PRINT January 1991


LAYERS OF RETROSPECTION—the act or process of surveying the past—are implicit in Robert Wilson’s sculptures, which allude both to world history and to the histories of furniture and architecture. Furthermore, Wilson’s objects sometimes have their own histories as props designed for stage projects. They have become independent works through subsequent refinements of ideas, forms, and details, and through a higher level of craftsmanship. Despite their transformation to this new reality, however, there has been an unwillingness to view them as art objects in their own right.

The figures named in the titles of the three sculptures illustrated here, all 1989, bring a historical dimension to our experience of the objects, entwining them with those individuals’ ideas and discoveries and with their triumph over time. Yet the relationship of the figure to the sculpture bearing his or her name resides, finally, in the untranslatable realm of personal experience. At the simplest level Wilson has used the recognizability of these names as a means of embracing a broad audience, but his appropriation of their voices is poetically comparable to an oeuvre such as Ezra Pound’s Personae.

Chair for Marie Curie is neither a chair nor a coherent statement about the scientist who, with her husband, Pierre, discovered radium in 1898. As a furniture form the piece is closer to a lectern. The grid lodged in its glass “seat” recalls the lines of graph paper; the battery placed in full view on the ground nearby, and the pale blue strip of neon that it powers, painting a lofty plateau, could be metaphors for the means and ideals of science, or for our need to distill luminous insight from mundane experience. While the title of the work invites Marie Curie interpretations, the object itself is so auratic, so directly and implausibly ethereal, that the Curie reference functions at best as a signpost. The soul of the piece—a delicate and invincible energy—resides in the silent lightning flicker of its neon. This spectral presence in safety glass, threaded metal rod, and electrical accessories, despite its technological appearance, functions only as a symbolic and poetic creation. We occupy it not with our bodies but only on the level of the imagination, and since the object is too magically other to register our everyday expectations of chairs, this is a wholly fantastic undertaking.

The elusiveness and mystery of Wilson’s sculptures supersede explicit meanings, but his visions, as Pierre Curie Chair demonstrates, are frequently based on quite simple structures. The eye tracks effortlessly around the chair’s rectilinear circuitry. An optically active diagonal vector cuts the volume beneath the “seat,” liberating the sculpture from a potentially stultifying symmetry. The placement of the seat at the midpoint of the structure’s height allows two of the chairs to stack together seamlessly, becoming a transparent block with an intricate faceted interior. Pierre Curie Chair approaches the conventional norm of “chairness,” yet it too appeals more to the needs of eyes and minds than to those of bodies. The piece, with its utmost refinement of detail, is a construction of lines in space—outlines rather than substance. Its Pythagorean skeleton hovers nearer the void than the solid.

As a sculpture, Orlando: A Bed for Virginia Woolf does extraordinary things with space while stretching the conventional vocabulary of furniture. It is surprisingly low, and yet, with its attenuated length and modest feet, it creates the illusion of hovering miraculously above the ground. Its lowness and the immaculate lacquered surface recall Asian furniture; the feet, and the cylindrical stylized bolster or headrest, recall ancient Greek prototypes. While the title identifies the piece as a bed, we visualize it more readily in terms of the isolation and ritual of death. It might be the upturned cover of an Etruscan sarcophagus, or a plinth for a coffin or a corpse. Lying on this bed in the prologue of Wilson’s Orlando (text by Darryl Pinckney, 1989), actress Jutta Lampe recalled one of those recumbent effigies of knights found in medieval sepulchers. Her monologue began: “I was alone. . . . I was sixteen and in love with death, my own and those of my forebears who had come out of the northern mists wearing coronets on their heads. I loved solitary places, vast views, and the feeling of being for ever and ever and ever alone.” Befitting the tormented psyche of its namesake, Wilson’s Bed for Virginia Woolf is an exquisite resting place for a frail body and a launching pad for a bold spirit.

Trevor Fairbrother is the acting curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.