New York

Robert Watts

Of all the artists associated with the loose Fluxus movement, Robert Watts was perhaps the most “object oriented,” the one who took the most visible pleasure in using his considerable skills at traditional craft (wood carving, finish carpentry, chroming). This is also why his works are so often conceived as comments about art (much more so than those of his peers, even though they all shared the same meta-artistic impulse). The selection of thirty-four Watts works presented in the mini-retrospective “Robert Watts: Art on Art” at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects clearly emphasized this point. The earliest object was Eleven Pencils, 1961; the last three all dated from 1987, a year before the artist’s death. These included the very kitsch Still Life after Redon, 1987, made of colored glitter glued to a piece of silver-painted wood; 45 Caliber Bullet Entering Light Bulb, 1987, an assemblage—consisting of a hand-carved wooden gun, a lit glass bulb on which cracks have been drawn, and a bullet—based on a famous photograph by Harold Edgerton; and a rainbow spectrum made of colored pencil leads (or fabrications thereof), entitled Dedicated to the Memory of Roy G. Biv, 1987.

Several major works were featured in the show. The most poignant perhaps were the eight sculptures from the series “New Light on West Africa,” 1976, which consists of mass-produced, touristy African “art” objects that Watts electroplated in chrome and silver. I do not know of a more efficient artistic assault against the erosion of art’s meaning by the culture industry or against colonialism (becoming mirrors, these once “original” souvenir objects are now doubly fetishized). Another major piece, Addendum to Pop, 1964, consists of a grid of sixty documents that Watts received from the US Patent Office when, distressed by the media’s and the art market’s growing use of the term “Pop art,” he attempted to copyright it. He discovered that he could not do so because the words had already become generic, but the papers show that the word pop itself and its derivatives could be registered in specific variations, from POP-A-CIG and POP-ETTES to POP-AROUND and ZING-A-POP.

The homogenizing practice of “branding” was one of Watts’s obsessions, and the exhibition contained a neon sign of an artist’s signature (Ingres Signature, 1965), as well as a purloined New Yorker cartoon, in which he surreptitiously added the word FLUXUS to a list of favorite terms uttered by a businessman: CONGLOMERATE, TAKEOVER, ACQUISITION, ORCHESTRATE, MANIPULATE, BLOCKBUSTER. All in all, however, Watts’s irony is of the soft—not militant—variety, which is why it ages so well. Though he might have denied it, his work is tinged with nostalgia. (Why dedicate a piece “to the Memory of Roy G. Biv,” for example? Because this mnemonic for the spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—once taught widely in grade schools, was already forgotten by 1987.)

Of course, one of the most common signifiers of nostalgia among Fluxus artists was the ephemeral. This aspect of the movement is obviously not easy to present in an exhibition, but here an accident made it plainly visible: The first “work” one saw on entering the gallery was the charred hole left when Venus. Hot. Intermittent, 1986 (a relief of the contour of Milo’s Venus traced in hot wire on wood) was yanked off the wall after having caught fire. The artist’s estate is to be saluted for letting the remnants of that involuntary “event” stand: The piece will be easily restored, but there could be no better homage to Watts than this impromptu intrusion of the vagaries of the “real” into the pristine white cube of a Chelsea gallery.

Yve-Alain Bois