Given the grand scale of “Einstein on the Beach,” “Black Rider” and other avant-garde plays by Robert Wilson, it’s no wonder biographer Katharina Otto-Bernstein chose a large format for her survey of the artist. With more than 400 images spread out on oversize pages, the book has a strong visual impact. But Otto-Bernstein’s prose style consists mostly of interview material, which limits the emotional range. Nonetheless, for those unfamiliar with Wilson or his extraordinary life, the tome provides ample insight.
Book is composed almost entirely of Otto-Bernstein’s interviews with the likes of Susan Sontag, David Byrne and Philip Glass for her docu of the same name. One might expect a lot of overlap, which there is, but the book tends to go a bit further than the film in most areas.
The description of New York’s post-minimal art scene of the 1960s, for example, which was so crucial to the formation of Wilson’s avant-garde aesthetic, is better served in the book, as is the description of Wilson’s success in Europe.
Unfortunately, Otto-Bernstein tends to report rather than interpret, which is fine for the majority of the book’s material, but less so when the subject turns to specific productions. After all, Wilson is famous for rethinking theater, opera and the rock musical from an artist’s point of view, and imbuing them with both a strong, visual sense and a hypnotic sense of time. A reader might also wonder how a seasoned biographer might handle more delicate material, such as Wilson’s homosexuality in the confines of Waco, Texas, in the 1950s and his suicide attempt at 25.
But the book succeeds beautifully in drawing a parallel between Wilson’s childhood and reoccurring themes in his work. The discussion of Wilson’s own learning disability as a child (he had an “auditory processing disorder,” which left him unable to understand and communicate with language), helps the reader understand why he was so drawn to the visual. What’s more, the book does an excellent job of painting a humanistic portrait of a man defined by contradictions.
He’s an introvert, yet he also connects with his collaborators extremely well. And he’s famous for exceedingly slow and meditative theatrical works, yet his life is anything but.
“I don’t know why my schedule is so full,” Wilson muses. “I think part of my drive is the fact that I never accumulated any money. … The other part is, if I stopped, what would I do?”