“I made portraits of Lady Gaga from classical paintings in the Louvre’s collection. Her interior sense became her exterior expression.”
I arrive in the Watermill Center. Bob Wilson is expecting me in his industrial reconverted building where he lives, where he has his offices, where there is a permanent display of works of art, for instance a fantastic collection of chairs from all over the world. Bob is ready for the interview and sips iced tea, dressed in a black T-shirt and black trousers. Sometimes the interview is interrupted, first by a theater impresario from New Jersey who comes to talk to him and introduce his family, and then we go downstairs to the dining hall where there are students and their teachers, who are working and performing at the Center this summer. The atmosphere is very tranquil and happy all around.
We are at the Watermill Center and you are the founder and the artistic director. Can you describe it?
It is a laboratory for experimentation. There are over 5000 pieces in our art collection, some go back as far as 5000 BC. When André Malraux was the Minister of Culture of France, he said that we must retain a balance of interest in protecting the art of the past and the art of our time. We must balance the art of our nation and the art of all nations. We have here in our Center this summer the work of 140 people from 28 different nations. People can live with some awareness of what we did in the past. One of the few things that remains in time is what artists do. Artists for me are the writers and diarists of our time, and if we do not support them, then we do not have them.
You are a typical example of a Renaissance artist, as you are multi-talented and also an architect yourself. Though you have created this Center, was it also with the help of the people who work here?
Yes, I did it along with the participants. We designed the building, the gardens and the landscaping. All my work is studied here, but we also support other artists. Diversity is our strength.
Bob Wilson, you are mainly very well known as a theater artist. Eugène Ionesco said that, “Wilson has gone further than Beckett.”
Yes. I made a play in 1971 that was performed in seven uninterrupted hours of silence. I played it for five and a half months to 2200 people every night. It was called DEAFMAN GLANCE.
Are you known for language, movement and lighting?
Lighting is one of my signatures. Einstein said, “Light is the measure of all things.” Without light there is no space. I admire very much the work of the architect Louis Kahn, because he always started with light. It was the beginning of his concept.
You have worked with very famous artists and writers. Did your first breakthrough come with Philip Glass and EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH?
Phillip and I were friends, and I knew his music. In the early 70s I made a twelve hour play, from 7 in the evening to 7 in the morning. He came to see it, and afterwards we had breakfast. I asked him, “How do you write music?” and when he explained it to me I understood that we think alike. We have a common sense of time.
I have been fortunate to work with many contemporary musicians and composers. For instance, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Gavin Bryars, Jessye Norman, Helmut Lachenman, Luigi Nono, Herbert Gronemeyer, and recently, Rufus Wainwright who did the music for THE SONNETS OF SHAKESPEARE, Arvo Part, who scored ADAM’S PASSION, and CocoRosie, who I worked with on PETER PAN and PUSHKIN’S FAIRY TALES.
Is music your passion?
I have also worked with writers, for instance Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, Darryl Pinckney, and many others.
Was it difficult to work with William Burroughs?
It was great, between smoking dope and drinking coca cola vodka. Really great.
Were you discovered by the French poet Louis Aragon at the Nancy Festival in 1971?
Yes, when Jack Lang directed the Festival of Nancy, he invited me to give two performances of my 7 hour silent opera, DEAFMAN GLANCE. Aragon came to see it and wrote a letter to André Breton, who had died some years before. He said, “Dear André, I have seen the most beautiful thing of my life. This is what we had hoped the future would be.” Pierre Cardin was also there, and he produced the work in Paris.
You are also painter, a man of culture and a furniture designer, and you have Paula Cooper as your gallerist and dealer?
In 1965 I was living on Spring Street, long before SoHo became what it is today, and Paula moved nearby. She always believed in me. I was the black sheep. My work did not quite fit with what was happening at the time and hasn’t since, but Paula always supported me.
Were you friends with other artists?
Yes. Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Jack Smith, Gordon Matta Clark, Lucinda Childs, Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Paul Thek, and many others. For my first play in Paris Andy Warhol gave me five large unsigned drawings. I asked Andy if he would sign them, and he said he would only if they went to a good collection. Dominique de Menil bought them for $45,000; it was a lot of money for Andy’s drawings at that time. I asked her if I could buy them back if I ever had $45,000.
Dominique was an amazing woman. I was with her when she was invited by President Carter to the White House; she made such a moving speech that Carter was in tears.
Do you consider yourself an American artist?
Yes, I am an American from Texas. But going back to Dominique, she was a big inspiration for me. I loved what she said when the Menil Foundation opened, “I want people to come to my museum and lose their heads. We have to do what no one else is doing.”
That is very much you?
Yes, that’s what I try to do. I grew up in Texas in a racist community. Houston was also racist and conservative, and Dominique was courageous, and a strong spokeswoman. She helped elect the first black senator from Texas. She also invited Nelson Mandela to speak when he was released from prison. Her collection is a kind of history of man. I lived in Dominique’s house in New York for some months. It was just the two of us. It was a great education. She supported my first play when it went to Paris, and took me to the Louvre for the first time. We were walking in a long corridor and I said, “Don’t you think these paintings are boring?” and she said, “Yes, but they are necessary because at the end of the corridor you will see a masterpiece.” It was La Giaconda.
What about your relationship with Marina Abramović?
In 1971 I was at a press conference in Belgrade, and Marina was in the audience. Someone asked me a question and I answered with the word, “Dinosaur.” Another question was asked and again I said, “Dinosaur.” A woman started to shout after I repeatedly said the word, “Dinosaur.” It went on for hours, and I kept saying “Dinosaur.” The audience grew unsettled, but Marina said, “Let him speak.” We met afterwards and she asked me to work with her. We never did.
At the end of the 60s at the Whitney Museum of American Art there was an exhibition of work from the last decade called “Art Against Illusion.” My work up until that time had been seen in alleys, loft spaces, and museums, and was anti-illusionistic. Seeing this exhibition I began to think, what is wrong with illusion? I started working in traditional proscenium theaters. As time went on, I became more and more interested in the illusion that is created in theaters, by light, make up, and what is hidden behind the frame.
In 1993 I won the Golden Lion for sculpture at the Venice Biennale. The room was lit as if in another world. Years later Marina asked me to perform with her at the Biennale. I declined, saying I would never sit in a hot basement with her and all the smelly raw meat. Our works could not have been more different.
Eight years ago, she called me and said, “I have to see you.” I met her and she asked if I would design her funeral. She had also asked me to make an opera about her life. For her funeral, she wanted three bodies to be buried on the same day, one in Belgrade where she was born, one in Amsterdam where she lived for many years, and one in New York where she currently resides. No one was to know where the real Marina is. I agreed to make an opera about her life, and to start with her funeral. She said, “Great, now I can see what it will be like.”
And what about Lady Gaga?
Three years ago I was in New York for a few days and I was extremely busy. I was in the office, and someone told me that Lady Gaga was on the phone. I spoke to her and she asked if we could meet. I said yes, what about tomorrow about 2 o’clock. She said yes, and the next day she came with her bodyguards. We talked for about two hours and decided we would do a work together, and exchanged cell phone numbers.
A few weeks later I was in Europe and she called. She said, “Bob, I am Gaga. Tell me something about theater.” I told her the Broadway formula is to start strong and end big. She thanked me, and said that was all she needed to know. Several weeks later she called again. She said, “Hi Bob, tell me something more about theater.” I said the last second is the most important, and next is the first. She thanked me.
Later she asked me if I would help her with her performance for the Video Music Awards on MTV. As I was busy with work in Europe, I really didn’t have so much time. I told her I would help her with the light and some of the scenic elements. She had a great idea, to start in the middle of the audience with 4 drones in her dress that would lift her up and fly her to the stage in 20 seconds or so. She had been studying the design for months. Later we were told that we were not allowed to do it. She accepted without any argument and moved on.
I came to New York a couple days before the broadcast and saw a run through. She had the idea to start with a close up of her face with a wide white collar. The camera would pull back and reveal her in a white robe. I watched a rehearsal. In two and a half minutes, she managed to change her clothes, shoes, makeup, and hair five times. At the end, the last second, she was nude except for clamshells on her tits and private parts. She is really amazing. She asked me later how she did. I told her she learns fast. Henri Loyrette, the director of the Louvre, had asked me to do an exhibition, and I asked Gaga to be in it. I made portraits of her from classical paintings from the museum’s collection. Again, she was truly amazing. She stood or sat for hours with little or no movement. Her interior sense became her exterior expression. There was no change of clothes, no change of makeup, only a deep, inner concentration. It was very touching. Gaga and I are still friends, and together we did a work called “Cheek to Cheek” with Tony Bennett. He told me, “I have worked with Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand, but Gaga’s voice is the best.”
What are your next moves?
Next I will be directing Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA at the Landestheater in Linz. Also in development is a production of Puccini’s TURANDOT, a radio play called THE TOWER OF BABEL, a performance of the Norse epic, the EDDA, and an opera about the life of Nicolai Tesla which I am working on with Jim Jarmusch and Tilda Swinton.
I am sorry but now I must stop, because I must prepare a wedding of my friend Christopher Knowles. He is a genius, and he and I have worked together since he was very young. He sees the world geometrically and mathematically. He changed my life.
I enjoyed talking to you, but I must go as I am an hour late.
The Watermill Center, Water Mill, New York.
August 14th, 2015
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