THE relationship of artists and the theater has been strong for most of this century, with creators making a range of forays, from painting backdrops to being the performers themselves. Pablo Picasso, it is said, was adversely affected by his contact and collaboration with theatrical productions; critics accused him of retreating from Cubist tenets by creating stage sets and costumes for the ballets of Serge Diaghilev. For other artists, however, the experience has proven favorable in terms of their development and in receiving recognition from a new and wider audience.
The Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists of the first three decades of the 20th century all looked at performance as a way of breaking down categories in art and society, as a way of shaking things up and leading people to question - if nothing else - why artists were making spectacles of themselves.
``Throw an idea instead of potatoes, idiots!'' Italian futurist Carlo Carra yelled out one time to a theater audience that had been deliberately provoked with verbal and physical assaults from the artists/performers on stage.
These artists' aim was to make the audience less passive - a basic Modernist principle - and rise to action which, for them, was the essential element of art itself. Performance art in general seeks to provoke first and get people to ask questions later. One surmises that the measure of good and not-so-good performance pieces is the degree to which they inspire both reactions.
Many other artists are happy to be less visible personally while allowing their stage designs to speak for them. Painter Jane Freilicher's set for John Ashberry's 1981 production ``The Heroes'' included three connecting panel paintings of a landscape with a painted wooden divan and miniature Trojan Horse, suggesting the downfall of proud men. Frequently, artists work interpretively with dramatic material in this way.
Other times, their work is intended to fit within the play's structure. Sculptor Judith Shea's costumes for Edwin Denby's ``Four Plays'' (a play that is difficult to follow as the dialogue is jumbled from one character to another) are quite distinct for each performer. One may not be able to understand what is being said on stage, but at least the costumes help one see who's saying it - clearly, nothing more could be asked of a visual artist than that.
Artistically, the theater has seldom hurt an artist. Jasper Johns, for instance, was never any less a painter for his stints as artistic director to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Someone like Larry Rivers, on the other hand, seemed to have bridged two worlds, starting out as a jazz musician before switching to painting. Theater director Robert Wilson was trained in architecture and fine art before he took to designing sets for his productions.
Word-of-mouth and personal friendships seem to be key factors in getting artists involved in theatrical productions.
``A friend of mine, who was actually a neighbor, managed a number of rock groups, and I made clothes for some of the band members,'' sculptor Judith Shea said, adding that friends of that neighbor who wrote for the theater began asking her to create costumes for their productions. After a time, her name began to get around. ``More recently, I've been getting calls from people I've never met who just know my costumes. They've never seen my sculpture and are often surprised when I mention that's what I ordinarily do.''
Robert Kushner, a painter, became involved in designing for theater through contacts, in this case his wife Ellen Saltonstall, who has danced in various companies. He made designs for these companies' productions as well as for other choreographers whom he met ``through the same circle of people.''
Working with theater groups, he noted, ``gives an artist the chance to work on a large canvas whose painterly components are characters.''
For some artists, such as Kushner and Shea, whose artwork tends to resemble fabric design and wearable art, respectively, their involvement with the theater is closely aligned with their artistic aspirations. With others, the theater is more a vacation from art. ``It's enjoyable and it's different and it's fun and it's occasional,'' Larry Rivers said. ``It makes you feel refreshed when you go back to painting.''
Certainly, not every artist has the temperament or interest in creating designs, costumes, or backdrops for performances, and some are plainly bad at it.
``I've been fortunate with the painters I have worked with,'' said Paul Taylor, choreographer. ``None of them have used the stage as just a gallery for their works, but it sometimes happens. I was in Paris some years ago and saw a play that Salvador Dali had designed the set for. All it was, though, was a Dali painting with various performers doing things in front of it but having no relation to it. Dali simply used the stage as a way to sign his name to a painting the public would otherwise pay to see.''
Every artist is different to work with, Taylor said. Whereas artist Robert Rauschenberg will come in to look at a finished dance piece and then design a set around it, painter Alex Katz ``often has given me the set first, before I've choreographed the piece. It's a challenge to work around what he has designed.''
One example of this was a painting Katz made of soldiers several years ago. ``I made this painting just for myself,'' Katz noted, ``and then thought, `Gee, this would be great for a stage set,' and so I used it in `Sunset' - a dance that the Taylor Company premiered.
``Alex brought in this big painting of soldiers, and it effectively chopped off a third of the stage,'' Taylor said. ``I had to choreograph the piece around it, and it worked very well. It's a very painterly idea to limit space and angles. It's one of the reasons I prefer working with artists than with set or costume designers. They try things that the professionals wouldn't normally think of.''
In the best collaborations of artists and theater people, the artist's vision is there on stage, not competing for attention but expanding it. Recognition has grown over the years of this unique partnership, and some artists' designs have even found their way into museums.