Objects of His Affection

Renowned stage director Robert Wilson raises the curtain on his own visionary collection.

Halfway through the first act of Wagner's Parsifal, which Robert Wilson mounted for the Houston Grand Opera in 1992, one character famously intones, "Here time becomes space." Never mind that the staging's glacial pace had mutinous Wagnerians in the audience thinking, "Here time stops." The celebrated phrase accurately describes the ritualized-dream-play atmosphere conjured in the avant-garde director's best work.

That radiantly beautiful, stupefyingly slow Houston production comes to mind when visiting Wilson's 7,000-square-foot New York City apartment. As the program noted, "the artist spent countless hours listening to Parsifal in his loft facing the Hudson River . . . a great reflective surface undergoing continual transformation, much like Wagner's music." Wilson, 61, moved down a floor about nine years ago, but he's kept the spellbinding view. What has changed are the contents of his loft.

Before the move, Wilson, a trained architect, lived in spartan simplicity, with not much more than a few pieces of African furniture. Today he shares his floor-through TriBeCa quarters with an astonishing collection of some 6,000 objects: chairs, stools, benches, tables, cabinets, ceramics, glassware, carvings, sculptures, stage props, shoes, implements, drawings, photographs, and many articles that defy ready classification.

Representing a dizzying array of eras, cultures, and aesthetics, it's a hoard of Homeric proportions, yet doesn't overwhelm its light and airy lodgings. In the larger of the two main rooms, both of which have big curtainless windows, plain plaster walls, and painted concrete floors, Wilson has carefully arranged the bulk of his collection into formal rows and groupings, imposing order on chaos. As the dark-suited, six-foot-three Texan walks around this regimented chamber of worldly possessions, he is like an Egyptian pharaoh taking inventory for the afterlife. (It makes sense that he will direct Aïda at London's Royal Opera House in November.) The smaller room—an expansive entryway that links the loft's other spaces and serves as a library and sitting area—is more sparsely furnished. The chairs, tables, and other objects have been positioned for sculptural effect, as though in an art gallery. (A study for New York, a monolithic tower of rusted steel by Richard Serra, is a dominant presence.) But it's a room that invites use, not just inspection; and it has an expectant quality, like that of a theater set waiting for the performers to enter.

Wilson seldom makes one of those entrances himself: These days he spends only one month a year in the apartment. When in New York he's generally on Long Island at the Watermill Center, a teaching and project-development institute he founded in 1992; the rest of the time he travels the world staging plays and operas, working on exhibitions and installations, and indulging his acquisitive passion. But he hasn't lost touch with his collection back home.

Beginning in the larger room, Wilson randomly approaches a small cluster of carved graveposts from Madagascar—"They have such nobility of spirit," he notes—before picking up a toy ambulance painted with leopard spots. "I got this in Ghana last year," he says, placing it on the floor, where it speeds around, siren blaring, lights flashing. "The real Africa," he deadpans. "That's a 19th-century walrus-bone fishing stool from Greenland," he continues, nodding at a delicate triangulated seat. "For sitting on the ice." In his office stands a group of stafflike carvings. "Those are floats, used on turtle nets, from the Mentawai Islands, off the west coast of Sumatra," he says. "The carved figures on them are monkeys, which the islanders worship as ancestors. It's a pre-pre-pre-Darwinian culture that believes we're descendants of the apes."

Many of Wilson's millennia-spanning ceramics are displayed in the smaller room. "This is Neolithic," he says, touching a handsome unadorned clay pot. "Around 3000 B.C., from northern Thailand." More Neolithic pots, from China and decorated with swirling arabesques and snappy geometrics, sit in a large triangular group on the floor. Four imposing ceramic vessels displayed on a plain farm table also look Neolithic but are not: "They are by Young-Jae Lee, a young Korean potter whose work I like very much," says Wilson. "I find them very calm and meditative." With pottery, as with other objects he collects, pure aesthetic appeal, not age or provenance, seems to interest Wilson most. It's as though there's no system behind his collecting other than satisfying his eye for authentic beauty, which, it's clear, has a spiritual dimension. When he finds that elusive quality in a particular artisan's work, he will buy it in bulk, as he has with Lee and the Danish potter Bodil Manz. "She produces very, very thin porcelain," he says, holding a delicate bowl by Manz up to the light. The pattern on the inside shows through its translucent walls, creating a shadowy grid. "She's one of the best."

This commentary, delivered at a deliberate pace in an affectless drawl, rolls on more or less uninterrupted. Wilson does not encourage cross-examination—"Why do reporters always ask such dumb-dumb questions?" he inquired in an interview with the New York Post—and ignores most queries. He also avoids eye contact, but when it is made, winks disconcertingly. It takes a few minutes to understand that Wilson is delivering a well-honed performance. The slightly space-alien quality he cultivates—think Gregory Peck as The Man Who Fell to Earth—is close to that of the somnambulistic actors who glide through his theater pieces.

Among the 600 or so chairs Wilson has collected, over 100 are of his own design, surrealistic sculptures created for his plays and operas. The first, a small wire-mesh seat made in 1969 for The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, now hangs from the ceiling. "Lit properly it casts a shadow that, from a certain distance, you can't distinguish from the chair—they become like drawings in space."

The Hanging Chair has been followed by so much expressive stage furniture—chairs, stools, benches, chaises, and beds—that it has become a defining feature of Wilson's theater of images. Such signature pieces include a wire-mesh bench that flew through a magic forest in Deafman Glance, a largely silent work from 1970 that established him as a star of the avant-garde. For The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, a 1973 twelve-hour spectacle considered one of Wilson's great achievements, he draped armchairs with crumpled sheets of lead to very sinister effect. In 1976 he constructed an eight-foot-tall chair from galvanized plumbing pipe for Einstein on the Beach, an operatic collaboration with composer Philip Glass. After the 1970s, Wilson's work underwent a change. He began working almost exclusively in well-subsidized European theaters. Gradually his productions became very polished, even glossy, and the architectural sense began to overwhelm all other values. Icy abstraction seemed to triumph while the emotional core of his work froze.

Nonetheless, Wilson's visual imagination remains as brilliant as ever. A number of pieces of his theater furniture, gathered in the smaller room, testify to his continued inventiveness. Chair with a Shadow, a straight-backed, pale-wood seat created for the Houston Parsifal, resembles The Hanging Chair but with its own black-wood silhouette attached. This elegantly amusing prop holds its own among two closely related ancestors: an oak chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for a Chicago church in 1901, and the Mondrianesque Berlin Chair of 1924 by Gerrit Rietveld. In a corner stand three enchantingly spindly chairs which appear to be made of twigs but are actually metal. The bird-boned trio comes from Wilson's 1991 production of The Magic Flute for the Paris Opera, in which, he recalls, "the priests sat on them at the beginning of Act Two, then picked them up and wore them on their heads while walking through a forest." It's a blissfully foolish image—The Priest Who Mistook His Chair for a Hat—Wilson working at his inspired peak.

Editor of the Home Front section, Peter Webster also wrote about designer Karim Rashid in the July/August issue of Departures.