PARIS — I was lucky enough, and I am old enough, to have been in the audience of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach in 1976 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and then again at The Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984. What was — and is — magnificent about the avant-garde formalist minimalism of Einstein on the Beach (and almost all of Robert Wilson’s following theater work) is the radical transcendent affect that is experienced through his divulging the precise fundamental essence of things by eliminating all non-essential forms and features — and coupling them with very slow movement and a tremendously rendered scale of time and/or space. Thus with Wilson we can be transported out of time.
Indeed, I am a great admirer of Wilson’s lucid style (even as I do not imitate it). I have seen Wilson speak on his work as director and designer in 2010 at the Centre Pompidou, where he explained and demonstrated the power of his austere style.
Accordingly, I sensibly started to experience Wilson’s multiple installation Living Rooms at the Louvre with the Salle de la Chapelle. It contained his essential core; what he transported to the museum from his living and working space at the Watermill Center, where he also stores his remarkable personal art collection and archive. There I encounter the simple good taste and direct ease and charm of Wilson himself. The vast salle was stocked full of small pleasures and tender moments.
The work collected here is very heterogeneous (albeit reminiscent of the fantastic Surrealist collection of André Breton), containing statuettes, ethnic masks, art by Paul Thek, many fascinating portrait photographs including those of Gertrude Stein and Albert Einstein, musical scores, drawings, artwork from Oceania, ancient Chinese ceramics, a pair of Rudolf Nureyev’s slippers, a George Balanchine slipper, a pair of shoes belonging to Marlene Dietrich, handsome chairs from all periods, and other things he has found — all mostly beautifully displayed. I say mostly, because it unnerved me some that he chose to install most of the small works on paper — obviously in need of eye-level intimacy — way, way up high, just under the ceiling. Such cavalier disregard for the content of that material did indeed trouble and frustrate me some, and I wondered about this in connection to his reputation as a perfectionist.
Wilson had designed the exhibition layout to reflect his daily surroundings and the way the objects constantly inspire him. The bed was huge and inviting (set off by a touching row of minute Eskimo statuettes at the head and at the foot by a non-functioning video screen for Video Portrait of Lady Gaga: Flying, (Making off) where Stefani Germanotta a.k.a. Lady Gaga usually twirls suspended in bondage). But I let that glitch also slide and dove into the rest of this fascinating kitty, seamlessly installed against a soothing gray background. It was very enjoyable to see, recall, and think about afterwards.
I cannot say the same for what followed: the Video Portraits of Lady Gaga that are presented in two other locations in the Louvre (also on view/sale at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in the Marais). As he states in the literature for his Ropac show, Bob took inspiration for this video work from the Renaissance painting of Andrea Solario (1460–1524) “The Head of John the Baptist on a Charger” (1507), from the Neoclassic painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) “The Death of Marat” (1793), and that of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), “Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière” (1793–1807).
The slow motion looped videos present Ms. Germanotta standing in for the figures in the paintings. The videos are ever so slightly animated by tiny blinks and other small movements, such as a bird flying through the scene. They are not bad as works typical of Robert Wilson (if a bit overly evocative of Bill Viola’s video-paintings, such as “The Quintet of the Astonished“ (2000)), yet we are very strongly presented with these works as “Portraits of Lady Gaga.” They are not that. Such non-essential fumiste incoherence is not to be expected of the lucid Bob Wilson. His uncompromising rigorous minimalism here has apparently, and most sadly, yielded to the BS/PR management typical of big money culture. It pains me to have to say it. But I must: these are portraits of the figures in the paintings, of Mademoiselle Rivière principally — as her video projection was the most dominant — ringed with 14 smaller John the Baptist works.
For this gallery, Wilson used of the sounds of sustained droning organ tones (a track scored by Michael Galasso for Wilson’s Dream Play reminiscent of the music of Charlemagne Palestine’s Music for Carillon). Those sustained tones set the emotional tone of deep solemnity suggestive of the eternal (even if only of the Theatre of Eternal Music of La Monte Young). This posed a problem, as the solemn tone established a mood of classical seriousness that in no way matches the intentionally timely, and thus ephemeral, qualities of Germanotta’s pop persona, where the bubble is expected to float up up up – and then pop. It thus seemed to me to be a move from art to arty, for Wilson.
This was only reinforced when I re-reconsider Pop Life: Art in a Material World, a show that was held a few years back at Tate Modern. The accustomed platitudes of the corporate logo model for art (shiny and immediate) were supposedly submitted to a “re-reading” there. But absent any juxtaposition that might have allowed for a re-reading, the exhibition read more as a celebration of neo-pop. Lamely cute in referencing Madonna’s 80s pop chart hit Material Girl, the subtitle Art in a Material World would more precisely have been ARTPOP — as the focus there was on artists that advanced their art careers by playing to the mass media, hence corporate structure.
Previously, Wilson’s classical minimalism has been aligned with the solid clean existence of light, space, sparseness of texture, and formal coherence. These video portraits, however, seem wholly about the missing, the absent, the someplace else: as they are constructed through a sequence of pointing procedures. The videos point us in the direction of the inspirational paintings they interpret, even as the figure in the portrait points us at the shtick of a young meteoric singer/songwriter who points us toward her latest release ARTPOP (a well-mannered pop record full of camp, silly, witty stuff — but no art, as nothing is happening with the form) and finally to the checkout booth. One ponders: is Wilson still interested in moving us by isolating essences? I assume so, but one can no longer know just by looking at these videos.
Indeed, why are we greeted at the primary gallery of Wilson’s portraits with the huge overhead sign announcing: Lady Gaga Portraits? These are not portraits of Stefani Germanotta (even posing as the flamboyantly outré Lady Gaga). Nothing is revealed of her (or her act) in the pose she holds. She merely impersonates the subjects of classical paintings. Does Wilson really need the media attention Ms. Germanotta brings as a famous person in order for people to look at his art? No, and so the work seems more of a portrait of the corrupting effect of fame than a celebration of Ms. Germanotta, as she in no way is essential to the work. Any female model would have done equally well, and an anonymous model would done better, as she would not have distracted us from the works that are pointing us back at the original canvases and the artists that painted them. Anonymity would have opened the work up to a greater freedom of thought.
Here the cult of the celebrity has soured the work and drastically limited it in scope as a vehicle of self-transcendence. Thus with Video Portraits of Lady Gaga Wilson’s work has become less powerful, less concentrated on the essentials of art, less intimate — while not being particularly amusing. The annoying celebrity add-on is dreadful for the desired emptiness of Wilson’s attractive and intelligent art, and his work does not bode well for art in the classical tradition of high minimalism. Adieu la glorie de l’Amérique.
The most winning video for me was his “Video Portrait of Lady Gaga as Marat” from “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David, but it had problems too. I liked that it was installed in the same gallery where the Neoclassical paintings are hung, even though Ingres’s fabulous “La Grande Odalisque” (1814) quickly distracted me from it. But the subtle shifting of the light in the video created a lovely effect, slowly revealing the pert left breast of Ms. Germanotta, thus shifting the dead revolutionary hero into a heroine.
The problem here was I could only faintly make out a soundtrack. The sound was all but inaudible, even in only a moderately filled gallery on a Wednesday afternoon. Only by sticking my head next to the back of the monitor, thus no longer seeing the image, was I faintly able to hear what sounded like Ms. Germanotta chanting, just what I could not make out (subsequently I was told it was Gaga reciting a text by the Marquis De Sade with a track scored by Michael Galasso). Anyway, it did not seem the best presentation of the most engaging piece by the famed perfectionist.
As I have come to know: success usually spoils the artist – and sometimes the art. This is conveniently demonstrated at the neighboring Mona Lisa, a wonderful painting now obscured behind thick glass and crowded out from view by throngs of bystanders. The experience of relishing its delicately painted surface has been removed, and thus the art itself, one could say, has been vandalized by fame. Instead we are caught up in a profitable (for them) web of methodical manipulation that exploits our attention based on vulgar mythologizing fame.
Before, with Wilson, we were transported out of time. But with a central pop star here we are pushed into the now, and his work suffers as a result. It felt like the killing off of anything magical in his art, the end of his radically transcendent affect.
Of course, the not-so-tongue-in-cheek Fame Monster pop star is an impostor of the singular artist, bolstered by both the named 17 member Haus of Gaga gang (per the liner notes for the album ARTPOP) and untold unnamed numbers of invisible promotional and sales teams. In this sense Germanotta, and all pop personalities, are fumisterie (someone who blows pretentious smoke). This French term is precise when applied to celebrity personalities — and celebrities must not be confused with singular, lucidly defined, individual artists such as Wilson. Wilson chose the title Living Rooms for his exhibition at the Louvre, because it is a transposition to the museum of personal things that mark his individuality as a minimalist theatre director. Here he presents himself in first person singular.
A corporate-based celebrity, as noted above, is an easily recognized person of theatricality, one who has a prominent profile and commands some degree of public fascination and influence in the popular media, but is not a first person singular creative being. The blurred union of the two here has never before been associated with Wilson. Yet it cannot but call to mind Michael Fried’s critique of the theatricality of minimalist art in Art and Objecthood, where Fried argues that whenever a self-consciousness of viewing exists, absorption is compromised, and theatricality results – and that the survival of art lies precisely in its ability to “defeat theater” because art “degenerates” when it approaches theater. That is the situation I found here, one suggesting that celeb-theatricality is threatening art-as-art while blatantly trying to use it to bolster its credibility and stature. So Video Portraits of Lady Gaga is unhelpful in developing a shift towards an anti-pop/no-logo effort indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption.
Happily, Wilson will be staging another production of Einstein on the Beach this January (2014) at the Théâtre du Châtelet, which I intend to attend.
Robert Wilson’s Living Rooms continues through February 17, 2014 at the Louvre (75001, Paris).
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