Anke Kempkes on Robert Anton

The Theatre of Robert Anton was curated by Anke Kempkes, an international curator, scholar and art critic currently based in Warsaw. In 2004 she held the position of Chief Curator at Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. From 2005-2017 she ran a curatorial space, research centre and gallery New York specialised in female avant-garde and 1960s/70s experimental music and performance art from New York.

Anke has shared some little-known facts about the cult figure, Robert Anton:

1. Already from the age of nine Robert Anton re-constructed in miniature stage sets of famous Broadway musicals he had seen with his parents in New York and London.

Such productions as The Flower Drum Song and The King and I came alive in a boy’s room complete with lighting, revolving stages, a fly system to lift scenery, and accompanying music, …every detail faithfully reproduced as his photographic memory recalled it from a single witnessed performance.Joy G. Spiegel, Anton’s Universe, 1980

The ingenious creativity of the child prodigy was endorsed in the newspapers of his home town Forth Worth, Texas, enthusiastically comparing Anton to Michelangelo.

2. Access to Robert Anton’s theatre – often held in his New York loft – was granted through invitation and word-of-mouth only. He allowed maximum of 18 people to attend.

Among his illustrious audience were director Stephen Sondheim, theatre innovators Peter Weiss and Robert Wilson, La MaMa playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, fashion doyenne Diane Vreeland, famed writer Susan Sontag and her son David Rieff, Broadway’s director legend Harald Prince, and the high priestess of the acting studio, Stella Adler, who tended to expressively interact with Anton’s characters – while everybody else was struck in awed silence – uttering “how vast, how vast”.

Susan Sontag gave an exceptional testimony calling Anton “one of the few contemporary artists about whom I do not hesitate to use the word ‘genius’.”

3. Anton stated in 1980:  “People are often not aware that they are responsible for the puppets having any life at all. When I am alone with them, my puppets have no life for me. It is the audience – their wish for the puppets to live – mixed with my technical ability – that brings life to my stage.”

4. Legend goes that in the beginning Seventies Robert Anton had been waiting for hours at the Plaza hotel lobby to meet his idol Fellini: “He knew Fellini’s movies inside out. The one that meant the most to him was Toby Dammit, also Juliet of the Spirit… Nino Rota’s music.” (Benjamin Taylor, 1986) .

Here was this fellow and these wonderful creatures… one with a white face emerging from a black hood. Fellini, instinctively, was delighted and enchanted… I know Fellini: a kind of spark had happened.Peter Goldfarb, 1986

Around this time Anton’s miniature clown heads – inspired by Fellini’s movie The Clowns (1972) – were standing sentinel among the jewels at Tiffany’s in New York – “each in a separate window haughtily seeming to question man’s vanity among the baubles of this haven of all vanity”. (Joy G. Spiegel, Anton’s Universe, 1980)

5. Famed American actress Linda Hunt – by many remembered in David Lynch’s Dune – was a close friend of Robert Anton. After his untimely passing she recalls: “Robbie was creating a medieval world—dangerous, dark, endowing transformation… (Jungian)… I felt very drawn to him, and he to me.”

6. In 1977 Anton was granted by the French Ministry of Culture to create a new project in a building of his choice. He took occupancy of the dark, brooding medieval castle at Vincennes, where once the notorious Marquis de Sade had been incarcerated. Anton created here his Theatre of the Deaf.

Anke Kempkes‘ current research and teaching project is The Invisibility of the Female Avant-Garde.  She has an upcoming publication on Bauhaus theatre artist Xanti Schawinsky.

Recent publications:
Female Tradition in Contemporary Art: The Hybrid Historiography in the work of Anna Zaradny, Bunkier Sztuki, Krakow, 2020
Spiritual Seance. Paulina Olowska summoning Alina Szapocznikow, Vogue Polska Art Issue, Nov 2018
The Third Gender. Wanda Czelkowska and Rosemarie Castoro – Life in the Studio in Wanda Czelkowska. Retrospection, Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture at the Królikarnia Palace, Warsaw, 2017
Maria Bartuszova – Pioneer of Form: The Futurism of Women Avant-Gardists in Maria Bartuszova. Provisional Forms, ed. Marta Dziewanska, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2014
The Incommensurable Contemporaneity of Alina Szapocznikow in Alina Szapocznikow. Awkward Objects, Museum of Modern Art Warsaw, 2009

Recent exhibitions:
Lydia Okumura. Situation I, II, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw; 2019
Rosemarie Castoro. Wherein Lies the Space, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Marais, Paris; 2018-2019
The Robert Anton Theatre, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw / Tramway, Glasgow / The Edge & Andrew Brownsword Gallery, Bath , 2018-2019
Land of Lads, Land of Lashes. Rosemarie Castoro, Lydia Okumra, Wanda Czelkowska, Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, London, 2018