American performance artist, writer, draughtsman, printmaker and stage designer. He studied painting in Paris under the American painter George McNeil (b 1908) in 1962, before completing a degree in interior design at the Pratt Institute in New York from 1962 to 1965. After serving an apprenticeship in architecture to Paolo Soleri in Phoenix, AZ, from 1965 to 1966, he returned to New York and began to work as a performance artist, creating a range of theatrical productions that combine music, text, dance and design. He earned his reputation with productions such as Deafman Glance (first staged in 1970 at the University Theater in Iowa City, IA) and A Letter to Queen Victoria (première at the Teatro Caio Melisso in Spoleto, Italy, and extensively toured in 1974); many of these were large-scale, marathon extravaganzas in which a series of images, formed from the conjunction of actors, dancers and set designs, unfolded to the accompaniment of music. Abandoning traditional theatrical elements such as ordered narrative content and the compression of real time, he favoured an avant-garde approach influenced by composers, choreographers and artists active in New York from the early 1960s.
Wilson drew from a wide range of influences and relied heavily on the collaboration of other individuals. The visual sophistication of his productions owed much to his training as a painter and interior designer; moreover, the charcoal drawings and lithographs that he produced in relation to his stage designs, which helped him finance his elaborate productions, were convincing as works of art in their own right, and the stylized furniture and other objects designed by him for the stage became increasingly sculptural in form. In Waco, he had studied under Byrd Hoffman, a ballet teacher who emphasized body awareness techniques. After moving to New York, Wilson taught Hoffman’s methods to handicapped children, and his interest in working with brain-damaged and physically disabled children evolved into collaborative relationships later in his career, notably in Deafman Glance.
One of Wilson’s most admired works, Einstein on the Beach (première at the Festival d’Avignon in July 1976 and subsequently performed throughout Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York), was a collaboration with the composer Philip Glass, and was structured as an opera in four acts. It is regarded as a culmination of Minimalism in music and as an important event in the evolution of American theatre. While it referred to the physicist Albert Einstein as a point of departure, it made use of his biography only as an inspiration for recurrent images such as a train, a trial scene and a spaceship. There was no logical narrative content, only images, music and texts divided into segments ordered by a simple mathematical scheme. Some of the text and the organizing language of numbers was provided by Christopher Knowles, a brain-damaged young man once diagnosed as autistic, with whom Wilson often collaborated.
The CIVIL warS, conceived by Wilson as his most ambitious project, was originally intended for presentation at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. It was conceived as a 12-hour-long opera that would draw its performers from all over the world, echoing the structure of the Olympic Games and creating a communal atmosphere more generally associated with festivals of rock music. While drawing much of his source material from 19th-century American cultural history (particularly pertaining to the American Civil War of 1861–5), he also included anachronistic references to Henry IV, submarines and spaceships. Various segments of the opera were performed in European cities, but the work as a whole was not produced in Los Angeles as planned because sufficient funding could not be raised. The grandeur of Wilson’s visions and the extravagance of his productions were consistently better received in Europe than in the USA.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press