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Watermill entrance

Design, silence, and Robert Wilson: My Watermill Center experience

Five minutes of silence. On a warm August morning in the Hamptons, outside New York City, I was sitting on the floor at The Watermill Center, meditating. This time of year, the Center is abuzz with small teams of people working with the center’s founder—renowned theater director and artist Robert Wilson—to shape their project, be it opera, dance, or fine arts. Each day began with a group meeting of summer workshop participants and staff. And each meeting, following Robert’s lead, opened with silence.

Watermill main room

Where the day begins: the main room at The Watermill Center, featuring the black chair favored by Robert Wilson.

The project I’d come to discuss, as Mia’s head of exhibition planning, was a show of Qing Dynasty art—the exhibition that became “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty: Concept and Design by Robert Wilson,” now on view in Mia’s Target Galleries. Mia had approached Robert about workshopping our project at The Watermill Center after learning of his affinity for Chinese art, and knowing he could help us think about that art in a completely new, theatrical way. As part of Mia’s Curatorial team, I was providing guidance on themes and object options—stepping in for chief curator Matthew Welch, who had to leave Watermill for another trip—along with our curator of Chinese Art Liu Yang and exhibition designer Michael Lapthorn.
I’m glad Matthew prepared me for this, I thought, as I both studied my feet and looked around at the gallery-like main room at the center, punctuated with artworks on the walls and floor. Robert (or Bob, as we began to call him) came into the room and perched gracefully on an angular black chair at the center rear of the space. From my perspective, he seemed unbelievably tall. He didn’t say a word. In retrospect, I realize that this opening silence was a kind of recalibration, a setting of the stage for the work of the day to come. But I didn’t expect, at the end of the meeting, an impromptu dance party. When music suddenly kicked on, Bob encouraged some of the young, talented participants to begin dancing in the middle of the room. Before long, all of us were bidden to join in, an unself-conscious release after my still awkward toe stare-down.
Setting the stage, exercises in contrasts—these are fundamental elements, I found, of Bob’s work and life philosophy. Even before I arrived, I had gotten some very detailed reports from Matthew about the way Bob worked. He needed to understand the layout of our Target galleries in plan, the way most architects and architectural historians understand drawings for buildings, before he could envision their content—which made perfect sense to me, especially after learning of his architecture studies.

Watermill view

Another carefully framed view of the forest from The Watermill Center, founded in 1992 by Robert Wilson and the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation.

Exploring the Watermill grounds and house in the brief free time allotted us, I began to make more sense of these contrasts. The center itself embodies them. An angular building at the edge of a dense forest in eastern Long Island, it was once a Western Union research facility. Bob saved it from abandonment in the late 1980s, and in remodeling it he used its flat planar surfaces, symmetry, and deliberately framed vistas to highlight the building’s severity amidst the soft-scape of the plantings and surrounding fern-laden woods.

Watermill forest

The beautiful forest surrounding The Watermill Center is punctuated with sculpture.

(Bob’s affinity for architecture was evident in Minneapolis, too, when he saw a photo of Mia’s Purcell-Cutts House during the exhibition installation and told me more than once that he needed to see it and “couldn’t get it out of his mind.” I’m incredibly pleased that I was able to show him the house on a sunny winter day—the perfect setting for that boundary-pushing artwork to shine.)
It soon became clear that the entire Watermill building, converted to performance, study, and residential space, was both a stage set for art and an expression of creativity as an end, not just a means. Throughout our team’s workshop with Bob, we were deferential—he is, after all, an artist who has changed the trajectory of modern theater, and he was making the rounds every day on many projects. But for me, getting a look at Bob’s own spaces allowed me to understand him as a collector—a huge help to me in putting all these pieces together.

View from Watermill roof

The view from the roof of The Watermill Center down to the forest below.

I had already seen examples elsewhere of some of the objects at Watermill, such as Gerald Summers’ 1934 plywood armchair and Gerrit Rietveld’s 1939 Zig-Zag chair, both included in the Modernism collection at Mia, so I had a good inkling of Bob’s appreciation of good design and decorative arts. But he has assembled an extensive collection of objects from many cultures (African, Chinese, Oceanic, early American), often acquired during his travels, and put them together according to his unique ideas. His art storage area is an impossible dream for a big museum like Mia—everything artfully housed, often in groups of three per storage cube. Not arranged around a narrative necessarily, rather the visual juxtapositions they conjure and the unexpected. Our own workshop “classrooms” featured many of these objects, set up by my colleagues and other participants prior to my arrival.

Watermill gallery

The gallery/activity spaces showcase artworks from many cultures in unexpected ways.

At the very end of our visit, Yang, Michael, and I were bidding Bob goodbye on the grounds of center, where he was planning another event, and he said to me, “Oh, you haven’t seen my apartment. Please go up and take a look around.” It was an incredibly generous offer—my colleagues had gotten a tour earlier in the week, but I hadn’t had that chance—and as we ascended to the top of the Center, we essentially had the run of his small apartment. Filled with wonderful objects from different cultures, along with select objects of modern design with a strong geometry and graphic presence, it brought his stage-setting approach to curating—and his devotion to boundary-pushing—even more into focus.
Bob can create the most inspirational setting, but great objects become the actors, coming to life through his lens, which I think really happens in “Power and Beauty.” I was pleased too, that meditation—such a memorable part of our Watermill experience—found its way into the exhibition, in the very first gallery, where visitors can contemplate a beautiful Qing black porcelain vase in near-darkness and almost total silence.
Reserve your Power and Beauty experience here.