Robert Wilsonthe visionary stage director, playwright and artist—recounts how his fascination with the chair as art object began: “When I was eight years old, I went to visit my uncle in New Mexico. He lived as a recluse, very sparsely, with a mattress on the floor, a few Navajo blankets, American Indian pottery and a small, thin, wooden side chair. I told him, ‘That’s a beautiful chair.’ Two years later he sent it to me as a Christmas present. It was a very special gift because, growing up in Waco, Texas, I was accustomed to presents of red flannel shirts and cowboy boots.” As with many Wilson anecdotes, the tale’s ending has a wry twist. “Then, when I was 17, my cousin wrote our uncle and told him he wanted the chair. And so I had to send it back.”
This account not only reveals the underpinnings of Wilson’s passionate connoisseurship but also foreshadows the loss he would experience decades later when he was forced to leave his Manhattan home. Wilson, 66, moved to New York in his early 20s, spry, thin and filled with radical ideas about performance art, theater and dance. He made his name in 1971, when the Paris production of his play Deafman Glance was hailed by the French poet and novelist Louis Aragon as the future of Surrealist theater, and then cemented his position as America’s foremost avant-garde dramatist with 1976’s Einstein on the Beachcowritten with the composer Philip Glass and presented at the Festival d’Avignon, in France, and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Between these productions, Wilson settled into his 6,000-square-foot loft on Vestry Street, in Tribeca, in 1973.
Over the next three decades, he filled the space with some 3,000 objects: tribal art, sculpture and textiles; traditional Asian art; and contemporary glassware, drawings and photographs alongside paintings, prints and sculpture by the likes of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Richard Serra. At the collection’s core were dozens of chairs by such design-world luminaries as Charles Eames, Finn Juhl, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto and Philippe Starck.
In 2005, the prominent real estate developer (and art collector) Aby Rosen bought Wilson’s apartment building with the intention of turning it into a luxury condominium, forcing Wilson and his fellow tenants to leave. Although devastated, Wilson decided to use the move as an opportunity to pare down his holdings, prompting a 400-lot sale at Philips de Pury & Company in New York this past September. Among the nearly 50 chairs to hit the block were six designed by Wilson himself. His Bessie Smith Breakfast Chair, from the 1988 jazz opera Cosmopolitan Greetings, which he cocreated with the poet Allen Ginsberg and the Swiss composers George Gruntz and Rolf Liebermann, was the sweet surprise of the day: It went for $36,000, more than twice its low estimate of $15,000. Other top sellers included a vibrant, rainbow-hued armchair made in 2000 by the Italian designer Alessandro Mendini, which fetched $12,000 (est. $10–15,000), and a bleached-birch and painted-wood chair from an edition of 15 that Wilson designed for his 1988 theatrical production Parzival, which went for $14,400 (est. $15–20,000).
“To me, chairs have personalities. In ancient times, sculptures were made for the gods—this is my way of sculpting a personality in a chair,” says Wilson, who over his 40-year-long career has designed dozens of chairs, which he typically has produced in limited editions of between 5 and 10. “I’ve created a chair for just about every one of my performances.” He explains that these objects serve to further the narrative or call attention to the performers’ movements. For The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, his 1973 12-hour opera, Wilson draped two chairs in lead sheets, in an allusion to the harshness of the Soviet dictator’s rule. Fabricated in partnership with New York’s Marian Goodman Gallery, the prototype is now in the collection of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, in Wilson’s home state.
Today the bulk of what remains of Wilson’s loft inventory—including chair examples that he bought and ones that he birthed—can be found at his 35,000-square-foot Watermill Center, in Southampton, New York, which, before this migration, already housed some 3,000 pieces, everything from historic totem poles from Papua New Guinea to the contemporary drawings of the late abstract artist Agnes Martin. (Wilson has yet to secure a new Manhattan nest, so many more chairs sit in storage.) He purchased the building, a former Western Union factory, in 1992 and embarked on a 15-year-long renovation (unveiled in its entirety in the summer of 2006) with the help of a starry lineup of architects—François de Menil, Fred Stelle, Richard Gluckman and Frank Michielli among them. The center, which is separated into public and residential areas, with a large wing dedicated to dorms and Wilson’s apartment, plays host to multidisciplinary artists participating in short-term residencies. Monthly open houses allow locals to wander the premises and view its guests’ performances, providing Wilson’s art objects with a decidedly wider audience than they had at his Manhattan abode.
“It was really important to Bob that the collection be used. That’s the difference here—you can touch anything,” says Carsten Siebert, executive director of the center’s operator, the Byrd Hoffman Watermill Foundation (named after Wilson’s childhood dance instructor, who helped him overcome a speech impediment). Entering through the building’s informal side entrance, one quickly sees this interactive ethos in practice: Residents grab fruit from antique Indonesian ceramic dishes and wooden bowls. Lining the hallway are three white chairs designed by the actress Lydia Grey and splattered with hot-pink stains, the remains of her 2007 Watermill performance Under the Milk, in which she sat naked, covered head to toe in paint, and poured milk over herself as she moved from chair to chair.
On the gallery-white walls of Wilson’s private quarters hang newly acquired works by wild-child art-world darling Dash Snow, a former assistant to Wilson and a grandson of one of his closest friends, the art patron and costume designer Christophe de Menil. Nearly half the objects gracing the space are chairs. In a skylighted nook, Wilson has pegged to the wall, as one would paintings, an attenuated black-and-white Superleggera, as light as its name, by the midcentury Italian architect Gio Ponti and a tiny gold-painted maquette from the 18th century created for Louis XVI (small models were made for the king whenever he commissioned new furniture). The maquette was given to Wilson in 2003 by his close friend the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild when the French government awarded him the title of Commandeur des Arts et Lettres. Filling the space between the two works are large, framed black-and-white photographs, including one of France’s former first lady Madame Pompidou, a fervent supporter of Wilson’s work, in a graceful pose and a shot of Wilson as a devilishly handsome youth taken by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1970s.
Roaming through diverse aesthetics, eras and media, Wilson’s collection could be a metaphor for his itinerant life. In the past few months, he has ventured to Beijing, Berlin, Melbourne, Moscow, Paris, Shanghai and Taipei, for work and pleasure. His most recent purchase is a small wooden chief’s chair from South Ethiopia, constructed to elevate its occupant very slightly above the others gathered around him on the ground. Wilson bought it at Dogon gallery in Berlin. “My collection is very personal and the result of my travels,” he says, but adds, “As I get older, the works come to me.” Among the finds he’s happened upon serendipitously are another Superleggera chair by Ponti, discovered in a dumpster in Italy in 1975, and a child’s chair made from bamboo found abandoned on a Shanghai street in 1993. “There is no rule of what to collect. I always trust my instincts. I’ve never bought anything because it was a good investment,” he notes.
Outside on Wilson’s private deck, seven simple chairs painted white or left as unfinished wood are arranged around a Javanese teak chaise. Wilson bought these pieces from Bali, which he visits every December—some at a gallery called Aulia in 1998, the rest from his friend Nunung, who runs an eponymous antiques shop in Denpasar. Their placement at awkward distances from one anotherprescribes an intellectual gathering, not a relaxing afternoon nap or sunbathing session, thus incarnating Wilson’s maxim, “Comfort is a state of mind.”
Downstairs from Wilson’s quarters is the center’s main gallery, a double-height space with a second-story balcony. There, an ice-fishing stool from Greenland, made of wood, hide and fur and acquired through the dealer Björn Wandall, in Denmark, sits next to a prototype for the noted Dutch designer Gerrit Rietvelds asymmetrical Berlin Chair, from 1922. Beside them is one of Frank Lloyd Wrights austere seats for his Unity Temple building, in Oak Park, Illinois; Wilson bought it in 1992 at Michael FitzSimmons Decorative Arts, in Chicago. The chairs are arranged in an order that suits Wilson for now, but those who know him fully expect the installation to change at any moment. “Bob constantly rethinks the organization of his pieces,” Siebert notes. “Not just to accommodate new acquisitions but also to generally mix things up and make them new, keep them alive.”
At the other end of the gallery, a wooden Donald Judd desk-and-chair set—the epitome of understated elegance—clashes with the nearby Miss Blanche Chair, 1988, cheekily constructed by the famed 20th-century Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata from acrylic resin decorated with red paper roses. The latter limited-edition work, like many of Wilson’s own designs, is named after a character from a play (A Streetcar Named Desires Blanche DuBois). Wilson acquired it privately in New York in 2001 for $51,000—a steal, considering that an example of the same model went for $86,000 in 1997 at a Christie’s New York design auction and that another resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Given how much character each of Wilson’s chairs possesses, one can’t help but wonder which is his favorite. “Maybe the Rietveld or a little seat made for me by a four-year-old boy out of colored plastic straws,” he says when asked, his own childlike sense of wonder in evidence. It’s hard, though, to imagine a chair that could embody Robert Wilson: unique, provocative and never one to sit idle.
"Chairperson" originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2008 Table of Contents.