Robert Wilson’s video portraits make their way to the Timken Museum

1.	Mikhail Baryshnikov as St. Sebastian, miraculously preserved from death even though shot through with arrows, by Robert Wilson. Courtesy Timken Museum of Art
1. Mikhail Baryshnikov as St. Sebastian, miraculously preserved from death even though shot through with arrows, by Robert Wilson. Courtesy Timken Museum of Art

In a grand departure from its traditional bill of fare, The Timken Museum of Art (known for the past 45 years for its collection of European and American master paintings) will showcase four of Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking contemporary video portraits, Feb. 25 to May 15.

Three of the portraits will be displayed on 65-inch high-definition plasma monitors. The fourth will be projected on the south exterior wall of the museum.

According to museum press materials, the portraits depict personalities from the world of performing arts, including Robert Downey, Jr., Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jeanne Moreau and Winona Ryder, who take on an aspect of their professional lives by being captured in character — but in character inspired by great masterpieces of European art.

Robert Downey, Jr., lies as the corpse recalling Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp”; Mikhail Baryshnikov poses as Saint Sebastian, miraculously preserved from death even though shot through with arrows; Jeanne Moreau stands in velvet alongside a flamboyant inscription as Mary Queen of Scots based on a Nicholas Hilliard painting from 1578; and Winona Ryder is depicted up to her shoulders in a mound of dirt as the character Winnie from Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.”

“These revolutionary portraits in new media use the art of our own time as a means to acquire a greater understanding of the art of the past and of shared concerns that transcend the ages,” said John Wilson, Ph.D., executive director of the Timken and no relation to the video artist.  “While a traditional Timken visitor might infer that this exhibition is a departure from the core mission of the museum (a museum devoted to the art of the past) it is precisely because of how these contemporary video portraits are inspired by Old Master paintings which makes them so trenchant to the Timken’s vision.”

The models appear in near-motionless poses, instructed to “think of nothing,” and to limit any gestures to one or two movements. The result is that it appears to be a still image, but one with almost imperceptible movement by the subjects.

The videos are created to be infinite in length to eliminate any narrative beginning or end, approximating a still image. The portraits are accompanied by a discreet, individually composed, soundtrack.

“As with all great portraits, these are poetic biographies of their subjects in addition to likenesses. Inspired by past works of art, history, or popular culture, Wilson’s portraits take a minimalist approach, but in a theatrical setting punctuated by dramatic lighting and high production values,” John Wilson said.

Robert Wilson has been described as “a towering figure in the world of experimental theater.” His productions have decisively shaped the look of theater and opera, and with all his work having a profound base in fine arts, his work transcends media and genre.

Born and educated in Texas, he moved to New York in 1963 and by the end of the decade was considered a leader of Manhattan’s downtown art scene. His monumental “Einstein on the Beach” with music by Philip Glass (1976) is widely considered one of the most influential productions of the second half of the 20



While Wilson’s earliest work was in theater and opera, he began working in video in the mid-1970s. Influenced by Andy Warhol’s series of three-minute films, “Screen Tests,” Wilson created a piece called “Video 50,” with 100 episodes, each 30 seconds long. Among the episodes were portraits of Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet, and Michel Guy, the French minister of culture at that time.

Meeting a few years later in Japan with Sony chief Akio Morita, Wilson shared his idea of life-size vertical video portraits that would break the horizontal screen traditional for televisions. Since that time, Wilson’s portraits drew considerable attention and in 2004 Voom HD, a media company specializing in high-definition entertainment, named Wilson its artist-in-residence and commissioned his works.

Dissident Industries produces the video portrait works as well as the traveling exhibition.

If you go


Video portraits by Robert Wilson


10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday to May 15


Timken Museum of Art, Balboa Park




(619) 239-5548.



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