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The Theatre of Robert Anton Featured in The New York Times Weekend Arts

THE THEATER OF ROBERT ANTON

Through Feb. 11.

Broadway 1602 Uptown, 5 East 63rd Street, Manhattan

212-481-0362, broadway1602.com

Robert Anton (1949-1984) was an important figure in a rich vein of 1970s performance that merged staged theater and visual art, and of which the theater director Robert Wilson was a leading exponent. Like him, Mr. Anton was born in Texas, based in New York and popular in Europe — hugely so, though there was nothing huge at all about Mr. Anton’s work. It was made up entirely of a cast of finger puppets, each consisting of an exquisitely detailed sculptural head about the size of a peach pit emerging from a length of black velvet. Mr. Anton, visible from the waist up, manipulated the puppets on a tabletop for audiences of no more than 18 people at time.

The performances seem to have been wordless symbolic dramas, of a dark, bitter hilarity in the spirit of Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, though it’s hard to recapture them, as the artist forbade filming and photography, and almost no record remains apart from descriptions by witnesses. What we do have is the puppets themselves, which are extraordinary: Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, George Grosz and faces seen on New York City streets, each is a drama in itself. Critics described the original performances as consciousness-altering experiences, and looking at the puppets on display at Broadway 1602 Uptown, you believe it.

Several people who saw those performances, and knew and admired Mr. Anton, appear in video interviews, viewable in the gallery and on its website. One is the New York art dealer Bette Stoler, who preserved Mr. Anton’s work, including many of the drawings also in the show, after his suicide. If you want to read a beautiful tribute, check out the brief reminiscence “Prodigal Son” by the novelist Benjamin Taylor, one of Mr. Anton’s childhood friends, in the 2001 anthology “Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS,” edited by Edmund White. Like everything associated with this once-lost-now-found artist, it’s in a class of its own.

HOLLAND COTTER

 

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