Excerpt from interview by Glenn Phillips, June 9, 2010

Glenn Phillips How did you come to Los Angeles?

William Wegman I was teaching in Wisconsin, at Madison, in 1969. It was a pretty amazing position: I was a visiting artist with Malcolm Morley, Richard Artschwager, Robert Morris, and John Chamberlain—all that year at Madison! It was a phenomenally interesting year, and that’s when I started working with video and photography. But it was just a one-year position. So I moved out in 1970 to teach beginning watercolor and life drawing at California State University, Long Beach. This was right after teaching Conceptual art and sculpture to graduate students at Madison. 

So that was my first Los Angeles experience. I lived in a charming little house in San Pedro and significantly, I guess, I got a dog, and he started appearing in my videos right off the bat. I had a second studio space about a block away, and I used both of those sites for the videos, which appear in what became known as Reel 1 (1970–71). One space has a very normal-looking wooden floor, with a door and windows and so forth, and another is more of a loft-type space, sort of like a forgotten plumbing shop. I believe the house was at 921 Center Street. You might want to landmark that.

GP Definitely. Who were some of the first artists that you met out here?

WW Well, I met several of them about a year later. I wasn’t rehired for that Long Beach job, so I moved from San Pedro to Santa Monica. John Baldessari lived around the block, and I used to have coffee with him every morning. I was in a show called “24 Young Artists” at LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] in 1971, and I met a lot of young artists through that. There was Chuck Arnoldi, Laddie Dill, David Deutsch, and a gazillion others. Well, twenty-one others. And I met Ed Ruscha. I also used to play basketball in Venice with a group of Los Angeles artists.

GP I heard about that group. That was on Sundays, right?

WW Yes. It was Bruce Nauman, Doug Wheeler, and a few others.

GP Cynthia Maughan—who was a student at Cal State Long Beach when you were there—always made her video art pieces on Sundays when her husband was playing basketball with you guys.

WW I was a terrible basketball player. I also met Van Schley. Do you know him? He called himself a leisure artist, and he did some funny pieces. One was called World Run (1976), where he had himself photographed at every Olympic stadium as he ran around the world.

GP I was actually just looking at that book the other day! It’s made to resemble a charming, little coffee table book.

WW Van became a close friend of mine. He was interesting to hang out with. My neighbor in Santa Monica was Gary Weis, who ended up doing films for Saturday Night Live. He went out with Sharon Peckinpah, one of Sam’s daughters. I met Lorne Michaels then, and I did some pieces for Saturday Night Live in the mid-seventies.

GP That was after you moved to New York.

WW It was after, but I had several meetings with Lorne back then when he was describing this idea for a live comedy show that would bridge the new comedy with art.

GP You and John Baldessari traded studio spaces at a certain point, right?

WW We didn’t trade, because he didn’t give me his. I gave him mine. So it wasn’t a fair trade at all, was it? I left it for him when I moved to New York. He’s barely changed that space, except there are a million more objects in there than when I lived there. I visited John this year, and he gave me a chair I’d left in that space—one that appeared in several of my works.

GP Was it the same chair you used in the massage chair video, the one you hit with the stick?

WW Exactly! I have that in my little home museum. You can come and sit in it, and try out the vibrations.

GP Let’s talk a little bit about some of the works that were in the Pomona exhibition. You were showing photographs, video, and some sculptural assemblages, all together. The photographs were dealing a lot with doubles, or this idea of twinning, or identical situations.

WW Those little “find the difference” puzzles often fascinated me. I came to photography rather late. I never studied it in school. I borrowed my wife Gail’s camera when I was documenting some things in Wisconsin, and I came to the conclusion that I should be making work for the camera rather than just documenting sculptures. The idea was that the photographs should be the size that you would see in a magazine. At the time, photographs were being brought back to the studio as relics of earth art, and I wanted to distinguish myself from that side of the photo world. I didn’t want the photos to be documents, but the actual work. At the time, I thought I was really on to something that was mine. It had strength because it could be reproduced without changing the sense of the work, whether it was here or there. It didn’t have to be attached to a place. It wasn’t like, “Gee, if you were here, you would have seen this.”