New York

Robert Wilson

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Robert Wilson’s current show has been outclassed by that of his protégé, Knowles. Wilson’s exhibition is a collection of images—mostly photographs, a few drawings, some writing, a single portrait (Rudolf Hess) stenciled on the wall—from a number of his performances. Included are penguins, chairs, the backdrop for Wilson’s patio piece, bits of set design, and passages from a forthcoming piece (Death, Destruction and Detroit) that are blown up and mounted on cards.

The show is almost incomprehensible without a close familiarity with these references (which even when seen in Wilson’s performances are obscure and difficult) except as a kind of collage. In a sense these pictures are souvenirs of the performances, and they are spotlit in a dark gallery as if to emphasize their arbitrariness. The images are sudden, inexplicable, and inexplicably juxtaposed: they amount to a kind of symbolism that almost flaunts its difficulty. One is not allowed to investigate the meaning of, say, a penguin; one must simply accept the power of its mysteriousness. Apart from its probably being necessary, Wilson’s use of photographs as souvenirs for his performances presses this mysteriousness, for one is prevented from evading the issue of meaning by turning to the purely sensual qualities penguin or chair might have. The photographs’ exaggerated size and harsh, contrasty rendering force one back again and again to the immediate, uncomfortable image.

Wilson’s show is considerably more theatrical and bombastic than Knowles’ but it is also less substantial. They work along similar lines, but while Knowles describes in detail the effort to define an image which is always collapsing into a mystery, Wilson seems perfectly satisfied, here at least, with mystery from beginning to end. In this sense, Knowles is telling a complicated human story while Wilson is rather aimlessly gesturing.

Leo Rubinfien