Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

©William Wegman, Before/On/After (detail), 1972. Courtesy the artist

Before there were Sesame Street collaborations and children’s books and appearances on David Letterman, William Wegman was a California conceptualist, making videos, photographs and drawings that were packed with self-deprecating humor. This exhibition, on view through July 15, goes back to those roots when, using a minimum of props and a dog named Man Ray, Wegman merged critique with comedy, subverting the pseudo-seriousness and high-minded pretensions of many of his peers.

Wegman and his wife, Christine Burgin, recently donated 174 short films, made between 1970 and 1999, to the Met. The heart of this exhibition is a selection of 99 minutes of those films, concentrating on the seminal works that the artist made while living in Los Angeles in the 1970s. It is impossible to resist Man Ray’s charms – his attentive gaze and deadpan persona – as he performs his role as studio assistant. While many artists of this period attempted to explode the myth of genius and undermine authority, Wegman achieved these goals effortlessly, by allowing a dog to outshine any art star.

©William Wegman, Inverted Plywood, 1973. Courtesy the artist

The grid of photographs titled Before/On/After: Permutation I, 1972, is a case in point. Employing the kind of strategy favored by artists like Joseph Kosuth and Richard Serra, Wegman has his favorite Weimaraner stand behind a box, on a box, and in front of a box while staring at a drawing of a circle and a triangle (as if the canine is commenting on minimalist art). Curator Douglas Ecklund places the work in the context of other California artists, such as John Baldessari, Allen Ruppersberg, and Ed Ruscha, all of whom were making equally funny visual puns and purposefully pointless experiments.

Ecklund goes so far as to compare East Coast and West Coast conceptual artists, arguing that the New York branch was marked by self-imposed rules and rigid theories while its California counterparts were more open to loopy, seemingly “empty-headed,” art tactics. As an example of the former, Ecklund includes Douglas Huebler’s 598/Variable Piece #7-:1971 (In Process) Global 1975, 1975, in which 160 images of faces, cropped from street photographs, surround a typewritten artist’s statement. The work is dry and deadly serious, in distinct contrast to Wegman’s conceptual vaudeville, but more artists would need to be examined to prove the curator’s point. The exhibition is better when it sticks to Wegman himself, who is often far smarter than many of his compatriots on either end of the United States.