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Interviews with Experts: Jason Burch, William Wegman Studio

Originally from Baltimore, Jason Burch didn’t always know he wanted to do art, but he knew he didn’t want to do anything else. In high school, the teacher of his very first photography class, noting his aptitude, was already having him apply complicated techniques in the darkroom, like dodging and burning, while the other students stuck to the basics. When selecting a major for Drew University, the liberal arts school in Madison, New Jersey, he crossed off all the possibilities save for art. But it wasn’t until he saw a painting by the French surrealist Yves Tanguy that he had an epiphany, which was “I like art.” To graduate early from college, he decided to take some summer classes at NYU. A friend recommended William Wegman’s workshop. “I didn’t know anything about Bill then,” he says. The friend, who knew Jason was into surrealism, added, “You’ll like him—he named his dog Man Ray.” He signed up. Soon, he began interning, not only with Bill but also with David Levinthal, Chuck Close, and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. At age 20, he had been catapulted into the midst of the high-end New York art world. Once Jason graduated, Bill hired him. For the past twenty-five years, except for a three-year sabbatical doing his own thing and freelancing part-time, Jason has been at the William Wegman studio, where he and Bill are currently at work on a large-scale mosaic installation for the MTA.

Q: What is your position at the studio?

We don’t have formal positions. When they introduce me, they say, “Oh, he’s the one who does everything.” On my LinkedIn page, I call myself “man Friday.” I handle all the production of Bill’s work—anything that has a technical aspect. I also take care of the building. If there’s a leak, I call the plumber. Now we have someone to handle the digital archives, but I used to be the person who’d sit and run the database. My role has changed over all these years.

Q: What does a typical day look like for you?

There’s some amount of Photoshop I’m always doing, whether it’s prepping images that are going to be printed, reviewing images or working on a mockup. Right now, we’re doing the subway station. I go through the work and figure out something to propose. I do the mockups and drawings. Bill’s wife, Christine Burgin, who was a gallerist, is now a book publisher (Christine Burgin Publications & Editions). My day gets split between her projects and Bill’s.

Q: What kinds of books?

She did an Emily Dickinson book, The Gorgeous Nothings—poems written on envelopes. The envelopes are transposed and transcribed in the book. Looking at Pictures is writings by Robert Walser. Later in his life, Walser was institutionalized. After he died, they found all these scraps of paper he had left behind. It wasn’t until years later that someone discovered they weren’t just crazy scribblings but actual writings. They were then transcribed into legible German; Christine published the first English translation accompanied by images of the actual microscripts. The Notebooks of Hilma af Klint is at the printer’s now. Af Klint was a Swedish turn-of-the-century artist; the book is photographs of her notebooks that catalogue her paintings. She’s just becoming known. Her work rarely exhibited during her lifetime and was hidden away after she died. But she made the first large-scale abstract work before any of those we know of in art history. Before Malevich and Kandinsky, she had done monumental abstract work. The first US retrospective of her work will open at the Guggenheim this fall, so we’re trying to get the book done on time for that.

Q: You’re an artist . . .

Yes, though I am transitioning into woodworking now. At the moment, I am giving up on the art world in terms of being an artist.

Q: What were you doing before the woodworking?

Photography about landscape and the suburbs and our use of landscape. That migrated into doing videos that were like extended photographs, done in one take.

Q: Your fingerprints are on Bill’s photographs . . .

Definitely. We’ve worked together a long time. We’re used to working together. I can do things because I know it’s what he wants to do. At this point it’s nice because I can keep working on these things for him, and he’s happy to go paint. It was different when we worked with the large-format Polaroid camera. It takes 20-inch-by-24-inch instant images, one of a kind. The moment you take the photograph, you’re done. But everything shifted with digital. Polaroid became cost-prohibitive and Polaroid stopped producing their large-format film. Bill didn’t want to come to a point and be like, “Oh, I can’t do this anymore.” So I got him to switch to digital, and then eventually that became the only way we work.

Q: What special skills are needed to work in an artist’s studio?

I would say—and a number of interns and assistants have come through here—it’s about understanding that you are here to help someone else make their creation. That comes in a number of capacities, and each one is important and needs attention and patience. Certain people come along and just have a good attitude. Attitude is huge. You’re working closely with people in a very personal way, especially making art. You have to put certain things aside. But I’m also thinking of other studios. Some artists are difficult. Bill’s good-natured and easygoing.

Q: What’s it like having dogs around?

I’m less attached to the dogs than I used to be when I worked more closely with some of them who have now passed away. I miss a lot of those dogs. Now I’m known for not being as attached. When I come in, the dogs look at me and go, “Oooh, him.” But I see other people are really happy to say hi to them.

Q: Is not getting attached self-protective?

I don’t think so. At the time that the dogs I’d spent more time with had passed away, my role had shifted. I wouldn’t go on shoots all the time because I had too much work to do here. It was different spending time working with them on shoots, carrying them and moving them around and talking to them. I have cats. I never owned a dog. The joke is that’s why I’ve been here so long—I’m not a dog person. I’m thinking of transitioning, though. I want a dog now. But I don’t want a Weimaraner.

Q: So why Weimaraners? Are they easier to work with?

No, it’s not that. But they are really good to work with. Bill got the first Weimaraner, Man Ray, because his first wife wanted a dog. And then after he got Fay, also by chance, it was kind of like he got hooked on it. The two dogs he has now are the second and third that are not from Fay’s lineage. Well, Man Ray was Man Ray, then Fay had Batty, Batty had Chip, Chip had Bobbin. Then Bobbin was mated with Candy, and they had Penny. So from Fay to Penny, that was one whole line.

Q: Do the dogs undergo a special training?

Weimaraners are naturally master-oriented. They’re hunting dogs. It’s in their nature to want to work with someone and know what to do. We work with them from the time they’re young. We’re bringing them onto a set and posing them, and they learn what is expected. It’s not that difficult for them to understand. They don’t know that a photograph is being made, but they know Bill is asking them to do something. And they do it. Generally speaking. There are times when you do something, and they let you know, “I’m not so sure about this.” And you go, “Okay, let’s change it.” All it is, is recognizing it’s a dog, a living being. And you are going, “Hey, can I put some clothes on you? Can I pose you like this?” It’s not like we set something up and say, “Go!” We show them what we want, and that’s it. That’s all the training. And they like doing it. Flo and Topper, when you come down to the set, they’ll run over to it and are like, “Where do you want me? What is it you want me to do today?”

Q: What makes your job rewarding?

Always having new projects to work on makes it rewarding. With Bill there is always something new coming down the pipe. And when Christine had her gallery, I did projects with some of the artists showing there. I realized, “Oh, wow, that’s weird—I actually like helping someone else complete their vision.” Which I didn’t understand. I like making my own thing and completing my own vision. I get a vision in my head, and I’ll be like, “Oh, crap, how do I bring this into reality. Is it going to look like it does? Will it come out in a different form?” I’m really satisfied when I can pull it out of my head and make it real. But apparently, I also like doing that for other people. I still work with David Levinthal as well. That’s what satisfies me—helping artists, especially when they don’t know how to do a part of something themselves. I can get what the idea is. I go and take pictures and mock it up and make it so they can visualize it, and then it eventually becomes real. Apparently, I like that.

Q: What makes your job fun?

Because Bill is recognized in the art world and popular culture, people ask him to do projects. It’s fun jumping into new things like the subway station, which is learning about mosaics and seeing what others do. Someone wanted to do a virtual-reality piece. Nothing came of it, but they brought virtual-reality equipment here, and we got to test it out and play with it. When we got into digital, I was like, “I want to get this camera, Bill.” And he said, “Let’s get it!” We’ll have something new and fun to play with. We did a video piece for Madison Square Park with the dogs as characters. I drove around in a golf cart next to a dog, hiding to make it look like the dog was driving. That’s just weird.

Q: What helped you find success in the art world?

I don’t know what the measure of success is. I had some success as an artist, but I wasn’t a success. I’m content. I can keep working with Bill and Christine and work with people and in an environment I enjoy and have time to work on my own thing. That’s enough. When I was younger, someone might have been like, “Why are you still there?” Now that I’ve stayed this long, everyone is like, “Wow, that’s so cool!” I’ve stayed long enough to make it cool.

Q: Besides Photoshop, what are the tools or software that help you on a daily basis?

The first database Bill had, this other guy and I built in FileMaker. We were the only techies here, so we cobbled something together. We liked computers and having things organized. Bill is not an organization person—he’s a painter. When ArtBase came along, it transformed what was going to be possible. Bill is prolific. Polaroids, paintings, drawings, editions…. When you do this much each year, how are you going to keep track of it all? How would we find this stuff? The structure of ArtBase keeps it simple and flexible because of how its different components are tied together.

Q: Do you have a favorite artist?

James Turrell and Thomas Demand. And William Lamson is another that I went to school with whose work I like. And Hilma af Klint.

Q: What do you feel has changed in the art world since you started?

Nothing. New York has changed. In the ’90s I published a music zine with a couple of guys. We distributed it for free around the city. Who would do that now? There’s the big money aspect of the art world, and that seems the same. The same people are around. I was back visiting Baltimore and got a very different vibe of the young artists now. They don’t have a lot of means, but there’s cheap space, and they were just doing their thing, and it seemed very energetic, very exciting. Not necessarily all New York-level work, but a great energy. I went to New Orleans. The vibe was great—the street artists I met, the restaurants I went to. Oh, my God, everything felt so much better! The only reason you’re in New York is you’re hoping the entire world is going to see you. What I like about the other places is the artists there really just care if their friends see them. That’s how I felt about New York when I first came here and was doing the zine.

Thanks, Jason!