Philip Glass and Robert Wilson during rehearsals of "Einstein on the Beach"

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson during rehearsals of “Einstein on the Beach” in Avignon, France, 1976 (photo courtesy Philippe Gras, all images courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)

Of all the celebrations honoring Philip Glass on his 75th birthday, the exhibition Robert Wilson/Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach at the Morgan Library & Museum is probably the most modest, but it is one of the most magical. It is also arguably the most in keeping with the stripped-down aesthetic that gave birth to Glass’ musical minimalism and Wilson’s experiments in durational theater.

The show, which is installed in a small, squarish room opposite the lobby elevators, is comprised of exactly three elements: on the left, a row of Wilson’s storyboards laying out a progression of scenes, each page holding a grid of nine small images; on the right, Glass’ autograph score displayed in three long rows; in the center, video clips of the opera’s New York rehearsal as well as its premiere performances in Paris and Brussels, which took place in 1976.

The entire room is bathed in blue light, with the drawings and the score spotlighted horizontally to stunning effect. It’s the kind of spare, formally elegant gesture that set that period of cultural history apart, and what makes it seem both so alien and so rich to us today.

Philip Glass, Act 3, Scene 1 from autograph manuscript, "Einstein on the Beach"

Philip Glass, Act 3, Scene 1 from autograph manuscript, “Einstein on the Beach” (1976). Collection of Paul Walter, on deposit at the Morgan Library & Museum. (click to enlarge, photo by Anthony Troncale)

Thanks to his overly prolific production of arpeggiated concert music, operas and movie scores, it’s hard for anyone who knows Glass only in retrospect to understand how emphatically new his music, and that of his minimalist counterpart and rival, Steve Reich, sounded when it first appeared.

At the time, John Cage aside, avant-garde music was equated with academicism and aridity — though this is an oversimplification debunked by, among other events, the recent celebrations of Eliot Carter’s centenary and Pierre Boulez’s 85th birthday.  Still, experimentation equaled complexity, and the simply arrayed building blocks of Glass’ and Riech’s compositions were a blast of gritty urban air.

The far more radical pieces that preceded Einstein, such as Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion (both 1969), and Music in Twelve Parts (1974), blaring at rock-concert decibel levels by Glass’ winds-and-keyboards ensemble, drilled into your ears and churned through your brain like jackhammers on a Sunday morning.

Einstein was something different, a syncretic and aggregate work: lush, lyrical, and fraught with longing, countervailing the weight of history with faith in as well as dread of the future.

What is wonderful about this show is just how humble the handcrafted origins of this work seem to be. Wilson’s drawings are rough little graphite depictions of blocky, elemental shapes in sharp contrasts of darkness and light. Glass’ notes run across the staves in woozy squiggles, as if enacting the lilting dance patterns of the repetitive melodies. The video clips confirm how brilliantly the work of these two artists, and that of choreographer Andy DeGroat, meshed in the first performances, conjuring an atmosphere of ecstatic, Shaker-like simplicity.

Philip Glass, Title page from autograph manuscript, "Einstein on the Beach"

Philip Glass, Title page from autograph manuscript, “Einstein on the Beach” (1976). Collection of Paul Walter, on deposit at the Morgan Library & Museum. (click to enlarge, photo by Anthony Troncale)

It was a crazy idea to consider making a five-hour opera out of minimalism’s bare-bones aesthetic, let alone go deep into hock to rent the Metropolitan Opera House for two nights, which the artists did in November of ’76 to present their work to New York audiences. They played with Promethean fire, and they won.

It’s common knowledge that Glass and Wilson were part of a vibrant downtown New York community that populated derelict strips of Soho and the East Village, and that their friends included, among other notables, the artists Chuck Close and Richard Serra as well as the dancer Lucinda Childs, who created the choreography for Einstein’s 1984 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Glass gave the first concerts with his ensemble to small audiences of fellow artists in Soho lofts. Although it is easy, and a mistake, to romanticize those hardscrabble days, the success of Einstein and of the creative class that emerged from the downtown ethos is a testament to the support network that grew up there.

It is also a mistake to think that there is anything comparable today, if only because history begets self-consciousness, and you can’t recreate a wide-open aesthetic frontier by jettisoning cultural baggage — as Glass, Wilson, Childs, Close, Serra et al. did — if said jettisoning now comes with its own cultural pedigree.

But no matter.  In last week’s issue of the The New York Times Book Review, the conservative scholar Fred Siegel reviewed Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, quoting Ehrenhalt at length on the topic of “’The young and hip’ [who] are drawn to Brooklyn’s grim Bushwick, with its decaying manufacturing sites and dilapidated housing, by low rents and people with similar tastes.” Ehrenhalt writes:

Art fairs in Bushwick … look for all the world like celebrations designed to shock conservative sensibilities, except that there is scarcely anyone with such sensibilities around to be shocked. These are in reality projects through which a small coterie of local artists seek to display their sheer edginess to one another.

Ehrenhalt’s mockery of the Bushwick scene ignores the history of artistic communities from the School of Paris on, in which “local artists” developed their work in isolation yet engaged with one another to help take it to the next step, with the outside world catching on years later.

Robert Wilson, “Einstein on the Beach” (1976). Storyboard drawings. Graphite on paper, 9 3/4 x 9 inches. Leaf 7 of 13. Collection of William Kistler. (© Robert Wilson, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, photo by EPW Studio)

Glass’ first minimalist works predated Einstein by a decade. If you were dropped into the middle of Soho in 1973 or ’74, you’d think that nothing much was going on. But then in ’76, as if out of the blue, along comes a work like Einstein on the Beach (or Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” in ’07 or Pollock’s “Full Fathom Five” in ’47) and nothing is ever the same again.

Robert Wilson/Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 4.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.