When Robert Wilson was a child in the 1950s, he visited his Uncle Sherrod’s white adobe house in New Mexico and was amazed by the elegance of a wooden chair positioned next to a floor mattress and ceramic pots. Later, one Christmas, his uncle gave him the tall, narrow chair. When Wilson was 17, he recalls, Sherrod’s son wrote him to say that “his father had given me a chair and it was his.” Wilson gave it back.
For our maestro of modern theater, now 81, that gift and its subsequent loss ignited a seven-decade passion for chairs. Wilson doesn’t just collect them; he designs chairs and casts them as characters in his operatic productions. For the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts, in Lausanne, Wilson has directed a different kind of production: he was invited to scenically stage the exhibition “A Chair and You,” which opens on October 28 and features hundreds of pieces—dating from the 1960s to the present—chosen from the collection of another chair-ophile, the Swiss entrepreneur Thierry Barbier-Mueller. The show includes designs by Ron Arad, Maarten Baas, Tom Dixon, and Ettore Sottsass as well as Niki de Saint Phalle, Franz West, Donald Judd, and Lawrence Weiner.
Wilson was the obvious choice for such a creative approach. Not only does he house the majority of his own chair collection (near 1,000 in number) at the Watermill Center, but his relationship with chairs is rather metaphysical. From 1975’s A Letter for Queen Victoria to 2011’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, Wilson has viewed chairs as “related to a persona.” In fact, the first chair to officially enter his collection was designed for the final act of his 1969 work The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud. It was “a structural element,” Wilson explains, “never a prop or decoration.” When he staged Freud’s last years, that chair moved around the set “like a time clock. Chairs don’t necessarily have to be sat on—it is something that we look at.”
For the Lausanne exhibition, Wilson has summoned a dramatic interplay of light, sound, and procession. “I thought about the light first,” he says, “then the sound, the color of the space, and how these different spaces complemented one another.” Wilson avoids picking a favorite from Barbier-Mueller’s holdings. He’s searched for “diversity between simple objects and complex ones, those with function and those more for looking rather than to sit on. It is like a family—I like them all together.”
A choreographer of absorbing image theater, often in collaboration with composers such as Philip Glass and David Byrne and the performers Willem Dafoe and Marina Abramović, Wilson here hands the control of movement to the audience: “Chairs should be placed in space and not against walls,” he says, “and I like to look at them in 360 degrees so that the choreography comes from the viewer.” Wilson also plays with emotion. “Some spaces are very dark and quiet so one can reflect on the chair interiorly, while others are brighter and more colorful, or the sound becomes very aggressive.”
Wilson lives a short walk from the Atlantic and likes finding chairs discarded on the street or “those washed up from the ocean.” In every moment of creation, whether sketching or shaping an onstage image, in public or in isolation, this tireless visionary is accompanied by a chair. “I am here waiting for the next second.” —Osman Can Yerebakan
“A Chair and You” is on at the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts from October 28 through February 5
Osman Can Yerebakan is a New York–based curator and writer