There’s a growing fashion, fuelled in part by a certain revisionist tendency in NYC gallery circles that one might cynically see as economic rather than creative, for revisiting the fifties and sixties. It partly explains an artist like Walter Darby Bannard popping up in Chelsea with the poppy minimal paintings of his youth. Given how dull, lifeless and frankly unexciting much recent work is there’s nothing wrong with casting an eye back at where it all went wrong. You might imagine that by the 70’s the bloom might have faded but there were still pockets of space where something new could spring up. That something was interdisciplinary collaboration and nobody did it with more energy than Robert Wilson, aided and abetted by a cast of characters that included Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs. In an extraordinary decade their joint masterpiece ‘Einstein on the Beach‘ stands as an outrider for a great deal of the cultural product coming out of New York in the subsequent four decades.
Goodness knows how Matthew Chesney and colleagues prised original material out of the hands of the gallerists to present the exhibition on at Backlit Studios until 17th May but it gives a local audience a unique opportunity to appraise this work’s context through primary source materials. Of course ‘Einstein’ is a work much discussed and admired but little experienced in full. Stagings have been few and far between over the years, not least because of the legendary costs associated with the work (over the years the economics of mounting Wilson’s works have defeated many including the Los Angeles Olympic Committee) and even when performed it is hard to imagine oneself disciplined enough to maintain full concentration through its nearly five hours duration. Many of us are probably familiar enough with the general tone of Glass’ work but again its likely that excerpts are remembered more often than not. Childs’ choreography too is probably recalled mostly through still images or short clips.
So what to make of the couple dozen items assembled here? Well firstly its a polished presentation, entering the gallery reminded me powerfully of being in Chelsea on the lower west side a few weeks back…until that is one of the two desk bound gallery assistants jumped up and came over to press programme and catalogue into my hands (that doesn’t happen in Chelsea or Bushwick for that matter), and the display itself is immaculately laid out in two rooms. The first sets out the libretto, score and Wilson’s sketchbook. These set the scene and powerfully convey the strange and intuitive way in which the work emerged. The rather curious manner in which Wilson enlisted the help of the young (very young) Christopher Knowles has been mulled over by many and the typed sheets here show just how prescient the material was at the time…a kind of post digital mash up of thoughts and observances set into a formalist structure (of sorts) and bashed out on an old underwood (probably…). The seven sheets were fascinating, and brought to mind Carl Andre, Dom Sylvester Houedard and Brian Connolly, the besequinned lead vocalist of The Sweet! amongst others. Glass’ score was ok…though just a couple pages of plain notation really, but Wilson’s sketchbook (of French vintage it seemed) was the real deal…the fresh, unvarnished initial workings out. And really they are simply expressed as an essentially visual exploration of light and shade, of spaces and nuance. I guess this is what drew him to Glass, a man exploring aural light and shade and a really obsessive attention to nuance. For it is nuances within timbres that Glass subtly exploits in a way that his main mentors (La Monte Young, Riley and Reich) were always a little less interested in…or at least never quite opened up in the way that he did. So everyone involved in the project got hitched onto the ways in which waves (aural and visual) can be squeezed up and stretched out and space can become tangible in ways that had hitherto been hidden from view. Or at least not viewed from within collaged narratives of inexplicable and indecipherable condition. There were of course precursors of a sort knocking around NYC at the time. I don’t know if Wilson saw Bruce Nauman’s early retrospective at the Whitney in 72 but I’d take a small wager on it…and he must have seen and discussed Robert Morris. We know his connections with avant garde dance and theater already but the heady brew of connections must have included a raft of the new art at the time. But that didn’t often extend to pointed but jumbled narrative connections in the way that Wilson and collaborators voraciously consumed them. For me one of the nearest aural comparators to ‘Einstein’ is the Bley/Haines/ Mantler masterwork ‘Escalator Over The Hill‘ simply for its ability to bend genres. I bet Robert was aware of that one too. So the sketchbook extracts are a knockout and you are left thinking you wish you could dip into the whole package. In addition Room one has a very gnomic little drawing from Lucinda Childs that could just as easily be a minimalist, say Don Judd, sculptor’s piece as a choreographic notation. More nuanced spaces being packaged up on graph paper neat as sixpence. Lovely.
So into the second room. Dominated by the Einstein chair, the actual piece from the first run of the work that seems on one level to be rather prosaic, the room is suffused with the sound track to the large video work, a portrait of Lucinda Childs, one of a series made in 2004. The chair is very totemic, not only because of its provenance (though its centrality in the work gives it real frisson) but also as an object in its own right. It has a super sense of balance and grace, complemented by the steel base and suggests that Wilson’s study of architecture plays a huge part in the shaping of his aesthetic. Around the walls are a selection of pencil drawings, sketches really, in which he deftly outlines the ways in which he plans to delineate the stage. They have that lazy grace that seems to define pretty much all post war American artists drawings (shades of Nauman again or even Paul McCarthy or Eva Hesse…or so many others) but also allow massive breathing space for the collaborators to interpret in bringing the sets to life. I was especially amused by Act IV, Scene C, Building…that looks for all the world like a quick sketch of The Baltic in Gateshead. There’s one other piece in the room by Andy De Groat, and thanks to Matthew Chesney’s illuminating talk, its rather intriguing. A small work, somewhere between a formalist drawing and a concrete poem, made in 2012 but titled ‘Paris Sequence, 1973‘ it hints at his place in the cast of characters who contributed to the overall genesis of ‘Einstein’. I’ve ghosted past the video portrait…for me it suggested Wilson riffing off his offspring a little. I may be wrong, and even if not, he could rightly lay claim to his historical role in providing the grounding for it, but I couldn’t help seeing Viola’s hand here…maybe Sam Taylor Wood (gawd help us) and perhaps too something of David Claerbout’s investigations of similar territory. I’m a big admirer of Claerbout and comparisons are odious but I felt the portrait was really only interesting as a coda to the exhibition and the relationship. Perhaps thats a little harsh…it did conjure up yet more thoughts on light and shade and of course bags more nuance.
So the show is a major achievement for an artist run space anywhere and even more so in a ‘provincial’ city in the Midlands…but I doubt anyone will be up on the train from ‘town’ to see it. Their loss I’d say.