Critics’ Picks

Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach, 1976, graphite on paper, 9 3/4 x 9".

Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach, 1976, graphite on paper, 9 3/4 x 9".

New York

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
July 13–November 4, 2012

The first-ever exhibition of Philip Glass’s autograph score for his great five-hour 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach, along with Robert Wilson’s thirteen graphite-drawn storyboards (which were first shown at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1976), inspires ontological ruminations through its systematic study of the circle (space) and the line (the axes of time). The room is stark and symmetrical in composition. In the center, a wooden bench is positioned in front of a wall upon which seven excerpts of the opera, totaling twenty minutes, are looped. Wilson’s sketches and Glass’s sheet music are hung on the two flanking walls, so that the eye pendulums between them.

Neither the drawings nor the musical scores need to be analyzed to be understood. From the vantage of the bench, they make visual patterns that seem to reflect the repetitive architecture of the theatrical scene. The opera is plotless, but its carefully composed disorder evokes Einstein’s theory of relativity, flipping basic laws of scale upon themselves: Clocks, trains, and spaceships form a backdrop for the performers’ knees and nods as they toy with tempo, standing frozen, one leg off the ground, or write frantic equations in the air. This disjunction of time and action, in its uncomfortable philosophical assertions of nonlinear realities and multiple planes of perception, verges on the comedic. The music—this word is not enough for the epic pull, like gravity itself, of what emanates—contains a voice repeating numbers and solfège syllables, otherwise meant merely as placeholders for sight-singing. The act of incorporating the accidents of process into the final arrangement (the performance too appears as a choreographed actor’s exercise) instructs the viewer to resign to the swirl of nonsense and its resultant trance.

What warrants this work its lasting importance? The opera’s third full revival is currently on a fifteen-month worldwide tour, having just completed a run at BAM. The circle and the line, omnipresent in the opera and inherent in nature and geometry, in the concrete and the cosmos, might suggest that the two symbols are not necessarily opposed, but harmonize in dissonance.