Since we were children, many of us have treasured the holiday traditions of Manhattan: the performance of The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet, the Rockettes’ Holiday Spectacular, the decorated tree in Rockefeller Center and the elaborate Christmas-themed display windows at Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. In recent years the Guggenheim Museum has taken up the holiday baton by commissioning various artists to stage a production of Peter & the Wolf, lending a fresh, contemporary twist to the Prokofiev-scored children’s classic that memorably linked certain instruments to animal characters, one of whom gets eaten by the wolf. (Written in 1936, the 25-minute orchestral piece, accompanied by a narrator, was first performed for Stalin’s Young Pioneers on May Day.)
This year’s commission goes to Will Cotton, a New York-based artist whose paintings and sculptures of dystopia with cakes, tarts, candy and other sweets are shown at Mary Boone Gallery. Cotton has concocted a kinetic gingerbread chalet as the basis for his installation. Known for his columns of white plaster-frosted cakes and paintings of dreamy pinup-inspired nudes reclining in a confectionary landscape, Cotton, who grew up in New Paltz, consulted with an engineer who worked on NASA’s rocket program to construct the mechanism: a turntable with a six-foot diameter that rotates out of the painted backdrop of the gingerbread chalet. (Cotton acknowledged that the engineer’s qualifications “were probably overkill for what I needed”; no chance of a malfunction here.) The turntable displays a succession of large cutouts of the characters, which appear as they are mentioned in the narration (fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi narrates; Prokofiev’s score is played by the Juilliard Ensemble, conducted by George Manahan). They include the boy Peter, his grandfather, the wolf, the duck, the cat, a group of hunters and a mechanical bird.
Cotton got the idea of the mechanical animation from Viennese cuckoo clocks, which have a tiny door from which emerge a revolving cast of dancing characters at the chime of the hour. The painted backdrop of the gingerbread chalet, a veritable Candy Land that includes a meringue mountain, is painted on a 11-by-30-foot canvas, which just fit inside the walls of Cotton’s TriBeCa studio. The project “was challenging in every way,” he said, from devising the mechanism to the very large scale of the backdrop, which is by far the largest painting that he has ever done and is supplemented by three-dimensional scenery pieces. (Rather than work on a scaffold, the artist devised a system of pulleys that enabled him to raise and lower the canvas.) To test out his concept, the artist first constructed a detailed maquette, using real gingerbread for the chalet.
While he said that his associations of Peter & the Wolf as a child were of something fabulous, scary and entirely foreign – its rustic Russian ambience was completely exotic to most contemporary American children, adding to the story’s magic – Cotton found that its themes resonated with his work, which deals with desire and insatiability. (Indeed, his Pop-inspired confectionary art, which culminated in paintings of Katy Perry as a girl-child marooned in a landscape of sweets – he also was artistic director of her 2010 “California Gurls” video, viewed by millions – has itself become iconic, with advertisers seemingly copying his motif of scantily clad women floating in clouds of cotton candy.) For example, “the wolf is the embodiment of desire,” he said. “The imagery was a really good fit for me.” No doubt the cupcake perched jauntily on the head of Cotton’s sepia duck further whetted the wolf’s appetite.
Devising the folk characters was “great fun and challenging” – particularly the wolf, which he developed through a series of drawings. Cotton said that he relishes the challenge of such projects, because “they force me to go outside my normal sphere. I’ve noticed this kind of thing expands my horizon. I had so much fun making this mechanical bird and the chalet cuckoo clock. I want to do more of that.”
Cotton’s mechanically animated installation of Peter & the Wolf will be presented at the Guggenheim’s Peter B. Lewis Theater on December 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16 at 2:30 and 4 p.m. The production is 30 minutes long and, although an animal gets eaten, the story has a happy ending, so it is entirely child-appropriate.
Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf, Will Cotton/Isaac Mizrahi/Juilliard Ensemble, December 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 2:30 & 4 p.m., $35 general admission/$30 members, Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue/East 88th Street, Manhattan; (212) 423-3587, www.guggenheim.org/new-york/education/works-and-process.