Wilson in 2014
|Born||October 4, 1941|
Waco, Texas, U.S.
Robert Wilson (born October 4, 1941) is an American experimental theater stage director and playwright who has been described by The New York Times as "[America]'s - or even the world's - foremost vanguard 'theater artist.'" He has also worked as a choreographer, performer, painter, sculptor, video artist, and sound and lighting designer.
Wilson is best known for his collaboration with Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs on Einstein on the Beach. In 1991 Wilson established The Watermill Center, "a laboratory for performance" on the East End of Long Island, New York. He has received more commissions for new works in Europe than in the United States since the late 20th century, regularly working with opera and theatre companies, as well as cultural festivals.
Wilson was born in Waco, Texas, the son of Loree Velma (née Hamilton) and D.M. Wilson, a lawyer. After attending local schools, he studied business administration at the University of Texas from 1959 to 1962.
He moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1963 to change fields. He received a BFA in architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1966. During this period, he also attended lectures by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy (widow of László Moholy-Nagy), and studied painting with artist George McNeil. Later he went to Arizona to study architecture with Paolo Soleri at his desert complex.
After moving to New York, Wilson found himself drawn to the work of pioneering choreographers George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Martha Graham, among others. In 1968, he founded an experimental performance company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (named for a teacher who helped him manage a stutter while a teenager). With this company, he directed his first major works, beginning with 1969's The King of Spain and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud. He began to work in opera in the early 1970s, creating Einstein on the Beach with composer Philip Glass and choreographer Lucinda Childs. This work brought the artists worldwide renown. Following Einstein, Wilson worked increasingly with major European theaters and opera houses. For the New York debut of his first opera, the Metropolitan Opera allowed Wilson to rent the house on a Sunday, when they did not have a production, but would not produce the work.
In 1970, Wilson and a group of collaborators, including choreographer Andy deGroat and the dancer and actor Sheryl Sutton, devised the "silent opera" Deafman Glance in Iowa City, where it premiered at the Center for New Performing Arts on December 15. The large cast of the premiere production of Deafman Glance included Raymond Andrews and Ana Mendieta. The show subsequently traveled to the Nancy Festival in France and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It later opened in Paris, championed by the designer Pierre Cardin. The Surrealist poet Louis Aragon loved it and published a letter to the Surrealist poet André Breton (who had died in 1966), in which he praised Wilson as: "What we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us".
In 1983/84, Wilson planned a performance for the 1984 Summer Olympics, the CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down; the complete work was to have been 12 hours long, in 6 parts. The production was only partially completed; the full event was cancelled by the Olympic Arts Festival, due to insufficient funds. In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize jury unanimously selected the CIVIL warS for the drama prize, but the supervisory board rejected the choice and gave no drama award that year.
In 1990 alone, Wilson created four new productions in four different West German cities: Shakespeare's King Lear in Frankfurt, Chekhov's Swan Song in Munich, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando in West Berlin, and The Black Rider, a collaboration by Wilson, Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs, in Hamburg.
Wilson is known for pushing the boundaries of theatre. His works are noted for their austere style, very slow movement, and often extreme scale in space or in time. The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin was a 12-hour performance, while KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace was staged on a mountaintop in Iran and lasted seven days.
In 2010 Wilson was working on a new stage musical with composer (and long-time collaborator) Tom Waits and the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh. His theatrical production of John Cage's Lecture on Nothing, which was commissioned for a celebration of the Cage centenary at the 2012 Ruhrtriennale, had its U.S. premiere in Royce Hall, UCLA, by the Center for the Art of Performance. Wilson performed Lectures on Nothing in its Australian premiere at the 2019 Supersense festival at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
In 2013 Wilson, in collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov and co-starring Willem Dafoe, developed The Old Woman, an adaptation of the work by the Russian author Daniil Kharms. The play premiered at MIF13, Manchester International Festival. Wilson wrote that he and Baryshnikov had discussed creating a play together for years, perhaps based on a Russian text. The final production included dance, light, singing and bilingual monologue.
Since 1999, Wilson has premiered nine theatrical works in Berlin. By contrast, as of 2013, his last commission in the United States was 21 years ago.
He continues to direct revivals of his most celebrated productions, including The Black Rider in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Australia, and Los Angeles; The Temptation of St. Anthony in New York and Barcelona; Erwartung in Berlin; Madama Butterfly at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow; and Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. He also directs all Monteverdi operas for the opera houses of La Scala in Milan and the Palais Garnier in Paris.
In addition to his work for the stage, Wilson creates sculpture, drawings, and furniture designs. He won the Golden Lion at the 1993 Venice Biennale for a sculptural installation. Exhibited in December 1976 at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Wilson's storyboards were described by one critic as "serial art, equivalent to the slow-motion tempo of [Wilson's] theatrical style. In drawing after drawing after drawing, a detail is proposed, analyzed, refined, redefined, moved through various positions."
In 2004, Ali Hossaini offered Wilson a residency at the television channel LAB HD. Since then Wilson, with producer Esther Gordon and later with Matthew Shattuck, has produced dozens of high-definition videos known as the Voom Portraits. Collaborators on this well-received project included the composer Michael Galasso, the late artist and designer Eugene Tsai, fashion designer Kevin Santos, and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum. In addition to celebrity subjects, sitters have included royalty, animals, Nobel Prize winners and hobos.
American pop singer Lady Gaga announced in 2013 that she would collaborate with Wilson as part of her ARTPOP project. He subsequently designed the set for her 2013 MTV Video Music Awards performance.
Wilson also suggested that Gaga pose for his Voom Portraits. Knowing he had an upcoming residency as guest curator at the Louvre, Wilson chose themes from the museum's collection, all dealing with death. They shot the videos in a London studio over three days, Gaga standing for 14 or 15 hours at a time. Called "Living Rooms," the resulting exhibition included two video works: one inspired by Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat, hung in the painting galleries, and another in which Lady Gaga brings to life a painting by Ingres. In the Louvre's auditorium, Wilson hosted and took part in a series of performances, conversations, film screenings, and discussions. The centerpiece of the residency is a room filled with objects from the artist's personal collection in New York, including African masks, a Shaker chair, ancient Chinese ceramics, shoes worn by Marlene Dietrich and a photo of Wilson and Glass taken in the early 1980s by Robert Mapplethorpe.
In 2011, Wilson designed an art park dedicated to the Finnish designer Tapio Wirkkala (1915-1985), situated in the Arabianranta district of Helsinki. His plans for the rectangular park feature a central square divided into nine equally sized fields separated by bushes. Each field will be installed with objects related to the home. For example, one unit will consist of a small fireplace surrounded by stones that serve as seating. The park will be lit by large, lightbox-style lamps build into the ground and by smaller ones modelled on ordinary floor lamps.
Language is one of the most important elements of theatre and Robert Wilson feels at home with commanding it in many different ways. Wilson's impact on this part of theatre alone is immense. Arthur Holmberg, professor of theatre at Brandeis University, says that "In theatre, no one has dramatized the crisis of language with as much ferocious genius as Robert Wilson.":41 Wilson makes it evident in his work that whats and whys of language are terribly important and cannot be overlooked. Tom Waits, acclaimed songwriter and collaborator with Wilson, said this about Wilson's unique relationship with words:
Words for Bob are like tacks on the kitchen floor in the dark of night and you're barefoot. So Bob clears a path he can walk through words without getting hurt. Bob changes the values and shapes of words. In some sense they take on more meaning; in some cases, less.:43
Wilson shows the importance of language through all of his works and in many varying fashions. He credits his reading of the work of Gertrude Stein and listening to recordings of her speaking with "changing [his] way of thinking forever." Wilson directed three of Stein's works in the 1990s: Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1992), Four Saints in Three Acts (1996), and Saints and Singing (1998).
Wilson considers language and, down to its very ingredients, words, as a sort of "a social artifact".:44 Not only does language change with time but it changes with person, with culture. Using his experience of working with mentally handicapped children and enlisting the collaboration of Christopher Knowles, a renowned autistic poet, has allowed Wilson to attack language from many views. Wilson embraces this by often "juxtaposing levels of diction - Miltonic opulence and contemporary ling, crib poetry and pre-verbal screams" in an attempt to show his audience how elusive language really is and how ever-changing it can be.:44 Visually showing words is another method Wilson uses to show the beauty of language. Often his set designs, program covers, and posters are graffiti'd with words. This allows the audience to look at the "language itself" rather than "the objects and meanings it refers to.".:45
The lack of language becomes essential to Wilson's work as well. In the same way an artist uses positive and negative space, Wilson uses noise and silence. In working on a production of King Lear, Wilson inadvertently describes his necessity of silence:
The way actors are trained here is wrong. All they think about is interpreting a text. They worry about how to speak words and know nothing about their bodies. You see that by the way they walk. They don't understand the weight of a gesture in space. A good actor can command an audience by moving one finger.:49
This emphasis on silence is fully explored in some of his works. Deafman Glance is a play without words, and his adaptation of Heiner Müller's play Quartet contained a fifteen-minute wordless prologue. Holmberg describes these works stating,
Language does many things and does them well. But we tend to shut our eyes to what language does not do well. Despite the arrogance of words - they rule traditional theatre with an iron fist - not all experience can be translated into a linguistic code.:50
Celebrated twentieth century playwright Eugène Ionesco said that Wilson "surpassed Beckett" because "[Wilson's] silence is a silence that speaks".:52 This silence onstage may be unnerving to audience members but serves a purpose of showing how important language is by its absence. It is Wilson's means of answering his own question: "Why is it no one looks? Why is it no one knows how to look? Why does no one see anything on stage?":52
Another technique Wilson uses is that of what words can mean to a particular character. His piece, I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, features only two characters, both of whom deliver the same stream-of-consciousness monologue. In the play's first production one character was "aloof, cold, [and] precise" while the other "brought screwball comedy ... warmth and color ... playful[ness]".:61 The different emphases and deliveries brought to the monologue two different meanings; "audiences found it hard to believe they heard the same monologue twice.":61 Rather than tell his audience what words are supposed to mean, he opens them up for interpretation, presenting the idea that "meanings are not tethered to words like horses to hitching posts.":61
Movement is another key element in Wilson's work. As a dancer, he sees the importance of the way an actor moves onstage and knows the weight that movement bears. When speaking of his "play without words" rendition of Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, Wilson says:
I do movement before we work on the text. Later we'll put text and movement together. I do movement first to make sure it's strong enough to stand on its own two feet without words. The movement must have a rhythm and structure of its own. It must not follow the text. It can reinforce a text without illustrating it. What you hear and what you see are two different layers. When you put them together, you create another texture.:136
With such an emphasis on movement, Wilson even tailors his auditions around the necessity of it. In his auditions, "Wilson often does an elaborate movement sequence" and "asks the actor to repeat it.":136Thomas Derrah, an actor in the CIVIL warS, found the audition process to be baffling: "When I went in, [Wilson] asked me to walk across the room on a count of 31, sit down on a count of 7, put my hand to my forehead on a count of 59. I was mystified by the whole process".:137 To further cement the importance of movement in Wilson's works, Seth Goldstein, another actor in the CIVIL warS, stated "every movement from the moment I walked onto the platform until I left was choreographed to the second. During the scene at table all I did was count movements. All I thought about was timing.":137
When it comes time to add the text in with movement, there is still much work to be done. Wilson pays close attention to the text and still makes sure there is enough "space around a text" for the audience to soak it up.:139 At this point, the actors know their movements and the time in which they are executed, allowing Wilson to tack the actions onto specific pieces of text. His overall goal is to have the rhythm of the text differ from that of the movement so his audience can see them as two completely different pieces, seeing each as what it is. When in the text/movement stage, Wilson often interrupts the rehearsal, saying things like "Something is wrong. We have to check your scripts to see if you put the numbers in the right place.":139 He goes on to explain the importance of this:
I know it's hell to separate text and movement and maintain two different rhythms. It takes time to train yourself to keep tongue and body working against each other. But things happen with the body that have nothing to do with what we say. It's more interesting if the mind and the body are in two different places, occupying different zones of reality.:139
These rhythms keep the mind on its toes, consciously and subconsciously taking in the meanings behind the movement and how it is matching up with the language.
Similar to Wilson's use of the lack of language in his works, he also sees the importance that a lack of movement can have. In his production of Medea, Wilson arranged a scene in which the lead singer stood still during her entire song while many others moved around her. Wilson recalls that "she complained that if I didn't give her any movements, no one would notice her. I told her if she knew how to stand, everyone would watch her. I told her to stand like a marble statue of a goddess who had been standing in the same spot for a thousand years".:147 Allowing an actor to have such stage presence without ever saying a word is very provocative, which is precisely what Wilson means to accomplish with any sense of movement he puts on the stage.
Wilson believes that "the most important part of theatre" is light.:121 He is concerned with how images are defined onstage, and this is related to the light of an object or tableau. He feels that the lighting design can really bring the production to life. The set designer for Wilson's the CIVIL warS, Tom Kamm, describes his philosophy: "a set for Wilson is a canvas for the light to hit like paint.":121 He explains, "If you know how to light, you can make shit look like gold. I paint, I build, I compose with light. Light is a magic wand.":121
Wilson is "the only major director to get billing as a lighting designer" and is recognized by some as "the greatest light artist of our time".:122 He designs with light to be flowing rather than an off-and-on pattern, thus making his lighting "like a musical score.":123 Wilson's lighting designs feature "dense, palpable textures" and allow "people and objects to leap out from the background..:123 In his design for Quartett, Wilson used four hundred light cues in a span of only ninety minutes.:122
He is a perfectionist, persisting to achieve every aspect of his vision. A fifteen-minute monologue in Quartett took two days for him to light while a single hand gesture took nearly three hours.:126 This attention to detail expresses his conviction that, "light is the most important actor on stage.":128
Wilson's interest in design extends to the props in his productions, which he designs and sometimes participates in constructing. Whether it is furniture, a light bulb, or a giant crocodile, Wilson treats each as a work of art in its own right. He demands that a full-scale model of each prop be constructed before the final one is made, in order "to check proportion, balance, and visual relationships" on stage.:128 Once he has approved the model, the crew builds the prop, and Wilson is "renowned for sending them back again and again and again until they satisfy him".:128 He is so strict in his attention to detail that when Jeff Muscovin, his technical director for Quartett, suggested they use an aluminum chair with a wood skin rather than a completely wooden chair, Wilson replied:
No, Jeff, I want wood chairs. If we make them out of aluminum, they won't sound right when they fall over and hit the floor. They'll sound like metal, not wood. It will sound false. Just make sure you get strong wood. And no knots.:129
Such attention to detail and perfectionism usually resulted in an expensive collection of props. "Curators regard them as sculptures":129 and the props have been sold for prices ranging from "$4,500 to $80,000.":113
In 2011, New York-based company International Flavors & Fragrances created a new scent, titled Black Rider, in Wilson's honor on the occasion of the director's 70th birthday.
Extensive retrospectives have been presented at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1991) and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1991). He has presented installations at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam (1993), London's Clink Street Vaults (1995), Neue Nationalgalerie (2003), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. His tribute to Isamu Noguchi was exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum and his Voom Portraits exhibition traveled to Hamburg, Milan, Miami, and Philadelphia. In 2012, Times Square Arts invited Wilson to show selections from his three-minute video portraits on more than twenty digital screens that lined Times Square. In 2013 he participated at the White House Biennial / Thessaloniki Biennale 4.
Wilson is represented exclusively and worldwide by RW Work, Ltd. (New York), and his gallerist in New York City is Paula Cooper Gallery.
In 1991 Wilson established The Watermill Center on the site of a former Western Union laboratory on the East End of Long Island, New York. Originally styled as "a laboratory for performance", The Watermill Center now operates year-round artist residencies, public education programs, exhibitions, and performances. The Center is situated within a 10-acre campus of gardens and designed landscape, and contains numerous works of art collected by Wilson.