The Art World Works From Home: Artist William Wegman Is Doing a Lot of Non-Dog Paintings and Playing Ping Pong Four Times a Day
The art world may be working remotely, but it certainly does not stop. We're checking in with art-world professionals to see how they work from home.
The art world may be on lockdown, but it certainly doesn’t stop. During this unprecedented time, we’re checking in with art-world professionals, collectors, and artists to get a glimpse into how they’re working from home.
We recently caught up with artist and photographer William Wegman, who’s taken refuge in Columbia County with his family and two Weimaraners, Flo and Topper. In his sunlit studio in the Hudson Valley, he’s been painting up a storm and recently debuted a virtual show of new work at Sperone Westwater.
Read on to learn about how corona times have shaped Wegman’s recent work, how he’s spending his spare time upstate, and how his famous dogs are holding up with everybody at home.
Where is your new “office”?
We’re upstate in Columbia County near the apple orchards, where I have a home and studio. We had a good reason to leave town anyway since our residence in New York City is being renovated and they had to stop construction there abruptly, in early March. So we moved up here and that worked out really well for us—we’re lucky that we had a place to go to.
My wife Christine’s here with me, and our son stays with us. Our daughter is here now, too. She was in Venice during the peak of the corona stuff, but she got out at the end of February. She was interning at the [Peggy] Guggenheim Foundation there. It’s nice to be here together, all six of us—with the two dogs, the two kids. It’s different.
What are you working on right now?
My recent paintings incorporate postcards from a collection I’ve amassed over the years. I didn’t go into that intentionally, I’ve just kept a lot of them and people have given me theirs—other artists, collectors, my sister, friends, and so forth. If I ever need one specifically and it gets ruined in a transfer or something, I’ll look online for [a replacement]. I probably have about 10,000 postcards. What’s funny is I kind of know every single one, in a way.
When I first started painting again, after giving it up in art school in the ’80s, I turned to the encyclopedias that I loved as a child—The New Book of Knowledge, dreamy ones like that—and used the images I’d find inside for my paintings. Somehow the postcards remind me a little of those. They present sort of a starting place.
Lately, I’ve also been working on some new paintings without postcards, inspired by television, frames, Mondrian, and wood paneling.
How has your work changed now that you’re doing it from home?
I’m more intensely painting. Before, I would come up on weekends and use the studio here since my studio in New York was in such upheaval.This is really my painting area. I’m doing much less photography compared to what I do back in the city, mostly because I don’t have my assistants with me, like Jason, who hooks up the lights and helps with the staging. So I’m really concentrating on painting, and it’s just been really thriving.
I think what’s also been different is that the days go by much more quickly. There are these patterns that are repeated over and over again that you sort of fall into. Every day is the same—you wake up, you bike ride with the dogs, you walk across the field, you go to the studio, and then go for another bike ride and grab something to eat in another building, then you go back to painting. So you’re always going back and forth to it.
Since my family’s here, I do the same things outside of work, too. My son and I play four ping pong games a day in the afternoon and through the evening. I go for a walk on the ridge with the dogs almost every night after that. And then I begin again.
What are you reading, both online and off?
I’m reading The Man Without Qualities [by Robert Musil] which is about 3,000 pages. I finished the first book, and now I’m starting the second one. I’m also reading Elective Affinities [by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe]. I read a lot at night.
I tend to like really long books that I can spend practically the whole year on. I remember reading War and Peace and Remembrance of Things Past in school and breaking down after I finished them. Because you sort of live with those stories for so long, and then suddenly they’re gone.
Have you visited any good virtual exhibitions recently?
When things pop up on my phone, I usually look at them. A lot of my friends have done things, like Robert Kushner and so forth. I’m also always sending pictures from my phone to everybody that I know and asking how they’re doing. It’s good to keep in touch with people digitally. I’ve been writing more emails.
Have you taken up any new hobbies?
I would say no [laughs]. But one thing that I don’t miss, which surprised me, is watching sports on TV. Besides being addicted to playing hockey, I was addicted to watching it and watching all of the news about it, and I’m actually happy that that’s not there.
This isn’t new, but I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music, especially 17th century music, which I love. I named my daughter Lola—her middle name is Byrd—after William Byrd, the Elizabethan composer. I always listen to music in the studio. And I tend to listen to 20th century music sometimes, too, so I don’t get too romantically attached and delusional about what I’m doing.
If you’re feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting un-stuck?
I’ve never had a problem with getting stuck for more than 45 minutes, but that 45 minutes is kind of terrifying. I usually just go out and come back and look at the work again, but the paintings always sort of haunt me. It’s always the upper left-hand corner or something that’s a problem, and with the postcards I have to sift through thousands of cards that will get me into that area or out of it. It’s constant.
What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?
I’ve been watching a lot of shows and movies with my son. We’ve plowed through all of the “Ray Donovan” seasons and “Fauda,” the Israeli show. That’s another part of ‘the pattern.’
If you could have one famous work of art with you, what would it be?
I like [Hans] Memling [laughs]. One of those Flemish things. I think an altarpiece would be fun to look at. Roger van der Weyden, something like that? Could be interesting.
Favorite recipe to cook or thing to eat at home?
I always make fires outside, and as the men do, I grill the meat. So today we’re grilling salmon by the fireplace. That’s my job. Shopping’s interesting now, because you have to quietly tiptoe into stores and bags are left outside for you. So cooking and preparing food when you can’t go to restaurants, not that I ever did that often before, is a totally different experience.
For breakfast, I like to have espresso with steamed milk. Everyone else has breakfast and I don’t. There’s a joke about me in this house. My parents used to visit us when they were alive and we’d always make lunch for them after their three-hour drive from western Massachusetts. We’d have this whole lunch spread for them. But when they got here they’d say, “That’s okay Billy, we ate at Cracker Barrel.” So that’s my joke when Christine makes breakfast or lunch for me here. I’ll just say, “That’s okay Christine, I ate at Cracker Barrel.”
What are you most looking forward to doing once social distancing has been lifted?
Playing hockey. I miss the Chelsea Piers and my friends there and my team, my coaches, and the ice. I really love skating, and I’m actually going to play in a senior tournament for people over 70 in Nashville, unless it’s cancelled, at the end of July. That should be entertaining.
If it happens, my son, Atlas, who has his own airplane, will fly me down there. We’ve been flying a lot together. We flew up to Maine two weeks ago and visited my sister. The plane is about one mile from our house, and Atlas has a hanger there, in Columbia County airport.
I feel a little guilty about it. I’m definitely having a good time, but you feel for people. I’ve been thinking about all the people at the Chelsea Piers, and the barber that I went to, the pilates person that I trained with, the Chinese masseuse down the street… all of those people and places that are very dear to me. I don’t know where they are right now, and I’m sure they haven’t reopened yet.
How are the dogs?
They’re great. They’re slumped down beside me right now. Wherever I go, they go. Especially the boy dog, Topper, who looks at me a lot. The girl dog, Flo, sort of follows Christine around. They sleep in bed with us, with both dogs sort of crushed against Christine, but Flo in particular claims her and Topper just stares at me always.
These two dogs love both the city and the country so they don’t suffer as much as my past ten did. They’re half brother and sister, so they’re very competitive and friendly at the same time with one another. And of course they love being able to run all over the place and have us all here.
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