Talking Celebrities, Collaboration, and Chairs with Playwright and Artist Robert Wilson

We spoke to the famed playwright about his recent exhibition and what it was like working with Steve Buscemi, Marlene Dietrich, and Lady Gaga.

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Dec 10 2015, 3:12pm

Myung Joo Lee (Violetta) in 'La Traviata.' Linz, 2015. Photo by Olaf Struck/courtesy of Robert Wilson

It is easy to get one's hopes up when speaking of Robert Wilson's potential collaborators. Since the composer Philip Glass lent his talents to the breakthrough 1976 play Einstein on the Beach, a sui generis, neo-surrealistic opera, it has become a right of passage among contemporary artists from all backgrounds to work with the 74-year-old playwright, among them David Byrne, Marina Abramović, and Lady Gaga. So I could feel my excitement bubble when I read, in a recent T magazine feature, a cryptic piece by the poet Anne Carson: "Notes for Meeting with the Actors the Day the Director Asked Me to Come to First Antigonick Read-Through." For what I assumed to be entries to an actual production of the lauded translation of Antigone, the poet jotted several mystifying phrases: "No punctuation much gives alacrity" and "Fun language meat language the shift." In response, Wilson sent a crushed and worn folded ruler. "I was taking a walk," he recently said to me over the phone, "and saw it in the middle of the street being run over by cars and trucks. I finally grabbed it and took it home and continued to contemplate it. I came to realize that it made me think of Anne's writing."

Collecting artifacts is habitual activity for the older, yet active playwright. His bedroom alone is reputed to contain over 700 found and made objects, ranging from a 2,000-year-old Eskimo sculpture, a Chinese neolithic pot, a photograph of Andre Breton and Gertrude Stein, and a chair that he's designed. A replication of his bedroom was part of his guest residency at the Louvre in 2013. Hardly any white of the wall space is left for what amounts to a miniature and intimate museum within a museum.

Like his fellow salvager (and possibly closest visionary) Pablo Picasso, relics have inspired a cosmology within Wilson's artistry. But whereas the Spanish painter famously picked through the contents of salvage yards, painting on various flotsam and jetsam, Wilson, a Texas native, acts as more of an aesthetic curator, filtering their influence into ideas for stage design, props, and costumes. Conversely, Wilson is auto-inspired: Much of his aesthetic pursuits come from his own hand. An artistic polymath, Wilson's brand of surrealism involves abstract furniture, periods of experimenting with specific colors (and their absence), and particular scenarios pulled from paintings and dreams.

Still from 'Winona Ryder' (2004) by Robert Wilson. Courtesy of the artist

Keeping Wilson's bedroom in mind, it was a dazzling perpendicularity to view the works at his recent show at the National Arts Club (who also awarded Wilson its esteemed Gold Medal). Rather than gathering acquired objects, Black and White surveyed Mr. Wilson's expansive monochromatic works. Featured in the show were dozens of charcoal drawn storyboard sketches from Einstein on the Beach , Wilson's most famous play that will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. Also included were a garden of chairs from various productions, 118 human finger mold casts, and a video portrait of the opera singer Renée Fleming. The only noticeable absence from the exhibition was light—stage lighting is one of Wilson's signature touchstones.

"I definitely went through a black-and-white period," Wilson said. "I've done many black-and-white productions, particularly in the earlier part of my career." Wilson professed a fondness for black-and-white films. A particular favorite is Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad, which starred the French Lebanese actress Delphine Seyrig. "She was a great beauty," Wilson remarked. "And in the film, which is so heavily saturated black and white, you can't even see her shadow. It's just her."

Still from 'Renée Fleming' (2007) by Robert Wilson, music by Jules Massenet, arranged by David Gierten. Courtesy of the artist

The Renée Fleming portrait was a standout. Draped in a hijab and poised as if struck by a great emotional lift, the opera singer resembles a marble statue slowly coming to life. The camera soaks the screen in varying degrees of brightness, making both her face and the cloth disappear at varying intervals.

For his video-portraits series, Wilson places his subjects in surreal scenery, forbidding all but the simplest gestures. For Steve Buscemi's portrait, the actor, dressed in a white butcher's apron and black tie, stares intently at the camera. Behind him is an emerald green curtain. On a gurney in front of him lies a big slab of meat. The only movement is Buscemi's masticating jaw.

'Einstein on the Beach' by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass. Opéra Berlioz, Montpellier, France, 2012. Photo by Lucie Jansch/courtesy of Robert Wilson

"I see people in certain colors sometimes," Wilson said, "and others it's more of the concept that holds a color for me. It depends on the subject matter, or my mood, I guess." He recalls having met Marlene Dietrich early in his career , who told the rising dramatist to be mindful of his colors. "I asked her what colors were good for her," he said, "and she said 'black or white.' She was right, of course ."

Wilson is clearly mindful of his colors, pairing them to various subjects and friends: "Princess Caroline always looks stunning in black, she also looks good in red, as did Diana Vreeland. Alan Cumming I just can't see in black or white. Fuscia, or some variation of pink, would be the right color for him. Lady Gaga is more versatile. I did both in full color—in a portrait inspired by Ingres's Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière , and in a black-and-white portrait of her suspended upside down, tied up and nude. That's hanging in my bedroom."

Mikhail Baryshnikov in 'Letter to a Man' (2015). Photo by Lucie Jansch/courtesy of Robert Wilson

Adjacent to the Gaga portrait in Wilson's replicated bedroom is a small wooden chair. Oddly, none of its sinuous metal legs touch the ground, rather it is bolted to the wall, hovering a couple feet above the floor. Over his long career, Wilson has collected and designed scores of chairs, and more often than not, they are held more in sculptural credence than to perform the more functional role intended for the furniture piece. "Where I grew up, in this small suburban Texas town, furniture was always against the wall," Wilson explained. "That bothered me. I wanted to take the chairs and move them into the open space, where they could be viewed and appreciated for their form."

Chairs from his various productions are displayed at the National Arts Club, including the "Bessie Smith": a siamese chair—connected seat-to-seat but with opposing backs—from the production Cosmopolitan Greetings, described by Wilson as "a tête-à-tête that symbolizes the famous jazz-singer's marriage." Other chairs on display are a rather uncomfortable, stair-step-shaped seat, and the oblong, and stiff chair mysteriously named " Kafka II ."

Wilson traced his fascination back to a single chair. "When I was 12," he told me, "I went to visit my uncle who lived as a recluse in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He lived near the White Sands desert in this white adobe house he'd built. It was very minimal and spare: a mattress on the floor, a Navajo blanket, a few Native American pots. In one room there was only a chair. I was incredibly drawn to it. The chair had a tall, thin back, and it was made of wood. I said to my uncle, "This is a very beautiful chair!" Apparently he took note. "Christmas came around, and I'd been given some fairly typical gifts for a 12-year-old boy living in Texas: a shotgun, cowboy boots, a red flannel shirt. But then my uncle showed up and presented me the chair as a gift! I couldn't believe it."

'Bessie Smith' by Robert Wilson. Photo courtesy of the artist

Though it kicked off a passion for the furniture piece, Wilson was forced to part with the chairs after a cousin demanded its return. "'My father gave you this chair,'" he recalls the note saying, "'but it's mine, and I want it back.' So I sent it back, but by then I'd started collecting other chairs. That was the beginning." I don't know where that chair is now—my cousin died, and it disappeared."

Though there are no plans for a production of Antigonick (meaning no "Antigonick" chair). I expressed hope for the possibility, but also proffered a curio—in all of Wilson's video portraits, and despite his professed love for literature, none are of writers. "I do regret not shooting one of Susan Sontag while she was still alive." Wilson lamented. "She was a good friend." Why not Anne Carson, I suggested. "You know," he said after thinking for a moment, "that's not a bad idea."

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