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Robert Watts
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essay Robert Watts, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Robert Watts is one of the many freewheeling thinkers whose work was associated with Fluxus but not contained by it. A mechanical engineer by training, he turned to art during the late 1940s, focusing on abstract painting only to abandon it, in 1958, for the multidisciplinary hijinks of what would soon be known as Fluxus. He was a core member of the Fluxus cadre over the next two decades—a composer, performer, visual artist, and filmmaker with an incisive mind and clownish wit. His scientific bent was balanced by a metaphysical streak that led him to such extra-Fluxus activities as the observation of seasonal rhythms and energy fields. Toward the end of his life, he mused to a friend that if he had it to do over he might like to spend his life as a “scientific monk”—one who balances an active spiritual life with the unhurried exploration of physical phenomena.1 In fact, he seemed always willing to see the profound within the unremarkable.

Although Watts didn’t consider himself a Pop artist, he was included in important Pop exhibitions at the Leo Castelli and Bianchini galleries during the 1960s on the strength of his droll sculptural works: rows of plaster casts of bread painted in a graduated gray scale; a box of chocolates filled with chrome-plated bronze bonbons; and a mock supermarket display of multicolored wax eggs and chromed fruits. These are clever visual puns, but also meditations on the collision of desire and illusion. Often they depend on photography—the lid of a wooden fruit crate bears a shot of a dozen perfect apples in waxed paper, and TV Dinner (1965) is a group of laminated images (with the exception of the cast-plastic peas) depicting a classic frozen turkey dinner in an aluminum foil tray, accompanied by cutlery and wine glass all arranged on a pedestal as formally as if they were crystal, silver, and filet mignon.2 Eventually, though, Watts’ constant sampling of media and approaches couldn’t sustain an association with Pop, which became as slick and predictable as the products it parodied.3

The erotic appears in various degrees and guises throughout Fluxus; Watts’ taste ran to images of the naked female body, from girlie pix to classical nudes. Portrait Dress (1965) put a semiotic spin on the theme: a transparent vinyl shift is covered with pockets, each containing a photograph of a female body part. Our assumption that a portrait should present a holistic, psychologically penetrating image of an individual is completely upturned by this collection of desultory, anonymous fragments. Images of skin adorn a garment—a second skin—while also revealing portions of the wearer’s (nude) body. More pointedly fetishistic is the punningly titled Chest of Moles (Portrait of Pamela) (1965–1985), composed of sixteen photographs picturing skin with moles, which are embedded in plastic and displayed in a lighted cabinet.

Among his many other activities, Watts taught for thirty years at Rutgers University, where he developed the Experimental Workshop, an interdisciplinary seminar. According to the artist, their work was “limited only by the equipment we can find or buy, what you have on hand, who you are, and what you want to do.”4 An apt description, in fact, of Watts’ own blend of curiosity, humor, and pragmatism, and the surprising range of his art.

  1. Larry Miller, “Robert Watts: Scientific Monk,” in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Judith F. Rodenbeck, eds., Experiments in the Everyday: Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts—Events, Objects, Documents, exh. cat. (New York: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, 1999), 85.

  2. Among Watts’ numerous ideas for Fluxus editions (some of which were realized) were tabletops and place mats laminated with photographs of meals. See Jon Hendricks, ed., Fluxus Codex (Detroit: The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, in association with Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1988).

  3. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has written extensively on Watts, Pop Art, and postwar commodity culture. See especially his essays in Miller, Experiments in the Everyday, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Robert Watts, exh. cat. (New York: Leo Castelli Gallery, 1990).

  4. From Watts’ course description, quoted in Larry Miller and Sara Seagull, “Grounds for Experiment: Robert Watts and the Experimental Workshop,” in Geoffrey Hendricks, ed., Critical Mass: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance, Intermedia, and Rutgers University, 1958–1972, exh. cat. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 26.

Phelps, Jennifer Case, Joan Rothfuss. “Robert Watts.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center