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Robert Wilson's Portraits At The Timken

Robert Wilson's portrait of actor Robert Downey Jr., based on Rembrandt's 1632 oil painting "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp." Four of Wilson's portraits are on view at the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Robert Wilson's portrait of actor Robert Downey Jr., based on Rembrandt's 1632 oil painting "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp." Four of Wilson's portraits are on view at the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Robert Wilson's Portraits At The Timken
Artist Robert Wilson's portraits of celebrity performers are strangely familiar. They are videos that look like still images, and they reference paintings by the old masters. Even more surprising? These contemporary works are on view at the Timken Museum of Art. We'll talk to the museum director and a producer who works with Wilson on his portraits.

Artist Robert Wilson's portraits of celebrity performers are strangely familiar. They are videos that look like still images, and they reference paintings by the old masters. Even more surprising? These contemporary works are on view at the Timken Museum of Art. We'll talk to the museum director and a producer who works with Wilson on his portraits.


John Wilson is the direcor of the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park.


Matt Shattuck collaborates with artist Robert Wilson on installing many of his installations. He lives and works in New York City.

Robert Wilson's Video Portraits runs through May 15th at the Timken Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: An exhibit at the Timken museum of art might have you asking, did that portrait just move? I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, the new exhibit of video portraits at the Timken are reminiscent of old masters' paintings, but the subjects are recognizable film actors, and they're not entirely still. We'll talk about the installation by artist Robert Wilson. Then the pain and anxiety wish of the American dream gone bust is the subject of the new novel, model home. And tips to keep your kids safe on the playing field. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The venerable Timken museum of art, located slightly to the east of the larger San Diego museum of art in Balboa Park is one of San Diego's perennial gems. It houses a compact and impressive collection of European masters from Gothic panel paintings to the only Rembrandt on display in San Diego. But when it comes to experimental 21st century art, the Timken is not the first museum that comes to mind. That's what makes its new exhibit so exceptional. The Timken is displaying four large video portraits by artist, Robert Wilson. Although based on well known images, these video portraits open up a new aspect of portraiture that at times can be disturbingly lifetime. I'd like to introduce my guests, John Wilson is director of the Timken museum of art. John, good morning.

WILSON: Good morning.


CAVANAUGH: And Matt Shaddock collaborates with artist, Robert Wilson, on many of his installations. And Matt, good morning. Welcome that These Days.

SHADDOCK: Good morning, Maureen, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, John Wilson, let me just point out at the top, no relation to Robert Wilson.

WILSON: No relation.

CAVANAUGH: But Robert Wilson is a very important figure in theater, opera, the visual arts. What should listeners know about him?

WILSON: Well, he is one of the towering figures in American near the. But for a rock time has been doing rather exceptional work in the area of just visual arts. And that's something -- looking at fine art, and fine art, whether it's European, Asian, whatever, his informed all of his work. And so the idea that he's doing a portrait of a recognizable figure to most of us, which derives from great works of the past of European art inning is it, as it relates to our collection, that's really nothing new for him.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Matthew, when and how did Robert Wilson start making these video portraits?

SHADDOCK: : These video portraits began in 2004. They stem from -- the idea stems from a video series that Wilson had started in the 1970s when he did a series called video 50. But it wasn't until 2004 that we started production on these works, and it was from 2004 until 2007 when we were introducing roughly 40 subjects.

CAVANAUGH: Now, way back when, though, as Robert Wilson was defining his artistic lines of experimentation, was he influenced by Andy Warhol's screen tests?

SHADDOCK: : He, you know, he certainly knew of Warhol from the downtown New York art scene. And certainly that was something that he saw and that he looked at. I think a lot of people will make that reference. But I think one of the interesting things about Wilson is that he has this incredible ability to take references from all different types of media as inspirations. It could be a Warhol portrait, or more pointedly, it could be a painting from Rembrandt. Or it could be a television commercial. So it's -- his kind of process of art making really becomes a mix and a medley of references and sources.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Matt, I'm gonna ask you, I don't know if you know the answer to this question, perhaps you know Wilson well enough so that you can speculate. Why did he choose to recreate famous works of art?

SHADDOCK: I think it goes -- you know, to a is she certain degree torque what I just mentioned. He is an extreme purveyor of all different sorts of art. He has a collection him of over 800 objects. And these objects are -- or his art correction really draws from -- it could be African objects, it could be photographs, it could be, you know, pre Colombian art. So he's -- wherever he goes, and wherever he travels, he's always looking at things, he's always drawing inspirations from things, and pureeing through imagery. And I think his process for -- of creation for these video portraits is exactly the same process as if he's doing an opera or an installation in the middle of a field or doing a water color drawing.

CAVANAUGH: But John Wilson, the fact that these are in a sense recreations of well known images from western art, that's -- tell us how that informs this installation, specifically at the Timken.

WILSON: Well, one thing to remember is that these are not recreations of well known works of art, like the pageant of the masters in Laguna. These are portraits. This is a portrait of Robert downy junior, it's a portrait of Winona Ryder of Jeanne Moreau, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And you know, throughout history, artists have looked at the works of other artists. And that's one of the reasons we wanted to do this show, is to show that the works that are being made today are part of a venerable tradition of the history of art, where artists have always looked at, borrowed, in some cases blatantly stole aspects of the art from the past. And what we exist to do at the Timken is to show, for free, these extraordinary works of art from the renaissance through the early nineteenth century. But to also educate about them. We want people to believe them, we want people to understand why the great works of the past are still important for us to look at today. We are not here to be another venue for contemporary art. Why would one want to take on hue Davies at the contemporary? He's one of the rock stars of our business. This is something that we're -- using this contemporary art to inform and enlighten the Art of �lan the past.

CAVANAUGH: Does it open up the idea of these old images that we are so familiar with? Does it add a new dimension of what that portraiture is like?

WILSON: Oh, absolutely. These portraits of these four personalities are nothing more than allegorical portraiture. This is grand manner portraiture that comes out of the eighteenth century from the 17th century. In the past, what an artist would have done is to borrow a pose from a great work of, for instance, classical sculpture, from a work by Michelangelo, and from there, you would have associated the nobility of the earlier work with the person in the portrait. Well, Robert Wilson has done a different thing with that. He's actually borrowed aspects of these, a pose or a subject matter that helps us today recognize and think about something from the life of the person that he's portraying. Now, we -- it's really great because we all, from popular culture, know that Robert downy junior was, you know, addicted be he was in rehab, he was arrested, he was back in rehab, etc., etc., etc. So to see him being portrayed in the guise of a Rembrandt, and we're talking about Rembrandt's anatomy lesson of doctor Tulp, in earlier eras, someone would have chosen Doctor Tulp as the part of that portrait to borrow from, for his rationality, his intelligence, whatever, well, Wilson's chosen the corpse for Robert downy, and we can all look at this, and we can listen to Tom waits' sound track, our San Diego's own Tom waits, sort of blinking along in the background in this sort of faux series music, and then we realize that downy is breathing, his eyes are always looking at you with almost a smirk, as if he's in on the joke. And this is -- from an initial view, this looks like is a rather disturbing picture. As you sit and look at it for a minute and watch the movement for -- which is almost imperceptible, by the way, you do have to study them, you see him breathing and you see this really obviously fake arm that looks like it's been out of an anatomical textbook, it's fantastic. I mean, you can at least say, lye yeah, that's -- I get it.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, for people who have not seen this exhibition yet, Matt, how did Robert Wilson direct, let's say, Robert downy junior in the making of this video portrait? It's on a loop. It seems to be a still photograph, but as John was just telling us, you can see slight movements. So how was that directed by the artist Robert Wilson?

SHADDOCK: Well, each portrait takes about a full day to shoot. And this set is something akin to somewhere in between a -- you know, a large fashion shoot, and a commercial film shoot. There's about 30 to 40 people on set, and as I said, each subject takes about a day. Most of that day is spent building the set in very much like a theatre. Building the set dealing with lighting, with the stand in costume and make up. And then once all of those things are finished, then the subject, in this case, Robert downy junior, comes on set, there's some fine tuning, and then once the camera position is locked down, then Wilson will start to direct, you know, in this case, Robert downy junior by giving him either instructions of, you know, now turn your head very slowly to the left or, you know, adjust your hand, or you know, move your foot this way, but he'll be directing -- he'll be directing the subjects himself.

CAVANAUGH: That sounds -- one of the fascinating things I've written is that Robert Wilson usual willy tells his subjects think of nothing.

SHADDOCK: Radio that's very true.

CAVANAUGH: How do you do that?

SHADDOCK: Yeah. Well, it's about being interior, as opposed to exterior. It's maybe one way to think about it or that Wilson would describe it, the first time he went to Broadway theatre, he didn't like it so much because everything was so exterior, everything was so kind of forced upon the audience. And so when he direct accident performer, he'll say be more interior, and think of nothing. And then once you can get to that point as a performer, then a lot of people, a lot of performers will say there's a lot more freedom in having the absence of thought in the way.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Matt Shaddock, and John Wilson. We're talking about the exhibition by artist Robert Wilson at the Timken museum of art in Balboa Park. We've been speaking a lot about Robert Downey junior, of course there are other video portraits, one of which features Mikhail Baryshnikov. He is portrayed as Saint Sebastian, he wears a loincloth, he's shot with arrows in this video portrait. What do you take away from this one, John?

WILSON: Well, I think that the obvious immediate connection, and you know, one of the things about Robert Wilson is that he says there is no prescribed interpretation of these things. So what we bring to these portraits from our own personal experience, whether it's from looking at them, you know -- magazine about popular culture, or whether it's seeing somebody dance or whatever is equally valid, as anything else that he says. But of course saint Sebastian was a Roman dissident, a Christian in Roman times who was arrested and miraculous preserved from a death by arrows. And if you actually look at the portrait very carefully, no arrows are touching him. Although he does have a wound, which is rather Christlike on his side. But of course, with Baryshnikov was a Russian dissident and left for reason of artistic freedom, to get out of Russia and move to the West. So that's the immediate thing that I bring to this portrait. But the thing -- the portrait that I'd like to -- two things, the Jeanne Moreau portrait, who is portrayed as Mary queen of Scotts, which is a role that she's long wanted to play, with a mixture of a Beethoven soundtrack, and a poem by Darryl Pinckney, and then read by Robert Wilson is one of the most moving of the group. But finally, the --

CAVANAUGH: Why is that? Why is it --

WILSON: It's just�-- I think it's partly the Beethoven, and partly the dramatic nature of bob Wilson reading these very minimal lines that really don't make a whole lot of sense as you read them, and try to read them literally. I mean, I think as Matt said, if you read them in an external way, saying what does this mean, it doesn't mean anything. As you look at the portrait and hear in repeated phrase, Mary said what she said, with a few extra lines added in as well, it becomes almost inexplainably beautiful and pathetic. In a way that I have found to be really wonderful. And that's a very serious one as opposed to the rather ark musing nature of Robert Downey junior.

CAVANAUGH: And perhaps Winona Ryder? Is that an amusing one too?

WILSON: Winona Ryder's is -- has aspects of it that make one smile.


WILSON: But it is at about 27 -- the full loop on it is about 27�minutes long, and it goes from darkness to broad daylight back to darkness. And you see her buried up to her income in a mound of dirt, which is rather -- you know, maybe not amusing, but certainly makes you pay attention.


WILSON: And she's the character from -- of wine from Samuel Beckett's 1962 play, Happy Days. And she's -- the character is the eternal optimist, but as the light comes up, and you see the props that are described in the play, one of them's a handbag, and of course -- and a gun and a toothbrush, but for someone who was convicted of shoplifting, this is kind of a -- one of those things that again makes you pay attention.

CAVANAUGH: So that's very interesting back stories as well as the -- the shadowing of these great master pieces, then we also have the individual back stories of the individual celebrities who are in these port traits.

WILSON: Right.

SHADDOCK: Correct.

WILSON: And it's also -- it's great to see, you know, we have three portraits on the inside of the building, in the gallery, which are directly related to paintings. The portrait of Winona on the outside takes concepts that the old masters had used for centuries as its inspiration. And we have another painting on the inside of the building in the permanent collection by Benjamin West called Fidelia and Sporanza, which is an illustration of a scene from Sir Edmond Spencer's book, the Fairy Queen, which is an Elizabethan�-- long, dense, Elizabethan book. And essentially in the 18th century when someone saw the Benjamin west painting, they would have seen all the little props and said oh, that's Spencer's fairy queen. No question about it, for someone who understands contemporary theatre, or modern theatre, [CHECK AUDIO] there aren't a whole lot of other suspects. So it's right there, you have Winona Ryder as Winnie. It fascinating that the stage directions say that wine is a character who is no longer young. And of course Winona Ryder is one of the great beauties of our day, was 33 when this was made, and of course in -- you know, the time of the 18th Century, if you were 33, you were over the hill.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. It's horrible to think about.

WILSON: You're not supposed to trust anybody over 30 anyway.

CAVANAUGH: And my final question to you, John, this is some -- something of a departure of the Timken. And I'm wondering if perhaps this isn't part of an overall outreach to generate younger audience to the Timken or at least get the name of the Timken more out into the public discourse.

WILSON: It absolutely is part of that. We -- you know, we do exhibitions that look specifically at our permanent collection, and we'll always do those. They are perfect for us. At the same time, we have an audience, a large group of people in the city, and in the county who really probably don't -- withstood even think of coming to the Timken, even if it was something they could find that -- it would interest them. It's off of their radar. So we want to try to draw a younger audience. We're organizing a young friends' group in which we launched it at the opening last Thursday night. We're still trying to come up with a name. But it'll be -- there will be more of this in the future. And we want people to look at the building itself and the collection.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we have to end it there, I want to thank John Wilson, director of the Timken museum of art, thanks John.

WILSON: You're very welcome, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Matt Shaddock, thanks for ginning us. My pleasure. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Robert Wilson's video portraits runs through May�15th at the Timken museum of art in Balboa Park. If you'd like to comment, please go on-line, Days. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.