Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson

The mentor

Published in 2003

Robert Wilson has achieved success in almost every conceivable artistic medium. Theatre and opera director, playwright, actor, sculptor, artist and designer, he is an innovator and iconoclast who leaves his distinctive mark on his diverse works. Says writer Susan Sontag of Wilson’s impressive output: “I can’t think of any body of work as large or as influential.”

The 62-year-old Texan was educated at the University of Texas and Brooklyn’s celebrated art school, the Pratt Institute. He subsequently took up painting under George McNeil in Paris and studied architecture with Paolo Solari in Arizona. Moving to new York in the mid-1960s, Wilson was influenced by such pioneering choreographers as George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham. He also drew upon the work of writer Gertrude Stein and, incongruously, comedian Jack Benny, to whom he attributes his sense of timing.

In 1968, Wilson founded the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, an experimental theatre company named after Byrd Hoffmann, a Texan dance instructor who helped cure him of a stammer when he was 17 and gave him encouragement. Wilson’s own mentoring skills were honed at this New York studio where he welcomed young artists for instruction and discussion. During this period, he also found time to teach disabled children. Among his protégés was a gifted deaf-mute, Raymond Andrews, whom he adopted. The two formed a symbolic relationship that spawned the “silent opera", Deafman Glance, in 1970 and other theatrical pieces.

Since then, Wilson, hailed as “a towering figure in the world of experimental theatre and an explorer in the uses of time and space onstage”, has utilized imaginative decor and unusual lighting effects to create unconventional, often surreal productions that juxtapose the unexpected and ignore time strictures.

Among Robert Wilson’s many internationally acclaimed works are The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969); the week-long play, KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenioa TERRACE (1972); and the landmark opera Einstein on the Beach(1976), which he created with composer Philip Glass. In 1986, Wilson was the sole nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his ambitious 1983 multi-national epic,The CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down.

Wilson’s numerous awards recognize his talents as both an avant-garde dramatist and fine artist whose limited-edition furniture and other art works are shown at museums and galleries worldwide. The prizes included an Obie Award for direction (1986), the Lion of the Performing Arts from the New York Public Library (1989), the Golden Lion for Sculpture from the Venice Biennale (1993), the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (1996), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement (2001) and the Commandeur des Arts et Lettres (2002). The recipient of two Rockefeller and two Guggenheim fellowships, Wilson was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000.

For the past decade, in addition to creating groundbreaking productions, Wilson has focused his attention on developing the Watermill Center, an international multidisciplinary laboratory for the arts located on Long Island. Here, in a creative workshop, young artists interact, living and working together under the guidance of established professionals.

Wilson defines his philosophy as follows: “Our responsibility as artists is to ask questions, that is to say WHAT IS IT and not WHAT IT IS for if we know what it is we are doing there is no need to do it.”