Robert Wilson’s summer home in the Hamptons is notably different from its neighbors. It’s not about sand and surf, swimming pools or tennis courts. Instead, it exists to inspire boundary-pushing art and unbridled creativity. Every July and August, the renowned experimental theater director and visual artist lives in a stripped-down apartment atop the Watermill Center, the “laboratory for the arts and humanities” that he founded in 1992 and operates within a sprawling former Western Union research facility. Throughout the year, dozens of artists come from around the world for residencies at the complex, and each summer the roster swells to nearly a hundred as Wilson invites the creatively ambitious to live and work alongside him, all day, every day.
The Watermill Center’s summer activity reaches a feverish, otherworldly peak for one night each July, during its annual benefit auction and party, when the surrounding woods and gardens are taken over by artist installations and performances ranging from the freakish to the fantastical. Visitors might discover a swimmer seemingly trapped in a tank of water, a body-painting artist stomping across a woodland canvas, a disrobed woman submerged in a trough of molasses passersby are encouraged to taste, and countless other scenes perhaps imagined only in one’s dreams. Wilson has described the event, which changes every year, as a shooting star: “It happens once, and never again.”
That promise of unique, outlandish thrills attracts a returning cast of high-fliers from the worlds of film, fashion, music, art, and design. Robert Downey Jr., Brooke Shields, Winona Ryder, Rick Owens, Vivienne Tam, Lady Gaga, Rufus Wainwright, Marina Abramović, and Cindy Sherman are among the regulars who come to support the center’s mission (last year’s event raised over $2 million) and expand their minds.
“It’s super-inspiring,” says lighting designer Lindsey Adelman, who attends the benefit every summer and donates works for the auction. “You walk along a path through the woods and come upon these people with body paint, in holes and up in trees. You’ll have people decked out in Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry next to someone in a vat of ooze. It’s very out-there, pushing what art can be.”
Inside Wilson’s apartment, life is a little more Zen. The space features polished-concrete floors, pristine white walls, and rows of rectangular pedestals displaying select items from the center’s stunningly eclectic collection of some 8,000 pieces of art, furniture, and other objects. The trove, personally amassed by Wilson over the past 50 years, spans five millennia and countless cultures. “My apartment, like the Watermill Center, is about living and working in an environment immersed in the history of art,” he says.
In the main living space, a towering totemic wood drum from Vanuatu and sixth-century limestone Buddhas from China watch over a quartet of rare Alvar Aalto bentwood chairs on tubular copper bases (Wilson has long had a special passion for chairs). A stroll through the home turns up numerous other treasures, like an 18th-century stone figure on horseback from North Sumatra, carved-wood ancestral figures from Africa, photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and a wall-mounted work of colored lightbulbs by contemporary artist G. T. Pellizzi.
The pieces on display are in a constant state of flux, and items seen one year might be back in the archive the next. “They are like cards that can be shuffled and rearranged anytime,” says Wilson. He encourages visiting artists to engage with them in the same way—not just to admire the pieces as if they were in a museum but to work alongside them. “It is important for us to live with a firsthand awareness and knowledge of what man has done in the past as we go forward and create new artistic work,” Wilson says. “If we lose our culture, we lose our memory.”