By J. SCOTT ORR October 17, 2023
It was in 1970 that William Wegman began his collaboration with Man Ray, a momentous event that refocused Wegman’s artistic aspirations from painting to photography and set in motion an evolving, hugely successful partnership between man and beast that persists to this day. Man Ray, you see, was Wegman’s first Weimaraner, named for the famed French surrealist who died six years later.
Man Ray was the first in a parade of Weimaraners that would lend that pensive, deadpan expression to Wegman’s wildly popular photographs that capture the canines in all manner of human poses, often wearing clothes, glasses, hats and wigs. In 2018, Wegman was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to create the installation Stationary Figures, a group of 11 mosaic panels featuring Weimaraners Flo and Topper posing as commuters, for its 23rd Street subway station.
Which brings us to Best in Show, the current installation at Fotografiska New York, located on Park Avenue just a couple blocks from the 23rd Street station. The exhibit, which features works by Wegman along with other noted animal photographers, celebrates the eternal bond between people and animals and highlights how animals and artists can form special partnerships.
Artists and animals have a long and lovesome history, with some of art’s greatest names sharing their lives with pets of every stripe. From Andy Warhol’s dachshund to Frida Kahlo’s monkeys to Salvadore Dalí’s ocelot, behind many of art’s greatest humans were non-human intimates. Best in Show captures this animalian aspect of photographic art, portraying the pets as loving, supportive, powerful, loyal, compassionate, charming, stylish, playful and goofy.
In addition to works by Wegman, the show features photographs by Walter Chandoha, the world’s first and perhaps best-known professional cat photographer; Gerrard Gethings, who creates binary works featuring animal-human lookalikes; Sophie Gamand, who likes to take pictures of dogs taking baths; even Jeff Koons, who contributed one of his famous balloon bunny sculptures.
“We want to celebrate and acknowledge our constant companions, their presence in Western art and popular culture, and our multifaceted relationship with them,” said Sophie Wright, executive director of Fotografiska New York. The exhibition succeeds through the skill of the two dozen featured artists, but also through the diversity of the animals represented, dogs and cats of many breeds, of course, but also birds, snakes and rats. Taken as a whole, Best in Show is an apt reminder of the importance of an enduring partnership across species and among diverse populations.
Among the stunning works by Wegman is the 2015 piece Aames Low which features one of the typically nonplussed Weimaraners in profile, seated in a mid-century modern red plastic and stainless steel chair. This shot, in which the dog’s hind legs appear to have been replaced by a man-made appliance, extends the idea of sharing to depict an animal not just in partnership with humans, but with technology.
Gethings, meanwhile, celebrates the human-animal partnership through works from his series Do You Look Like Your Dog, 2018, and Do You Look Like Your Cat, 2019. The shots of cats and their owners are the more interesting, capturing as they do rare moments of expressiveness and abandon from a species known for its haughtiness and indifference.
“The cat series was different. This idea isn't something that preexists like the dogs. I shot these images simply to see if it was possible. It turned out to be much more challenging in almost every way,” he said.
The selections from Gamand’s 2013-14 Wet Dog series, meanwhile, are entertaining in their capture of soaped up canines, but there is a lot more going on in these portraits than the humorous appearance of dogs in the bath. Gamand says the photographs portray their subjects at their most vulnerable and suggests that their learned expressiveness is something humans could strive to mimic.
“Poignant looks, despair, anger and even judgment can be read into their eyes. Over thousands of years, dogs have learned spectacular ways to communicate emotions to humans, but have we made the same effort to understand and communicate efficiently with them? The wet dogs mirror our own solitude,” she said.
Koons is certainly the oddball in the lineup since his violet bunny sculpture is neither a photograph nor based on a living animal; Koons says inflatable Easter yard decorations were his inspiration. Its presence seems random and forced, a wholly unnecessary distraction.
The show, overall, is a reminder of the sometimes-overlooked supporting role animals have played in the history of fine art. They have been subjects, of course, but they’ve also been friends, inspirations, emotional support givers, even muses to their two-legged partners in the art world. Warhol immortalized his dachshund Archie in portrait. Kahlo created a self-portrait with her monkeys. David Hockney posed for a photograph before a wall of portraits of his dachshunds Stanley and Little Boodgie.
Fittingly, perhaps, Dalí was associated with a most unusual collection of animal friends. He was pictured signing documents on the belly of his pet ocelot Baby. Even more bizarrely Dalí-esque is a photo that captured the father of surrealism taking a pet anteater for a walk, though that one is acknowledged to have been staged.
For some reason, dachshunds seem to be a preferred breed among the fine art crowd. In addition to Warhol and Hockney, weiner dogs were favorited by Picasso, Adolf Eberly, Pierre Bonnard, Max Liebermann and many others.
Picasso rendered likenesses of his dachshund Lump at least 15 times after the canine joined his household in 1957, a gift from photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. Georgia O'Keeffe fell for Bo and Chia, a pair of blue chow chows she received for Christmas in 1953 that she referred to as her "little people."
Henri Matisse enjoyed the company of felines: while he had several favorites, including Minouche and Coussi, it was a black cat named la Puce (the Flea) he is said to have loved most. La Puce is featured on the lap of his daughter in the 1910 painting Marguerite au chat noir, one of the French post-impressionist master’s few pieces featuring animals.
And there are countless other noteworthy animal lovers among art’s historical greats. Favoring cats were Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, Frank Stella and Ansel Adams, among many others. Art giants who preferred canines for companionship: Edvard Munch, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Jonas and William Hogarth.
Best in Show: Pets in Contemporary Photography runs through January at Fotografiska, 281 Park Avenue South in Manhattan. WM