Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on January 17, the exhibition Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualismwill survey Conceptual Art as it developed in Southern California in the 1970s. The show is occasioned by the artist William Wegman’s extraordinary recent gift to the Museum of 174 short videos that he made between 1970 and 1999—his entire career in the medium. A 90-minute selection of videos from this gift will be shown along with photographs and drawings by Wegman as well as drawings, prints, and photographs by his contemporaries in Southern California—John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, Douglas Huebler, Ed Ruscha, and others.
Wegman took up video while teaching painting at the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s. Like many artists using the then-new medium, Wegman appreciated video—like photography—for its lo-fi reproducibility and anti-artistic qualities. Also, unlike film, where the negative must be developed and processed before viewing, video was like a sketchbook that allowed revision in real time.
It wasn’t until Wegman moved to Southern California in 1970 that his video production took off. Although he lived in Los Angeles for only three years, the artist found his method: short, staged vignettes using everyday items in which expectations are reversed and puns and homonyms pursued to absurd conclusions. The artist’s key early collaborator for most of these short videos was his dog, a Weimaraner called Man Ray, who enthusiastically participates in the goings-on. In contrast to other early adopters of video, Wegman eschewed an aesthetic of boredom to focus on humorous, improvised scenarios in which he deflated the pretensions of painting and sculpture while also lampooning the pieties and self-seriousness of Conceptual Art—at a time when it was being codified and institutionalized. Beneath the slacker humor, however, are poignant points about failure and the reversal of expectations that resonate with work by other West Coast Conceptualists—the friends and fellow travelers also featured in the exhibition.
Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism is organized by Doug Eklund, Curator in the Department of Photographs at The Met.