Bob Watts, Pioneer Spirit
Bob Watts was a central figure in Fluxus, and – some would say – a pivotal though relatively unsung figure in Contemporary American Art. Born in 1923, he came of age during the Great Depression. Like many artists of the generation that went through the Second World War, he did not set out to be an artist. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville. From 1944 to just after the war, he served as an officer aboard aircraft carriers in the United States Navy. Watts moved to New York after he mustered out, where he studied painting, drawing and sculpture at the Art Students League. Later, he studied ceramics, drawing, and art history at Columbia University, where he took his master's degree in 1951. During those years, he made his living as engineering designer. Only later did he begin his career teaching art.
Bob Watts was a uniquely contemplative artist. Quiet, reserved and intelligent, he took part in the development of the ideas that gave birth to Pop Art. He taught at Rutgers during the same years as Roy Lichtenstein, and he exhibited at galleries such as Leo Castelli and Cordier & Ekstrom in the early 1960s. Where other artists had a capacity to enter the market more aggressively, Watts seemed diffident. He found himself at home, instead, in the coterie of experimental artists that became the Fluxus group.
When Fluxus began to take shape in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bob Watts was there. He was not in Wiesbaden, where "die Fluxus Leute" was first given its name, but his work was there, and his collaborations with George Brecht, Alison Knowles, George Maciunas and the others set the tone for what Dutch art critic and gallerist Harry Ruhé terms "the most radical and experimental art movement of the 1960s". What made Fluxus interesting was the way in which the many and several artists were each able to establish an individual tone while creating a spirit of collegial experiment. Watts' humor was dry and subtle, typical of the New Yorker cartoons he loved so well. Even so, he became one of the closest colleagues of George Maciunas, whose tastes ran to Spike Jones, vaudeville blackout and a raunchy bathroom humor poised halfway between the farting contests of the ancient Zen monasteries and the toilet humor of British television comedy. In temper, Watts was reticent, and a bit aloof, much like Alison Knowles, yet in his work, he created astonishing objects that are now seen to be important stepping stones to much of the "new irony" characteristic of the young New York art scene today, an art as relentlessly social in its tone as Watts was personally distant from the art world.
Watts was one of the few Fluxus artists who shared George Maciunas' fascination for real estate, for multiple publishing, for all the inventive (and occasionally zany) ways to make money that they tried together. Their company, Implosions, Inc., was typical. In the mid 1960s, they pioneered a kind of stick-on tattoo that you could use as body art for a few hours or a few days, then remove or throw away. This was an idea ahead of its time. Just a short while ago, I read an article in a business journal about some entrepreneurs who have made several millions of dollars profit over the last year or so... manufacturing stick-on tattoos. It didn't do George or Bob much good. George died in 1978, and Bob never seemed to have much taste for big business plans without George, though he did manage well enough in real estate and in harvesting his personal assets.
American history is filled with stories of pioneers like Bob Watts. One vivid account from the 1830s tells the story of a traveler’s encounter with a mountain man somewhere west of the Mississippi River. (It's important to remember that these were the days not long after the Louisiana Purchase. The United States didn't yet extend in a solid span from Atlantic to Pacific. States like Tennessee, Ohio and Illinois were still the pioneer west). The traveler came on a cabin in the remote wilderness. A grizzled mountain explorer emerged, clothed in skins and furs. After a few minutes chat, the traveler asked the pioneer, "How did you come to settle so far out? “It's like this, " the mountain man replied, " I used to live back East, down Kentucky way. One morning I went outside for a breath of air. I looked up at the sky, and I saw smoke. Cabin smoke. Must 'a been as close to my cabin as 10 or 15 miles. Then and there, I decided the neighborhood was too crowded and it was time to move on". In a way, that was Bob Watts. He was a pioneer of several art forms, but the ideas interested him, not the neighborhood. He was part of the Fluxus group, but the group did not interest him, only his work with a few close friends.
My personal guess is that Bob Watts enjoyed working at Editions Conz because it is a pioneering venture about as far from New York as you can get and still be in the art world. It is even far from Milan. Only two hours by car, it is a few decades by any other system of reckoning. The town is small, with few cars, restaurants are still small and friendly, and it takes all day to find a tube of paint. Besides, Francesco Conz is the kind of person you would expect to join forces with the pioneer Watts. Ideas interest him. He does not collect art, he collects artists. The art, the objects, the editions are a diary of his meetings with the artists in his collection. When he turned up the old French medical text that was the basis of Flux Med, he visualized Bob Watts at work. The project was almost a commission. It is unique Watts. While on the surface, the collages from old sources may remind us of Max Ernst, it is something else entirely. This is not the Surrealist delving of the subconscious sources, but instead and ideological, literary pun on hospital culture (closer to Maciunas than to Max Ernst), the play of irony on scientific culture (closer to Derrida than to Breton), and above all, it’s the spirit of the game, close to Brecht, to Knowles, to Watts himself. Francesco Conz proposed, Watts disposed.
I have always viewed Bob Watts with a perspective that is half admiration and half mystery. All of the Fluxus artists are untypical, yet each has a characteristic style or temper. Even those who are not stylists have a method of approach that can be seen as typical of their experiments. Bob Watts didn’t. One work would move in one direction, another in a second, yet another in a third. That, more than any other reason, is why an artist as seminal as Watts never went far in an art world he helped to shape.
Flux Med is the final trace in a career that was eventful and calm, revolutionary and meditative at the same time. As I look at the works, sometimes fascinated, sometimes queasy, sometimes delighted, sometimes annoyed, I fancy I can see all these currents moving through this series at once.
Published in: Flux Med: Robert Watts, Obra gráfica 1987, Joan Guaita Art, Estudi d'Art Contemporani, Madrid - Palma, 1987