Iconoclastic artist William Wegman reflects on his graduate studies, photographs of Weimaraners and recent return to painting.

William Wegman William Wegman at Krannert Art Museum on March 4, 2015.
Iconoclastic artist William Wegman reflects on his graduate studies, photographs of Weimaraners and recent return to painting.

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 a different experience—one sound, one light and one Dada-esque, with a cup falling when a visitor entered.

The exhibit had most faculty members in the University of Illinois College of Fine and Applied 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, such as paintings and prints.

Not the most auspicious beginning for an artist who would become highly successful. Nevertheless, when Krannert Art Museum recently 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 bite against.”

Being something of the art school bad boy did not seem to bother him much; Wegman 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 physicist/philosopher Heinz von Foerster, founder of the UI Biological Computing Laboratory, whom he met through von Foerster’s son, Thomas ’62 LAS.

“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 for photographing his Weimaraner dogs in a wide range of poses, from silly to surreal. 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 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 of 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 snapshot. 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.”