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For William Wegman, 1970s works seem so new

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"William Wegman: He Took Two Pictures. One Came Out," an exhibition of the artist's text-based black-and-white photographs from the 1970s, is on view at Marc Selwyn Fine Art through July 6.

So you have a new show of your old work.

Yes, and it's new old work. The bulk of it is work that I came across relatively recently. I was going to move to New York temporarily from L.A., Santa Monica. I was there from '70 to '72 and a half. When I moved temporarily, I gave my studio to John Baldessari with the thought that I would come back. I never came back, and I was in the middle of these photographs — some were just negatives and contacts about to be printed, others were prints that I never picked up. And every time I went to L.A. John would say, "You know, you've left a box of stuff here that you might want back."

Finally in 1991 he mailed them to me. And it was all of these amazing things. And the reason it was really important is because I'd had a studio fire in New York in 1978 where I lost all of my works that were in my possession, including my negatives and all the valuable pieces I was keeping near the fire escape. But then I wasn't in the building when the fire happened. So this was really the legacy and also the cornerstone to my work.

But you didn't do anything with them at the time?

Well, I met Christine Burgin — Mrs. Wegman now — and she had a show of my work at her gallery in SoHo with other quote L.A. artists from the early '70s. And we picked a few from that box. I remember looking through these things, and they just made me nervous.

It just gave me the willies. It's about your childhood in a way — it wasn't really my childhood, but it's as though this is something you can explore infinitely and to get through the box would make it finite. So I didn't really want to get to the bottom of it. I wanted it to be always this treasure chest of infinite depth.

What were you going for in those days?

A kind of strange literalness, I suppose, in some cases. In some cases a reinvention of what the picture was leading you to believe was going on.

I read that in those days you sold 50 photos to Ed Ruscha for $4,400. Was it this kind of work?

Yes.

Well, that was a good investment for him.

It was good for him and for me because anything that Ed does is the coolest thing in the world, so if he stamps his approval on you, people take notice. And it also kept me going for a while.

Tell me about those years.

I first came out to teach at Cal State Long Beach, and I was living in San Pedro. The next year, I'd lost the teaching job — it was just a one-year appointment — and I moved to Santa Monica/Venice, where John Baldessari now lives, on Bay and Main. And it was a real artist's studio, so the work changed from being in a little San Pedro duplex with normal furniture to the next year an artist's studio with white walls and tall ceilings. So the work changed because of the environment a little bit.

Why didn't you come back to L.A.?

Things happened to me. I started showing at Sonnabend and going to Europe. I was in all of these shows. I never really, other than Ed, I didn't really have any gallery support in L.A., and I think it's too bad, because I think my work suffered in the years immediately following, when I lived in New York. And my L.A. work is much better.

Why did it suffer when you moved to New York?

I think the plainness of my style of living in L.A. was very suitable. In New York there was Max's Kansas City and Warhol; there was all of this buzz about persona. And there I didn't really have that kind of attention, and I think that was better for me, healthier.

You've done a lot of work that's totally unrelated to your dogs, but to the general public, you're the dog guy. Do you ever feel hemmed in by that?

I was immensely hemmed in in the late '70s, and then I kind of got over it. I lost [his first Weimaraner model] Man Ray in '82. I didn't get another dog till '86, and I didn't work with her for a whole year. Then when I did, I saw how much I missed it and how much the dogs loved it. So by 1987-88, I really jumped back into photographing the dogs. And I really didn't care what people thought so much because I'd started to do my painting. And now, I don't feel so nailed to the dog cross.

So you're still shooting them?

I am, and they're a lovely new group. And there's a children's book coming out in the fall. It's called "Flo and Wendell."

You'll see when the book comes out there's a startling new way of working with them, and it involves probably the history of my paintings with the postcards. This combines that in a surprising way.

Do you mind surprising me now?

I painted them as characters using their photographic heads.

How do you walk your dogs in New York without drawing a crowd?

On the weekend, I tend to get stopped. "Do you know that guy?" And I say, "I am that guy." But most of the time it's just me walking my dogs around.

Your current work is inspired by postcards and your lifelong fascination with nature. Can you talk about that?

I spend a lot of time in Maine and was always happier in the woods than in the city. My family loves getting out of town — I have two kids, 15 and 18 — and they're really excited about being in Maine. But mostly, it's the way the dogs act in nature that's so different and so wonderful. They act like animals here, sniffing garbage and doing stuff like that. In the woods of Maine, their senses come alive in a whole different way and it's so beautiful.

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