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The Avant-Guardian

Dubbed “America’s—or even the world’s—foremost theater artist” by The New York Times writer John Rockwell, Robert Wilson has enjoyed a storied career in the visual arts, excelling in choreography, performance, painting, sculpting, sound and lighting design and video. On July 26, Wilson, whose collaborators have included icons like Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg and Lady Gaga—and, most recently, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, in The Old Woman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—will host the One Thousand Nights and One Night: Sleepless Nights of Sheherazade gala at the Watermill Center (39 Watermill Towd Road,, the arts center he founded in 1992. Ross Bleckner sat down with Wilson to get the whole story.

Robert Wilson poses for photographer Jonathan Becker at his studio in Water Mill in 1999.

Ross Bleckner: You’re one of the few artists people call ‘avant-garde.’ What do you make of that?
Robert Wilson: All of my work, even if you don’t think of it that way, is classically concepted. The avant-garde for me is rediscovering the classics. I remember minimalist artist Donald Judd in the ’80s. At the time, I wrote a Village Voice article about his 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum—I said that 500 years from now, these will remain because they’re classic, like the pyramids.

That’s an important thing: what lasts.
And the only things that last are the classics. Look at choreographer George Balanchine. Last week in Paris I saw a Balanchine ballet from the ’40s; it’s timeless because it was practically concepted—like Mozart—but in the 20th century.

If you think about Einstein on the Beach, your collaboration with Philip Glass in the mid-’70s, the movement, the densities, the layering, the light—that’s what made it mesmerizing for me. You’re as theatrical as your work.
Those are my early works. Take The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, a 12-hour-long silent play that lasted from 7PM to 7AM, with seven acts. Act One related to Act Seven, Act Two related to Act Six, Act Three related to Act Five, and the center was the boy. It was a turning point in the center of a core play, like Shakespeare.

I imagine you put a contemporary spin onto classics, that you’re making it simple for your audience; but in fact your work is very complex because it’s so layered. You wrote your first silent plays with a deaf boy named Raymond Andrews. Tell us about that.
Raymond was a deaf-mute African-American boy who was institutionalized because they thought he was uneducable. In 1967, I went to court because he had no legal guardian, and I adopted him. I wrote my first plays in Morse code with him. They were all silent.

When I first went to France in 1971, Deafman Glance was intentionally seven hours of silence. Back then, the first public silent opera was the gateway to the perception of silences—the structure and the visual. It was again a classical structure, opera and dancing.

What’s going on at the Watermill Center this summer?
Between 80 and 100 artists from 26 nations will be there for the International Summer Program. We’re also doing an installation of the art of contemporary photographer and graffiti artist Dash Snow [who died of a drug overdose in 2009], along with works by artists who were friends of his or have been influenced by him. And we’re showcasing about 15 young emerging artists from all over the world.

They’ll work at the center?
Yes—we had about 700 applicants this year, and by committee narrowed it down to 60.

Amazing. I’ve seen the Center grow from the ground up. How many years has it been now?
Our first summer was 1992. Now we’re planning a new facility—I’ve been thinking about building a library. There are things you can replace, because they’re in computers—but what can’t you replace? Your intuition. So I want to build a library of inspiration.

That’s a wonderful idea. But, of course, everybody’s inspiration is subjective—which is what makes it wonderful.
That’s the idea. People have very different aesthetics. I hope the library will be here in the future, and that whatever’s happening, it can happen here. When French-American art collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil inaugurated her museum in Houston, she said she’d once been told that museums are places where you should lose your head. I like that.