The Watermill Center's Founding Father
by r. couri hay
The Watermill Center
As Robert Wilson travels around the world, directing and creating avant-garde theater, opera, and art, he is constantly surrounded by friends, devotees, and patrons. This dedicated flock is even more evident when Wilson is in residence at his beloved Watermill Center, where for the past 20 summers he has welcomed more than 2,500 artists, hosting talents from more than 25 countries per year who live, work, and study with him at the Center, a think tank in Water Mill for the arts and humanities.
This Saturday, the Center will once again host its thought-provoking annual gala, which has raised approximately $1.5 million per year for the last 19 years. In addition to innovative performance art that will appear throughout the Center’s grounds, this year’s gala, dubbed The Big Bang, will include site-specific installations from 12 emerging artists as well as a tribute exhibition of work from the late Mike Kelley. “He was a great artist, and we want to remember him,” says Wilson, who is dedicating the Watermill Center’s entire South Wing to the exhibition. “I am the executor of the Paul Thek estate, and Paul was a major influence on Mike’s work. We have this close connection, so we will also be showing works of Paul Thek.”
Much of the festivities will take place within The Watermill Center’s eight acres filled with indigenous plants and flowers. “I always love to garden; it keeps me healthy, and I like the physical exercise,” says Wilson. “I chose for the Center to be out of the city, to be in a more natural environment. The first garden is woodland, the second is a formal garden of grasses, and there’s a garden of flowers for cutting. I also collect rocks from all over the world. I have a ring of stones that dates back to 3500 BC; it’s a little like Stonehenge. I like to listen to the sounds of nature, and I love the change of seasons. I think gardens affect the spiritual nature of men.”
Over the years, Wilson, who as a child struggled with a speech disability, has collaborated with a who’s who of the art, design, music, entertainment, and literary worlds, including William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom Wilson displayed pierced with arrows à la St. Sebastian for a video installation. “He is known as a dancer, but in my portraits, he was asked to be still for a long duration of time,” says Wilson of the project. “I was curious to see his intelligence and awareness.”
Born in Waco, Texas, Wilson studied at the University of Texas at Austin and Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where he focused on architecture and design. His work has been presented at the Metropolitan Opera House, La Scala, the Bolshoi Theater, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Tribeca Film Festival, to name but a few. In 1986, he was the only nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for The Civil Wars.
This fall, Wilson’s masterpiece Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with composer Philip Glass, will appear for eight performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; projects are also scheduled over the next three years in Brazil. “I will first show Lulu with music by Lou Reed; next The Threepenny Opera, by the Berliner Ensemble; and then Verdi’s Macbeth,” says Wilson. “In 2014, a creation of a large-scale theater and music work will be developed with Brazilian writers and composers. This will be accompanied by an exhibition of performance art and site-specific installations.”
Throughout his expansive career Wilson’s work has crossed almost all media, but the artist himself has a much broader view of art. “We think of art as just stuff we put on walls, but that’s not true,” he says. “We have enough stuff on our walls. Look out the window or take a walk in the park; art is everywhere.”
photography by Peter Bellamy (wilson); LOVIS DENGLER OSTENRIK (GARDEN, THE WATERMILL CENTER); JAKE SCHLICHTING (CONGRUENCE, DON QUIXOTE)