Should you be wondering who was responsible for: a) persuading Isabella Rossellini to dress up like a demented clockwork doll on the cover of this magazine; b) co-creating that image from a composite of stills made with a super-duper new video technology (use that nifty piece of acetate to bring them to life); and c) throwing in a clever way for you to call up the accompanying soundtracks on your phone, well... meet Robert Wilson.
Sitting at his desk (a 1953 Alvar Aalto prototype) in his office at the Watermill Center, his self-styled ‘laboratory for performance’ on the south fork of Long Island, where he spends each summer with a constantly changing cast of visiting artists, dancers, musicians, scientists, actors and writers, Bob (as everyone calls him) is surrounded by mementoes. African pots. Indonesian folk sculptures. Dozens of artworks by friends, or of them. A David Hockney drawing of Betty Freeman. A Dash Snow painting and Francesca Woodman photograph. A table and chair by Donald Judd. One of John Cage’s musical scores for Merce Cunningham, and a 1970s Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of the young Wilson. At 68, he may not be as slender or raven-haired as he was back then, but he cuts an imposing figure in a black T-shirt and loose black pants with a silver buzz cut and steady, but kindly gaze.
‘What we’ve tried to do with the magazine is to make it more dimensional,’ he explains. ‘We’ve been making video portraits, like Isabella’s, since 2006, and wanted to use them in a new way. The new technology we are using brings the images to life, creating something that’s more interactive and allowing the reader to be a participant in the composition. It made sense to apply that technology to portraits that have a more pop or comic approach. Isabella’s portrait is one that I thought would be strong. Also, October is the month of Halloween.’
He had some 140 video portraits to choose from, including ones of Johnny Depp, Jeanne Moreau and an elderly car mechanic. Each one is shot to Wilson’s direction with its own soundtrack. The portraits are looped or morphed infinitely, their actual running length impossible to detect, but ranging from a few seconds to eight hours. Wilson chose the other Wallpaper* images, including those of Brad Pitt and Dita von Teese, by applying the same ‘pop or comic’ criteria as for Rossellini, except for the snow owl. ‘I just like to look at her,’ laughs Wilson. ‘When I was ten or 11 years old, there was a snow owl that lived in these twin oak trees right in front of our house. It made a strong impression on me. So exotic and extraordinary, a beautiful creature.’
All of these projects are workshopped at Watermill. On the day that Wallpaper* visited, Abramović swept past dozens of people, who were chatting contentedly over one of its daily rituals, a (delicious) communal lunch, to accost Wilson with an anguished cry of: ‘No Powerpoint, no projection. No paper even. Is this possible?’ Wilson answered calmly before summoning a colleague to appease her.
Soothing Abramović was just the start. Charlotte Rampling was due to arrive to prepare for a performance the following night, and several hours of the afternoon were earmarked for a conference on art and science. Then there were meetings with the collaborators who had come to work with him on other new productions, and impromptu conversations with the young artists in residence.
Like everything Wilson does, there is both a pragmatic and idealistic aspect to Watermill. It enables him to use his time efficiently by bringing lots of people to one place where he controls the schedule, but is also his deluxe, rural recreation of the early 1970s SoHo loft scene where he began his career. ‘There was a real community there,’ he reminisces. ‘We had no money, and we lived, worked and performed in our lofts. Donald Judd was there, Nam June Paik, Philip Glass, Trisha Brown. We all supported each other.'
Wallpaper* was lucky to bag him as guest editor, because Wilson is a very busy man. He has been, as the New York Times once put it, ‘a towering figure in the world of experimental theatre’ for nearly 40 years, as a director, designer, writer, choreographer and performer. Wilson has collaborated with everyone from the writers William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, musicians Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright and opera singer Jessye Norman, to artist Marina Abramović.
By applying the innovations of the late 1960s and early 1970s avant-garde New York art scene to theatre, opera and dance, he has defined a signature style that combines a Spartan aesthetic with the dramatic use of sound, lighting, movement and technology to create mesmerising spectacles. Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, describes them as: ‘Magically minimalist. Reductionist, yet dreamy with lyrical plays of light, colour and sparse volumes.’
Typically, Wilson works on 15 new projects at once. His current ‘to do’ list includes prepping a new play in Prague and a new opera in Milan; planning a series of performances at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, with some of the artists and performers who have worked with him at Watermill; designing an exhibition about the human brain for a museum in Oslo; collaborating with Lou Reed on a new production of Lulu in Berlin; and with Philip Glass on a revival of their 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach. He’s also creating a theatrical biography of Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, which is to premiere next year at the Manchester International Festival.
He discovered this part of Long Island in the early 1970s when visiting the homes of artist friends such as Willem de Kooning, who had been drawn to the extraordinary light and – improbable though it seems now – cheap housing. Back then, it was a rural community, and Wilson was intrigued by one of the few big industrial buildings, a Western Union research centre, perched on a hill in Water Mill, a cluster of farms outside the coastal town of Southampton.
Having taken over the building to set up the Watermill Center in 1992, he has since decamped there each summer, making it his base in the US. The early workshops and performances were staged in the derelict Western Union building, but he gradually raised the money to reconstruct it, and the gleaming new Watermill opened five years ago on the footprint of the original structure.
Wilson has since art directed it like a theatrical production, and done so beautifully. The six-acre grounds are glorious. There’s a rambling woodland garden, which looks unspoilt for a split second – until you notice that the lower branches of every tree have been pruned up to exactly the same height; that all of the vines are curling around the tree trunks in the same pattern; and that there isn’t a single flower whose petals are any colour but white. Between the trees are some of the stone and wood sculptures Wilson has found on his travels. Then comes a lawn for outdoor performances and a forest of silver birches with raised platforms for rehearsals.
Watermill also houses some 600 of the thousands of objects and artworks in Wilson’s collection. Most are in the archive, a treasure trove of tribal art, chairs, modern glass, Asian ceramics, drawings, photographs, stage props and odd things he found on the streets: from an abandoned Giò Ponti chair to a piece of wood he liked the look of. More treasures are on show in the studios and in the living spaces for the artists who take part in the summer programme, or the residencies during the rest of the year.
Every July, Watermill hosts a summer benefit to help to pay for it all. It has become one of the hottest tickets of the social season: this year’s guest list ranged from New York icons like Calvin Klein, to young hotties such as Paz de la Huerta. Sharon Stone played auctioneer for the night, and teased Alec Baldwin and Jay McInerney into jointly bidding $50,000 for a private concert by Rufus Wainwright, who thanked them with a cappella rendition of Over the Rainbow.
It’s all a very long way from Waco, the sleepy Texas city where Wilson was born. He studied law at the University of Texas to appease his lawyer father, then began an architecture course at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, in 1963. ‘I actually wanted to study painting,’ he says. ‘But I said I’d study architecture to please my father, and he said: “Son, architecture isn’t serious, you should study engineering.”’ At Pratt, he discovered New York’s underground art scene, and the avant-garde performances of Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown and other members of the Judson Dance Theater.
‘I didn’t know anything about performance before,’ he explains. ‘But I went to Judson Church to see Yvonne and she was just moving pieces of paper on the floor. That was her dance. It was a shock to me – to someone from Texas.’ He then met John Cage and, through him, Merce Cunningham and later Andy Warhol. In 1968, he founded an experimental performance company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds.
Three years later the Byrds performed Deafman Glance, a seven-hour silent play based on the drawings of Raymond Andrews, an 11-year-old deaf-mute boy whom Wilson had seen being harassed by the police, and subsequently adopted.‘It was totally ignored in New York,’ says Wilson. ‘But when it went to Paris, Louis Aragon wrote about it in an article addressed to André Breton, saying: “This is the most beautiful thing I have seen.” His letter was one reason why my career was established in France, and I was asked to work in Milan and at the Berlin Opera.’
His productions became more and more ambitious. KA MOUNTain and GARDenia Terrace was performed for seven days on seven Iranian hills in 1972, and the following year he unveiled the final Byrds project, The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, as a 12-hour stage production. He then developed Einstein on the Beach with Glass. His first opera, it lasted five hours with no plot or intermissions. ‘It’s the stuff of legend,’ says Antonelli. ‘Everyone who was there recalls it with mystical rapture as a life-changing experience.’ Though, at the time, just like Deafman Glance, it was a triumph in Europe, but not in the US. ‘It used to worry me that I didn’t have more work shown in the US,’ admits Wilson. ‘But as I’ve gotten older I’ve become used to the idea that I work internationally.’
Even so, it has made him something of an anomaly on the arts scene, as has his willingness to work with the theatrical establishment in the grand theatres and opera houses that many of his friends rejected. ‘They were like: “What are you doing?”’ he recalls. ‘I’d known them and come from their school of thought, but suddenly there was an about-face.’
And there are other anomalies. Improvisation was central to the Judson school of performance, whereas Wilson is a control freak. He’s also very eclectic, what with the landscaping, collecting, sculpting and everything else. Then there’s his flair for business. How else could he have run so many international productions for so long? Sell the limited editions of his stage props, or the video portraits for $150,000 each? Of course, it is those same anomalies that have made Wilson so powerful and prolific – whether or not it’s Halloween month.