At the Guggenheim, painter-confectioner Will Cotton designs a brand-new ‘Peter and the Wolf’

Fans approach the set. (Richard Termine/Works & Process at the Guggenheim)
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While the New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker may be the linchpin of the city's great art institutions' holiday offerings, the Guggenheim this season is also seeing sugarplums.

The museum has been mounting productions of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 Peter and the Wolf for six years, so it’s something of a known quantity as well at the holidays. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who has provided a sassy, improvised narration for Prokofiev’s beloved piece since this program began in 2007, was on hand last weekend for this year’s premiere. But as he narrated the piece, it was the delightful confection of a set behind him, for which the museum commissioned New York-based artist Will Cotton, that made the performance noteworthy.

“It occurred to me that there might be a nice meeting point between the world that I have been working in and what is described in Peter and the Wolf,” Cotton said when we spoke a couple of weeks ago, pre-production. “To be given a story like this and asked to create a set around that framework, it meant that I could have license to take on these new characters that I probably just would not have otherwise.”

Cotton is best known for his images of lusty candylands peopled by scantily-clad and alluring young women, most notably pop singer Katy Perry, who commissioned Cotton as the artistic director of her music video “California Gurls” in 2010; here, his spun-sugar fantasyland (sans sultry ladies) is anchored by a 30-foot-by-11-foot painting of a gingerbread chalet conceived as a giant cuckoo clock spanning the entire stage. The chalet and the surrounding snowy terrain transport the Russian tale to the Alps. It’s perforated with three portals out of which the story’s characters pop as the narrator introduces them, much to the delight of the audience. Peter (strings), the Bird (flute), the Cat (clarinet), the Duck (oboe), and the Wolf (horns) have been painted by Cotton as easily recognizable storybook creatures, while he decided to depict the Hunters (timpani) more abstractly, in the form of a heap of rifles and a horn. The Grandfather (bassoon) looms large apart from the chalet at stage left, wearing a crown of cupcakes.

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Precisely why Prokofiev’s piece has become a holiday tradition in this country is somewhat baffling. The narrative sets the tale in a big green meadow with a pond but, well, it’s in Russia, which is often apparently stuck in a perpetual snow globe in popular thought. Previous years’ performances have been received somewhat lukewarmly, chiefly for the static nature of the visual elements. 

At last weekend’s performance youngsters popped out of their seats to get a closer look at the action on the stage, all the while offering spontaneous sound effects (Meow! Woof! Bang! Quack! Tweet!) accompanying the story as it unwound. Young audience members were invited to come onstage to inspect the backdrop after the performance was finished.

What Prokofiev and Cotton share, and what makes the latter’s set design so compelling apart from its surface-level charm, is a vested interest in synechdoche, working to establish non-verbal narratives through their work. Prokofiev’s effort is more didactic—to lure younger audiences to appreciate the individual parts of an orchestra—but Cotton has developed a keen interest in making his paintings into dense narratives rather than simply snapshots of fantastical landscapes.

“I’ve been making paintings, for a long time, which point to a kind of narrative in a fictional place,” Cotton said. “But within the format of a painting you’re not forced to really flesh it out in any way. It doesn’t have to be a lot of characterization and you don’t have to answer the question of what’s happening before or next.”

Peter and the Wolf is on at the Guggenheim Museum of Art through Dec. 16. For more information go to Guggenheim.org or call 212-423-3500.

All photos courtesy of Richard Termine/Works & Process at the Guggenheim.