in sets of 4, 6, and 32) and were made between 1970 and 1975. Individual prints range in size from roughly 8×8 to 14×11; no edition information was provided on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While William Wegman is almost certainly best known for his photographs of his Weimaraner dogs/puppies, the dry visual wit that infuses his dog pictures can be traced all the way back to his earliest black and white works made in the 1970s. Before the dogs came to dominate his subject matter, Wegman was playfully exploring the limits of photography, applying a conceptual filter to his picture making. Along with artists/photographers like Bruce Nauman, Mel Bochner, Robert Cumming, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson and others, Wegman was a pioneer of Conceptual Photography, consistently upending our expectations for how a photograph is supposed to function.

This show brings together a variety of works made in the first have of the 1970s and is a fantastic sampler of how effortlessly simple smart photography can be. Many of the images play with photographic perception, quietly delivering a visual joke (often with the artist as the protagonist): a man stands on his head and shows us his inverted view, twisting our notion of upside down, a dog licks milk from a puddle on the floor, the lines of the wood floor going in conflicting directions, and three spilt milk situations in a single frame seem to contradict each other. Some of the works are true “inside photography” inversions: an image of knives bordered by photogram silhouettes of those same knives (called Edge Work) and a diptych of what looks to be a man drowning, which is later revealed to be a photograph being covered by water in the wash bath. Every image in the show delivers subtle punch line: the t-shirt backwards setup (which goes unnoticed), the spots on the hand echoing the spots on the salami (against the spotted tabletop), the light on/light off diptych (both with the lights on), the crazy beard and mustache shave entitled Stutter.

The photographic silliness to be found here might simply leave you with a smile if it wasn’t so damn brilliant. In our effort to be serious, we seem to have lost the kind of pure, unadulterated joy that Wegman’s early conceptualism delivers (although Toilet Paper magazine is making a respectable effort to bring back this kind of visual fun, albeit with a more surreal edge). There is cunning whimsy to be found in these photographs, reminding us that sly and clever can still be positive adjectives.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $30000 and $220000, with many on loan from the Sonnabend and other private collections. Wegman’s prints, especially his more recent works with his dogs as subjects, are readily available in the secondary markets; prices in the past decade have ranged between roughly $1000 and $30000, although very few of these sales were of his early 1970s work.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Spector Books (here). Softcover (17 x 24 cm), 304 pages, with 45 black and white and 112 color illustrations. Includes texts by ... Read on.

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