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Looking for Robert Wilson

“Drawing is a way to think”: at the moment, the New York-based artist and director Robert Wilson can be seen in Berlin in a musical production and two exhibition projects. In an interview Wilson explains what role drawing plays in the cosmopolite’s work.

Leonce and Lena, Berliner Ensemble, 2003


It follows that once again Robert Wilson has hooked up with another musical icon. This time, it’s Germany’s Herbert Grönemeyer. Throughout the evolution of Wilson collaborators and composers, there have been Philip Glass, whose Einstein on the Beach is now a distant link to the composer’s more commercial work, i.e. the score for the film The Hours; the rock star Lou Reed, turned Wilson collaborator for Poe-try; and of course, Tom Waits, a long-time comrade from the Black Rider and Alice as well as Woytek. The Grönemeyer collaboration brings us to Leonce and Lena, just opening in Berlin at the Berliner Ensemble. This is Wilson’s third Georg Büchner opera.


Leonce and Lena, Berliner Ensemble, 2003

Two earlier ones include Danton’s Death from 1992 and Woytek, done in 2000. Wilson seems to be present everywhere in Berlin: The opening of Leonce and Lena coincides with the exhibition of the Armani show he designed at the Neue Nationalgalerie, and a private gallery is currently showing his installation On a Clear Day You Can See Your Mother II.

The hunt for Robert Wilson can be carried on almost anywhere in the world: Paris, London, and so on. Back in New York, I meet the curator Liz Christensen in the lobby of Deutsche Bank. Her list of works by Robert Wilson in the bank’s collection is neatly catalogued. Soon we’re riding up and down elevators in midtown Manhattan, looking for the Wilson pieces.

At a glance, his drawings and lithographs appear like stage maps. Seen in the context of his sets, the works in New York, done for The King of Spain from 1969, A Letter for Queen Victoria from 1974, and Parsifal, 1985, are also fiercely autonomous.



Robert Wilson, Act III scene 1, from Alceste, 1986
Courtesy of Byrd Hoffman and Water Mill Foundation
Deutsche Bank Collection

As the art critic Robert Stearns noted: “A more conventional playwright begins with a written script. Wilson begins with drawings and diagrams.” On stage, Wilson’s work is both opera and theater. He sees “space as horizontal and time as vertical,” which may account for the constant presence of columns in his work. A way to remind the audience that history is constantly being clocked.

The drawings and lithographs are mostly black and white, although the drawing for Queen Victoria and The King of Spain are both done in blue ink, probably a fountain pen, which gives a clue to their urgency.

The drawings and lithographs are mostly black and white, although the drawing for Queen Victoria and The King of Spain are both done in blue ink, probably a fountain pen, which gives a clue to their urgency. Wilson’s drawings have been called “stage pictures.” While the architectural quality of his sub-divisions imply a one-to-one relationship to scale, in the end the drawings and lithographs are about actions. Eventually, characters will enter. A chair will be occupied or left isolated.


A Letter for Queen Victoria, 1971/1972
Deutsche Bank Collection
Courtesy of Byrd Hoffman and Water Mill Foundation

In Leonce and Lena, the public begins seeing the actors the moment they enter the theater. Soon the characters will be stationed between columns, an actor will be jumping up, and others will be silhouetted against an eerie landscape. While the breakdown in the drawings may recall the divisions in a Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, or even Piero della Francesca, Wilson’s sensibility is very much informed by his emergence in the 60s as part of the circle around Merce Cunningham, working against the tide of minimalism and reacting to Happenings and Living Theater. Wilson studied with the abstract expressionist George McNeil, and this profoundly informed his drawings, but perhaps even more so his life.

I talked with Wilson about George McNeil and the evolution of his work from drawing to theatre. Wilson admitted that his work was “baroque” and that it “didn’t quite fit in or that it still hasn’t fit in.” He casually concluded that his theater “doesn’t really quite work on Broadway, it doesn’t work at the Met, it doesn’t work at Lincoln Center.” As he told me: “I was making art with illusion. I had 19th-century techniques, but I was hiding all the ropes. I was also working in film, video, drawings, sculpture, and furniture. I mean, it was all mixed up. I was very much a product of the 60s. My theater was more formal. It was really about 19th-century behavior seen in the 20th century, but at the same time it was part of what was happening at that time.” After all is said, Wilson has spryly crossed into the 21st century, lugging the 1800s quietly along.




Parsival no. 10, 1985
Deutsche Bank Collection
Courtesy of Byrd Hoffman and Water Mill Foundation

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Cheryl Kaplan: Is the drawing the start of the theater process? It feels like there’s no separation between the drawings and what happens on and through the stage. Tell me about your studies with George McNeil. What did you learn from George McNeil and your time with him?

Robert Wilson: George McNeil was an extraordinary person. He talked about Martha Graham. He talked about Vladimir Horowitz. He talked about all kinds of things. He talked about music. He’d talk about how to listen. He’d talk about structure. He talked about decoration. He’d look at a painting you would do, but he’d talk about these other things. He was an abstract expressionist, but he was always looking at nature. That’s what inspired him. I think it was a deep root in my work. Sometimes I tell an actor: ‘Stand on the stage like a pine tree. Be noble.’ McNeil said the pine trees were so noble in the forest. So it was formal.
Where were you studying with him?

I studied with him in Paris. I studied painting, and then I came to New York and went to school at the Pratt Institute and studied with him and became his assistant. He had a sense that he was planting a seed or something in somebody young. I felt he was always on my side. I wasn’t a very good student. I was not a good painter, but it wasn’t important.

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