[The Art Issue]
The Subject as Star
By Bob Colacello
Photographed by Pavel Antonov
Brad Pitt has done it. So have Sean Penn, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Winona Ryder. For them it was gratis, but now, for a modest $150,000, any contemporary-art lover can sit for a life-size video portrait (with soundtrack) by Robert Wilson, king of the avant-garde, multi-media performance event.
Attention, all self-adoring major contemporary-art collectors! Get out your checkbooks and American Express black cards! Or call that Swiss bank and order an instant wire transfer! Robert Wilson, the king of extravagantly avant-garde stage events that mix so many media nobody knows what to call them—theater? opera? performance art?—is going into the commissioned-portrait business. Yes, the high priest of high culture is taking a page out of Andy Warhol’s business-art philosophy—and, one might add, following in the footsteps of a small horde of younger masters who also accept commissions, such as Julian “Broken Plates” Schnabel, Francesco “Platter Eyes” Clemente, Eric “Heavy Brushwork” Fischl, and Chuck “A Little Dab’ll Do You” Close—and is lining up private clients for life-size, high-definition-video renditions of themselves at $150,000 each, which is peanuts in today’s through-the-roof art market. The price includes a soundtrack by one of several composers, among them Marianne Faithfull, Bernard Herrmann, and Michael Galasso, who has collaborated with Wilson on theater projects since the 1970s.
Wilson has already been commissioned by German princess Ingeborg von Schleswig-Holstein, who had him do her 11-year-old son. “I put a fox head on him,” Wilson says, “this little prince standing there all dressed up in his Giorgio Armani suit.” Paris grande dame Jacqueline de Ribes has also asked for a portrait. In January, Paula Cooper Gallery, Phillips de Pury & Company, and Nathan A. Bernstein & Company, all in New York, will mount simultaneous exhibitions of 30 different video portraits of movie stars and other cultural figures—each of whom was given one in exchange for allowing Wilson to sell another two. The subjects include Sean Penn, Willem Dafoe, Robert Downey Jr., Isabella Rossellini, Alan Cumming, and Brad Pitt (caught in the rain in his boxer shorts). Paula Cooper will also show 12 variations of Wilson’s video portrait A Snow Owl.
“I got started on these portraits thinking of Andy’s commissioned work,” Wilson says, “as well as those of classical portraitists like John Singer Sargent.” But whereas Warhol’s working motto was “Fast, easy, cheap, and modern,” Wilson’s approach is slow, difficult, expensive, and replete with historical references, as one might expect from a man whose works have titles such as A Letter for Queen Victoria and The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, have had casts of hundreds, and have run as long as seven days. He posed ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov as Saint Sebastian, French actress Jeanne Moreau as Mary Queen of Scots (“There’s this sense of power going on,” says Wilson), and Princess Caroline of Monaco as Sargent’s Madame X, but from the back, in homage to her mother’s starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Wilson loosely based Winona Ryder’s portrait on the character Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, burying her up to her shoulders in a pile of sand, on which sit a gun, a toothbrush, and a bright-red handbag. Steve Buscemi’s portrait—which has the actor, famous for his creepy roles, standing behind the carcass of a cow—seems to channel Salvador Dalí via Damien Hirst.
Each portrait takes nearly a full day to shoot and is an elaborate undertaking, requiring a cameraman, sound technician, costume designer, hairdresser, and makeup artist. As with his theater productions, Wilson designs the set and lighting himself. The portraits are shot both in horizontal format for viewing on television or on movie screens and in vertical orientation for H.D. plasma flat-screen monitors. The subjects are directed by Wilson to “think of nothing,” and he limits their movement to one or two gestures, in very slow motion. Each video is anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes long, but they are looped, so there is no discernible beginning or end to the finished work. This seamless image is achieved through a custom-designed computer playback system integrated into the flat screen itself. Wilson estimates the cost to produce each portrait at around $40,000. “I did one of Farah Diba in Paris,” he says, referring to the former Empress of Iran. “It’s the most amazing thing—she’s all sort of shimmering. I put her in front of a glass table with light coming from below. I put a lot of bracelets on her arms, and shiny glass balls on the table. And she brings her arm to her face and then brings it down. She broke into tears when she saw it. She said, ‘All my life is right there.‘ Isn’t that the best—’All my life is right there.'”
Wilson started working in video in the mid-70s, influenced by Warhol’s Screen Tests, a series of three-minute films done 10 years earlier. “I did a piece called Video 50, which was 100 episodes, each 30 seconds long. Among the episodes, I did portraits of Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet; Hélène Rochas, the great beauty of Paris; and Michel Guy, the French minister of culture at the time. I had the idea with Video 50 that we could put it on the back of airplane seats, so you’d have these images and you could play pop music or Bach or whatever you wanted. Can you imagine—in the 70s? I also wanted to put it on wristwatches. I wanted to put it on clocks in the street. I went to Lufthansa to see if they would put it on their planes. Nothing happened. A few years later I was in Japan with Susan Sontag, and I met Mr. [Akio] Morita, the head of Sony, and an adviser who had come up with the company’s name—from sonus, the Latin for ‘sound.’ I was hoping to get backing from Sony for my CIVIL warS project. So I had a drink with Morita, and he said, ‘Would you like to see the Sony plant?’ I already had this idea of video portraits that would be life-size and that would break the screen, that would be vertical—not horizontal—like a Sargent painting. So we went to the Sony plant at nine at night, and everyone was working. I said, ‘What is this—Communism? Capitalism?’ He said, ‘A little bit of both.’ I made a portrait of Morita standing on a staircase, and I took a monitor and set it sideways so that the portrait would be vertical. He had it for years in his office, with the TV set on its side.”
In the early 1990s, the fashion designer Agnès B. asked Wilson to do a video portrait of Patrice Chéreau, the French actor and director, which she later exhibited on a large flat-screen monitor mounted vertically in the window of her Left Bank boutique. Wilson’s portrait work drew the attention of Voom HD Networks, a newly founded TV company specializing in high-definition entertainment, which was able to provide the technology Wilson needed to execute his idea. Voom HD named Wilson its artist-in-residence, has financed all of the movie-star portraits—Wilson recently added Sharon Stone to the roster—and will televise them in conjunction with his gallery shows in January.
It has been a good year for Wilson, a homecoming of sorts for the once tongue-tied Baptist boy from Waco, Texas, who for three decades has been the toast of Europe. In October he celebrated his 65th birthday at a Guggenheim Museum dinner hosted by museum director Lisa Dennison, HBO executive Sheila Nevins, artist Jeff Koons, and Philip Glass, the composer with whom he created Einstein on the Beach, the epic 1976 opera, which will surely stand as his defining work. Last summer Watermill Center, his “think tank for the arts and humanities,” near Southampton, New York, was finally completed after 14 years of fund-raising and construction. The opening-night gala benefit attracted more than 1,000 East End culturati, including art heiress Lisa de Kooning, painter Ross Bleckner, designer Donna Karan, and sculptor Elizabeth Strong-Cuevas. A major HBO/New Yorker Film documentary and accompanying biography by Katharina Otto-Bernstein, both titled Absolute Wilson and out this fall, should go a long way toward making him as appreciated in his native land as he is abroad.
That is not to say Wilson’s popularity is waning in Europe. His latest conquest: post-Communist Russia, where he has been asked to create a one-night-only spectacle to be performed next summer in Moscow’s Red Square, in the presence of President Vladimir Putin. The evening is meant to “commemorate the victims of totalitarian repression—particularly the millions of people killed in Russia in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—but also to transcend memories of the past and convey hope,” according to Wilson’s chief aide, Charles Fabius. Although the project is still in the gestation phase, Wilson outlined its basic elements for me. There will be thousands of illuminated portraits of Russians who perished in the Stalin era; 16 long, boxlike stages, each with a different performance unfolding simultaneously (“very slowly, almost like still life,” Wilson says); a room at either end of the square in which 500 videos made by Russian children will be projected onto the floor; and an a cappella chorus of 250, drawn from choirs all over Russia, singing a piece called “Apocalypse,” which Vladimir Martinov composed and which is based on Russian church music. Noting that there will be more than 40,000 spectators in the square, Wilson says, “I’ve also got to design a big space where Putin is totally protected.”
Wilson’s politics have always been deeply submerged in his work. While it often displays a fascination with royalty and absolute power, there is also tremendous sympathy for oppressed individuals—two of his earliest and most important collaborators were a deaf-mute African-American boy and an autistic poet. Indeed, one of the reasons the Russians may have chosen Wilson is that his style is essentially abstract. Wilson, who sees himself as a defender of human rights, has met with both the Russian president and the producers of the monumental, politically charged event, and he seems to take the project’s inherent ambiguity in stride. “It’s interesting that Putin wants to do this,” Wilson says. “To erase that memory of Stalinism, cleanse it, justify it—all those things.”
When I spoke to Wilson in October, he was in Paris staying in the apartment of one of the de Menils, the clan of oil-equipment heirs who have supported his work since the beginning. He had been there for several weeks, directing Quartett, Heiner Müller’s play inspired by Les Liaisons Dangereuses, at the Odéon Theater. It is uncharacteristically short for a Wilson production, at one hour and 40 minutes, and stars Isabelle Huppert, a favorite of his. In fact, she has had the honor of sitting twice for his video camera—both times as Greta Garbo.