Fay Ray hadn’t had a lot of modeling experience when William Wegman put her on roller skates. He says that the image he titled Roller Rover was “one of the first” to feature his beloved cinnamon-gray Weimaraner. John Reuter, a Polaroid technician who assisted on the Roller Rover shoot in 1987 and on many other Wegman photo shoots, says it was “the first or second.” It is agreed, however, that the picture is a definitive example of the work that has made Wegman one of the world’s most widely known conceptual artists (as well as a powerful brand name), and that Fay Ray was destined to be a star from the moment she put on wheels.
She was 6 months old when Wegman first saw her, in 1985, a gift from a dog breeder in Memphis. The breeder had assumed Wegman was looking to replace Man Ray, the Weimaraner he’d turned into a ’70s icon in a number of droll photographs (Man Ray serenely being dusted with flour) and groundbreaking videos (Man Ray quizzically listening to Wegman read a school report card). Though the work lifted Wegman from the obscurity of a career teaching college photography into the upper echelons of the art world, it also left him a little grumpy—he once told an interviewer that he felt “nailed to the dog cross.” So when Man Ray died, in 1981, the artist thought he was done with dogs. Until he met the puppy from Memphis with what he recalls as “beautiful round, yellow eyes.”
Wegman took her home to New York City and named her after her predecessor and Fay Wray, the actress best known for her work in the original 1933 King Kong film. At first the dog seemed frightened of the city’s noise, and he thought he’d made a mistake in accepting her. He also thought he would never photograph her. “I felt sort of protective of Man Ray. I didn’t want to just come in and march on with the next version of that,” he told me recently.
Six months later, Fay was comfortable in her new home—so much so, Wegman says, that one day she “told” him, in the way that dogs tell things to the people who let them sleep in their beds, that she was ready to go to work. As Wegman recalls, the basic message was: “I didn’t come all the way from Tennessee to New York to lie around in your studio.” Soon dog and man were headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he intended to photograph her with the same Polaroid 20x24 camera he’d used to make many of his Man Ray images.
As a young dog, Fay was happiest when confronting a challenge, Wegman says. “She liked things to be difficult. To just sit there and stay wasn’t interesting to her. She liked doing things that evoked a kind of awe in the spectators who watched her do them.” He thought the roller skates would fill the bill. Reuter has a slightly different memory: “We had a storage closet in the studio and she hid in there a lot.” Once she was placed in the skates, Wegman recalls, he took only two or three shots before they saw something they liked. Fay Ray brought an energy to the image that was entirely different from Man Ray’s, he says. “Man Ray filled the picture plane in a very solid way, and Fay sort of coiled into it.” And while Man Ray “was a larger and more static dog who projected a kind of stoic, Everyman thing...her eyes seemed to bring an electricity to the picture.”
Wegman insists he is not one of those people “who are so doggy, everything they do is sort of a dog thing.” You know that dogs are not like people, he says, “when they’re licking up the pizza that someone has run over with their car.” Wegman does anthropomorphize the animals in his work, but it’s done with purpose. Weimaraners are often described as having an aloof, “aristocratic” demeanor (like fashion models, Wegman has noted, they have a “cool, blank” gaze), making them perfect foils for the artist’s arid satire. In his photographs, he punctures that regal bearing by surrounding the animals with absurd artifacts from everyday human life. “A noble nature is diminished by platitude, a dignified mien degraded by unworthy aspiration,” art critic Mark Stevens wrote in a New York magazine review of Wegman’s 2006 exhibition “Funney/Strange.” The joke is on us and our shaky human ambitions, of course, and not the dogs. But we eat it up like dogs eat road pizza.
Wegman, 67, has become a cultural and commercial juggernaut whose work has been featured both in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and on Saturday Night Live . He also has a Weimaraner-motif fabric line, jigsaw puzzles featuring Weimaraner images, including Roller Rover , and more than 20 books of Weimaraner photographs. “I think artists who came out of the 1960s wanted to find other venues than galleries and museums,” he says. “For different reasons; it could have been Marxism, it could have been commerce, I don’t know.” Wegman’s work continues with a Weimaraner named Penny, who is the daughter of Bobbin, who is the son of Chip, who was the son of Batty, who was the son of Fay Ray, who died in 1995 after a full life serving the demands of art and commerce.
David Schonauer , former editor in chief of American Photo , has written for several magazines.
Ask an Expert: What is the Difference Between Modern and Postmodern Art?
All trends become clearer with time. Looking at art even 15 years out, “you can see the patterns a little better,” says Melissa Ho, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum. “There are larger, deeper trends that have to do with how we are living in the world and how we are experiencing it.”
So what exactly is modern art? The question, she says, is less answerable than endlessly discussable.
Technically, says Ho, modern art is “the cultural expression of the historical moment of modernity.” But how to unpack that statement is contested. One way of defining modern art, or anything really, is describing what it is not. Traditional academic painting and sculpture dominated the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. “It was about perfect, seamless technique and using that perfect, seamless technique to execute very well-established subject matter,” says Ho. There was a hierarchy of genres, from history paintings to portraiture to still lifes and landscapes, and very strict notions of beauty. “Part of the triumph of modernism is overturning academic values,” she says.
In somewhat of a backlash to traditional academic art, modern art is about personal expression. Though it was not always the case historically, explains Ho, “now, it seems almost natural that the way you think of works of art are as an expression of an individual vision.” Modernism spans a huge variety of artists and kinds of art. But the values behind the pieces are much the same. “With modern art, there is this new emphasis put on the value of being original and doing something innovative,” says Ho.
Edouard Manet and the Impressionists were considered modern, in part, because they were depicting scenes of modern life. The Industrial Revolution brought droves of people to the cities, and new forms of leisure sprung up in urban life. Inside the Hirshhorn’s galleries, Ho points out Thomas Hart Benton’s People of Chilmark , a painting of a mass of tangled men and women, slightly reminiscent of a classical Michelangelo or Théodore Géricault’s famous Raft of the Medusa , except that it is a contemporary beach scene, inspired by the Massachusetts town where Benton summered. Ringside Seats , a painting of a boxing match by George Bellows, hangs nearby, as do three paintings by Edward Hopper, one titled First Row Orchestra of theatergoers waiting for the curtains to be drawn.
In Renaissance art, a high premium was put on imitating nature. “Then, once that was chipped away at, abstraction is allowed to flourish,” says Ho. Works like Benton’s and Hopper’s are a combination of observation and invention. Cubists, in the early 1900s, started playing with space and shape in a way that warped the traditional pictorial view.
Art historians often use the word “autonomous” to describe modern art. “The vernacular would be ‘art for art’s sake,’” explains Ho. “It doesn’t have to exist for any kind of utility value other than its own existential reason for being.” So, assessing modern art is a different beast. Rather than asking, as one might with a history painting, about narrative—Who is the main character? And what is the action?—assessing a painting, say, by Piet Mondrian, becomes more about composition. “It is about the compositional tension,” says Ho, “the formal balance between color and line and volume on one hand, but also just the extreme purity of and rigor of it.”
According to Ho, some say that modernism reaches its peak with Abstract Expressionism in America during the World War II era. Each artist of the movement tried to express his individual genius and style, particularly through touch. “So you get Jackson Pollock with his dripping and throwing paint,” says Ho. “You get Mark Rothko with his very luminous, thinly painted fields of color.” And, unlike the invisible brushwork in heavily glazed academic paintings, the strokes in paintings by Willem de Kooning are loose and sometimes thick. “You really can feel how it was made,” says Ho.
Shortly after World War II, however, the ideas driving art again began to change. Postmodernism pulls away from the modern focus on originality, and the work is deliberately impersonal. “You see a lot of work that uses mechanical or quasi-mechanical means or deskilled means,” says Ho. Andy Warhol, for example, uses silk screen, in essence removing his direct touch, and chooses subjects that play off of the idea of mass production. While modern artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman made color choices that were meant to connect with the viewer emotionally, postmodern artists like Robert Rauschenberg introduce chance to the process. Rauschenburg, says Ho, was known to buy paint in unmarked cans at the hardware store.
“Postmodernism is associated with the deconstruction of the idea, ‘I am the artistic genius, and you need me,’ ” says Ho. Artists such as Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, with works in the Hirshhorn, shirk authorship even more. Weiner’s piece titled “A RUBBER BALL THROWN ON THE SEA, Cat. No. 146,” for example, is displayed at the museum in large, blue, sans-serif lettering. But Weiner was open to the seven words being reproduced in any color, size or font. “We could have taken a marker and written it on the wall,” says Ho. In other words, Weiner considered his role as artist to be more about conception than production. Likewise, some of LeWitt’s drawings from the late 1960s are basically drawings by instruction. He provides instructions but anyone, in theory, can execute them. “In this post-war generation, there is this trend, in a way, toward democratizing art,” says Ho. “Like the Sol LeWitt drawing, it is this opinion that anybody can make art.”
Labels like “modern” and “postmodern,” and trying to pinpoint start and end dates for each period, sometimes irk art historians and curators. “I have heard all kinds of theories,” says Ho. “I think the truth is that modernity didn’t happen at a particular date. It was this gradual transformation that happened over a couple hundred of years.” Of course, the two times that, for practical reasons, dates need to be set are when teaching art history courses and organizing museums. In Ho’s experience, modern art typically starts around the 1860s, while the postmodern period takes root at the end of the 1950s.
The term “contemporary” is not attached to a historical period, as are modern and postmodern, but instead simply describes art “of our moment.” At this point, though, work dating back to about 1970 is often considered contemporary. The inevitable problem with this is that it makes for an ever-expanding body of contemporary work for which professors and curators are responsible. “You just have to keep an eye on how these things are going,” advises Ho. “I think they are going to get redefined.”
Restoring Artwork to its Former Glory
Xiangmei Gu approaches a mid-20th-century Chinese painting with a pair of pointed tweezers. Her task is to remove the last layer of deteriorated paper that backs the painting Lofty Scholar in an Autumn Grove and to replace it with fresh paper. Delicately, she punctures the sheet, then uses her fingertips to roll the brittle, yellowed fragments into small coils. Gu's staff of three seems to hold its collective breath. As the last snippet is finally removed, the relief is palpable. Later in the day, Gu—the first and only conservator of Chinese paintings at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—will remount the painting with the help of an American assistant and two Chinese fellows.
The fellows will be staying for only three months—just enough time "to learn and review the basic techniques," Gu says. But, she adds, when it comes to art conservation, "until you stop working, you never stop learning."
Gu, 58, was in her early 20s when her own education in conservation began in 1972. After working for three years on a farm in Nanhui County, near Shanghai, she was chosen that year by the Shanghai Museum for an art scholarship—one of 30 selected from hundreds of candidates. Gu stayed at the Shanghai Museum—as student, apprentice and conservator—for 15 years.
Sitting in her studio on the main level of the Freer Gallery on the National Mall, Gu pulls a photograph from a desk drawer. In it, three students who joined the conservation department at the Shanghai Museum huddle around a teacher. Gu is the second from the left. "I was so young," she says, laughing at her appearance.
Gu came to the United States in 1987 to join her husband, Jinrui Dai, who was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (Today he is a retired biopharmaceutical chemist. The couple has a daughter, Sheryl Dai.) After working as a conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago, Gu wrote to the Freer's curator of Chinese paintings to ask for a job. It wasn't the usual way to apply for a position at a prestigious museum, she says with a giggle, but "because I'm from China, I don't know anything about America." In any case, it worked. Prior to her arrival at the Freer in 1990, Chinese paintings were restored by Japanese conservators, who were more accustomed to working with darker fabrics and more elaborate patterns than those found in traditional Chinese paintings.
Gu's latest project is repairing paintings for two upcoming November exhibits: "Children at Play," at the Freer, and "The Art of China," at the Sackler, which adjoins the Freer. In one 15th-century painting, A Noble Boy and His Goat , the pigment is missing and chipped, and creases mar the surface, including one that travels up the goat's belly. "Museum visitors focus on the creases and not on the art," Gu says.
She smoothes out the creases by applying thin strips of paper with paste to the painting's back and tapping them in place with a stiff brush made of palm tree fiber. Where paint is missing, she adds pigment. She sits on a small stool and mixes colors using three rows of 14 paints. When restoring darker shades, she relies on traditional Chinese pigments, which provide a thick, opaque layer; for lighter tones, she uses watercolors, which are more subtle.
Gu appears calm as she works, though she admits she sometimes gets a stomachache before undertaking a really big repair. She has never forgotten the central lesson that she learned from her teacher in Shanghai: If she makes a mistake, the painter can't come back to life to fix it.