ROBERT WILSON is a theatre director, artist and designer who fuses sound, image, text and movement to create extraordinarily evocative stage sets, exhibitions and installations. He is based in New York and Long Island.
When Robert Wilson sent his ‘shopping list’ for the contents of his installation for the Isamu Noguchi: Scultpural Design exhibition at the Design Museum in summer 2001, it included: nine tons of silver sand; six tons of black lava sand; numerous sacks of broken glass; scores of aluminium squares; several dozen of bales of fireproofed straw; and enough loose hay to build a haystack.
The result was a sensational sequence of galleries: one shrouded in darkness, the next brightly illuminated, followed by stepping stones tripping across an elegantly raked sea of sand and the icy white set elements from Martha Graham’s 1944 Herodiade standing in a lake of shattered glass.
It was an extraordinary tribute to the work of Isamu Noguchi, the American-Japanese designer-sculptor who was the subject of the exhibition and whom Wilson had befriended in the 1960s and 1970s while making his name as a promising young theatre director and designer in New York.
A few months before he completed the Noguchi installation, Wilson had created an equally evocative exhibition for a designer of a very different sensibility. For a retrospective of the work of the Italian fashion designer, Giorgio Armani, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, he had conceived an installation which was as much about Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous building as Armani’s clothes.
By cloaking the iconic circular stairwell which curves around the heart of Wright’s building with one of the milky white scrims hung at the back of a theatre or fashion show stages, Wilson focussed the visitor’s gaze on Armani’s understatedly elegant clothes while reminding them of why the Guggenheim is so special. Renowned for bringing an artistic sensibility to the theatre, Wilson has also brought a theatrical exuberance to museums.
Born in Waco, Texas in 1941, Robert Wilson struggled as a child to overcome a speech disability which he finally conquered in his late teens with the help of the dancer, Byrd Hoffman. After studying business administration at the University of Texas in Austin, he switched to architecture and in 1963 he enrolled on a course at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. During his time there, Wilson attended lectures by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, widow of the Bauhaus designer, László, and studied painting with George McNeill at the American Center in Paris as well as working with learning disabled children back in New York.
Having graduated from Pratt, Wilson moved to Phoenix, Arizona to assist the visionary architect, Paolo Soleri. Increasingly he was drawn to the theatre, particularly to the experimental dance scene, which was flourishing in New York. Wilson befriended many leading choreographers of the era including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine. After choreographing a dance event at the 1965 New York World Fair, he created a series of performance and installation pieces.
In 1968, Wilson founded The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (named after the man who had helped him overcome his childhood speech disability) as an experimental group of artists who worked and performed in a loft on Spring Street, New York. He also adopted Raymond Andrews, a deaf-mute Afro-American boy.
The following year, Wilson unveiled his productions, The King of Spain and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, in New York. Both won critical acclaim for combining Wilson’s artistic sensibility with his architectural training and love of music and literature.
His next project, Deafman Glance, premiered in 1971 as a "silent opera" devised by Wilson in collaboration with Raymond Andrews. After its Paris debut, the poet, Louis Aragon, hailed Wilson as: "What we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us".
The 1970s was a prolific decade in which Wilson followed Deafman Glance with 1972’s KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace, a seven day play, then 1973’s twelve hour "silent opera", The Life and Times of Josef Stalin. He unveiled A Letter for Queen Victoria in 1974 and collaborated with the composer Philip Glass on 1976’s Einstein on the Beach.
Wilson devoted much of the early 1980s to an international collaboration, the epic opera, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, which was intended to be the centrepiece of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. It has never been performed in its entirety, but parts of the work have been produced in the US, Japan and Europe, including The Knee Plays, which Wilson created in collaboration with the musician, David Byrne.
Other collaborations included Wilson’s work with singer Tom Waits and the writer William Burroughs on 1991’s The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, and with musician Lou Reed on both 1996’s Time Rocker and 2000’s POEtry based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. A long-lasting collaboration with the opera singer Jessye Norman has spanned 1982’s Great Day in the Morning to a 2001 production in Paris based on Schubert’s song cycle. Wilson’s classical productions have included Parsifal, The Magic Flute, Madame Butterfly and the complete Wagner Ring cycle.
When in New York, Wilson works from the same Spring Street loft where he founded The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds back in 1968. Each summer he decamps to another arts laboratory, the Watermill Center in eastern Long Island to develop theatre projects with collaborators from all over the world.
The New York Times described Robert Wilson as "a towering figure in the world of experimental theater and an explorer in the uses of time and space onstage. Transcending theatrical convention, he draws in other performance and graphic arts, which coalesce into an integrated tapestry of sound and images." Even the mainstream theatre would not be the same without him.
1941 Born in Waco, Texas. Wilson overcomes a childhood speech disability in his teens with the help of dancer, Byrd Hoffman.
1959 Studies business administration at the University of Texas, Austin.
1963 Moves to New York to study architecture at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.
1964 Studies painting under George McNeill at the American Center, Paris.
1965 Choreographs dance event at New York World’s Fair.
1966 Spends several months in Phoenix, Arizona with architect Paolo Soleri.
1968 Founds The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds as an experimental workshop on Spring Street in New York’s SoHo. Adopts Raymond Andrews.
1969 Premieres of The King of Spain at the Anderson Theater, New York and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
1970 Unveils Deafman Glance, a collaboration with Raymond Andrews, in Iowa City. It then tours all over the world.
1972 KA MOUNTAIN and GUArdenia Terrace performed in Iran.
1973 The Life and Times of Josef Stalin premieres in New York.
1976 Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with Philip Glass, performed at the Festival d’Avignon. First one-man show of Einstein drawings in New York.
1979 Death Destruction & Detroit opens in Berlin.
1982 Begins a long-lasting collaboraton with Jessye Norman with Paris production of Great Day in the Morning.
1983 First performance of part of CIVIL warS in Rotterdam, followed by Cologne, Rome and Minneapolis with exhibitions in New York and Chicago.
1986 Hamletmachine, a collaboration with Heiner Müller, opens in Hamburg.
1989 Inaugural gala for opening of Opéra de Bastille, Paris.
1991 Wilson’s productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute performed in Paris (followed by Puccini’s Madame Butterfly) and Wagner’s Parsifal in Hamburg.
1993 Wins Golden Lion prize at Venice Biennale for sculptural installation. Alice in Bed, a collaboration with Susan Sontag, performed in Berlin.
1995 HAMLET, a monologue, devised and performed by Wilson, opens in Houston and begins a world tour.
1998 Monsters of Grace, another work with Philip Glass, premieres in Los Angeles.
2000 POEtry, a collaboration with musician Lou Reed, opens in Hamburg. Wilson is invited to join the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
2001 Designs installations for Giorgio Armani at the Guggenheim Museum, New York and for Isamu Noguchi: Scultpural Design at Design Museum.