Maybe it was unfortunate that I popped in a DVD of Absolute Wilson the night after KQED aired the American Masters documentary about Annie Leibovitz. Both documentaries were designed using roughly the same schematic, beginning at: sensitive young artist leaves home and lands in the right place at the right time. Leibovitz in San Francisco at the formation of Rolling Stone; Wilson in New York among a circle of other future art world luminaries. Blah. Blah. Blah. The Baby Boomer Basher in me immediately went to his dark place. Oh great, I thought at this point in each narrative, after a whole life spent witnessing Boomers congratulating themselves, we have now entered the period where they will begin their own beatification, their canonization.
I thought about each artists' financial realities, Wilson's large loft space in Manhattan, Leibovitz' crash pad in the Haight. Those were the days! In the sixties, folks could get space for cheap. No wonder they succeeded. Given today's financial realities, I began to wonder how many young artists of equal potential would NOT succeed. I started popping the usual bitter pills.
Then each documentary entered the "development" phase, the part in each artists' career where they had to prove themselves. In Robert Wilson's case we learn that some of his more radical theories about theater came from his work with the developmentally disabled. There is a description of a piece he made with a group of people trapped in iron lungs that revealed something I had steeled myself against. Wilson is a genius -- turning his own disabilities around and using them to represent a completely radical point of view about theater.
Absolute Wilson includes much video documentation of Wilson's early theatrical experiments with his hippy dippy collective The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, and I have to say they look extremely tedious. "Plays" that would go on for hours, for days -- pieces that would probably have sent me screaming from the theater, but nonetheless, even in brief clips they look different, revolutionary. I should inject here that the style of Absolute Wilson reflects the design sensibility of the artist, playing with grids and split screens. It's refreshing (and rare) to see a documentary portrait go so deep, to use the format of the film itself to express the personality profiled.
Once someone has "made it" in the art world, it is easy to forget that they once struggled. The struggles have changed over time and it's hard to step back, drop thirty years of history and really get a clear vision of what the struggle must have felt like, how long the odds must have seemed. For example, Wilson's most famous piece, Einstein on the Beach, an early collaboration with Philip Glass, involved a Herculean effort to get the performance mounted at Lincoln Center with great personal, professional and financial risk. That's the missing part of the story when one looks back on the great successes, on the classic moments in the art world when someone affected a real eye-opening change.
Ultimately both the Annie Leibovitz documentary and Absolute Wilson brought me to tears. I am a sucker for genius and both portraits deliver a hefty dose of it. They leave one still wondering what genius is and where it comes from, but the thing that starts the water works is how lonely it can be, no matter the validation or the success. Wilson works like a madman, is a very famous perfectionist, but he is still overcoming his demons, still picking them apart with his art and still struggling -- as an American -- with a culture that is openly hostile toward the conceptual and is less than supportive of high art.
Absolute Wilson opens January 12, 2007.