New York

Robert Watts

Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

It’s been a good year for Fluxus. With elegant shows recontextualizing the art of Yoko Ono and Ray Johnson in all its freewheeling experimentation and intelligence, George Maciunas’s anarcho-good-time movement has been inscribing its details ever more precisely in the history books, where it serves as accomplice and antidote to the more lurid self-consciousness of Pop. Given the total institutionalization of the latter. It’s useful to keep in mind that during the late-’60s in New York, Fluxus and Pop were growing up together as twins born of the same ironic, iconoclastic impulse. It was only later that market exigencies separated the siblings and Fluxus (the quiet, clever one) was eclipsed by Pop (the boisterous, entertaining one). Now that sufficient time has passed, it is possible to look back and see the family resemblance.

The moment is perfect for reconsidering Robert Watts, who never made a clear distinction between the ephemeral provocations of Fluxus and the gleeful satires of Pop. Watts taught for decades at Rutgers University, where he and his colleague Allan Kaprow amalgamated technological exploration, social gamesmanship, and intellectual inquiry into Happenings and beyond, pioneering work in video, installation, and photographic appropriation. Out there in New Jersey, they broke ground for a whole wing of postmodernism, and Kaprow has gotten most of the credit. This exhibition is the latest installment in what amounts to Watts’s widespread critical reinstatement in this country and Europe.

There is something impersonal or phlegmatic in Watts’s composition, a deliberately flattened sense of timing. This aspect of his work has not aged as gracefully as have his concerns with commodity and its absurdities. A puckish wit remains where media and message are crisply meshed, as in Portrait Dress, 1965, a see-through vinyl frock with pockets for photographs, or the suite of neon signs in which the signatures of masters like Ingres, Duchamp, and Lichtenstein glow like ads. Other items in this show appeared dated, such as the Lucite sculptures with embedded photographs of food, or the painted plaster casts of bread lined up in a grayscale row, but this was largely because their semiotic jokesterism has been so wholly assimilated by successors that it cannot startle now as it did then.

The films (shot in 16 mm and transferred to video) fared even less well. Their intimate scale, use of split screens and superimposed shots, and real-time sequencing are convincing early forays into what has become standard video vocabulary. But there is a cheerfully unexamined sexism in Watts’s reliance on mute, naked girls performing neo-Dada acts of nonsense—the nubile brunette sticking random letters to her skin and passing a phallic, brightly colored object between her legs. Such performers are presented not as collaborators but as signs for “woman,” synonymous with the unconscious—and fun to look at too! This automatic/associative frisson constituted the whole content of the films, which accordingly got pretty tedious.

Overall Watts revealed himself as less a visionary than an inventor, tinkering with reconfigurations of ideas as well as technologies. Benjamin Buchloh, an ardent supporter, has remarked that Watts fulfills Duchamp’s dictum that the artist of the future “would have to work underground.” One wonders who is working now, as Watts did then, in a noncareerist seclusion to be unearthed thirty years hence.

Frances Richard