Larry Miller
Dr. Bob: X-Ray Eyes

It is Dada and Dada alone whose ability is the marvelous faculty of attaining two widely separate realities without departing from the realm of our experience, of bringing them together and drawing a spark from their contact, of gathering within reach of our senses abstract figures endowed with the same intensity, the same relief as other figures; and of disorienting us in our own memory by depriving us of a frame of reference.

André Breton [1]

Robert Watts was more than a visual artist - more than the sum of his parts. That sum of unnamable parts of the artist were, as he would often say about certain people he knew and generally found interesting - "a funny mixture". In addition to his academic degree earned as ethnographic art historian, his early professional life as a working mechanical engineer is a key ingredient added to that part of Watts that was of a philosophical and mystical bent. He had an endless curiosity as a naturalist whose observations spanned the microcosm to the macrocosm of the physical and biological sciences and on to the cultural mysteries of human behavior. All of these fundamental elements were ‘components’ of Watts, the man, who once described himself to me wishfully as a would-be ‘scientific monk’. These character traits in combination with his systematic research as an engineer-turned-artist account in a degree for his tendency toward reconfiguring a ‘fragmentation’ of parts into new forms that appeared throughout much of his work.

Robert Watts backstage during the Flux-Harpsichord Concert, given in connection with the Akademie Der Künste’s comprehensive exhibition "Soho: Downtown Manhattan" in Berlin, 1976. This was the last large, formal concert organized and directed by Maciunas before his death in 1978, which brought together a number of Fluxus artists and featured some principle international figures. Performers and works for the program included George Brecht, Robert Filliou, Joe Jones, George Maciunas, Larry Miller, Nam June Paik, Ben Vautier, Yoshimasa Wada and Robert Watts.
Photo by Larry Miller © 1976

The Flux Med series has biographical aspects and perhaps the collage that may come closest to a self-portrait reference is the one for which Watts did not invent a title; rather it appears he deferred to the embedded words of wood block typography appearing in the chair beneath the seated figure – There is A MAN, with the date "1883" in smaller type above. For me this work suggests the Albrecht Dürer work of 1514, Melancholia I, in which a female angel (think of artist/alchemist as a stand-in), is surrounded by a panoply of tools, objects, figures and symbols conducive to psychic creation and scientific manufacture. She seems to await the arrival of the catalytic scintilla of activation of a new idea or invention - perhaps to affect at least a temporary shamanic cure for the passing Time and Being appropriate to the classical concept of an individual’s characteristic, physical "humors". Like Dürer’s engraving, while the comparison may seem thin, it was common for Watts to cite past works in cryptic guises as well as outright "homages". We see that for example in the disembodied Flux Transplant illustration of the bootstrapped, circular surgery of fragmented, interdependent hands fashioned after M. C. Escher’s Drawing Hands lithograph of 1948. In There is A MAN, there is the comparative metaphorical index of Industrial Age tools and interdependent parts ready to move along their mysterious but suggested linear path of the immobilized 19th Century Industrial figure in the chair. The mechanisms lend physical support to the author’s (THE MAN) measure of reason and creative output. The totality of the parts of the fragmented machine and the mechanized activation of the disembodied hand (upper right) that "draws the picture " awaits activation by some means laden either within or "just outside" the image. Like Dürer’s angel/muse, the MAN sits, waiting, enthroned above an assortment of pigeon-hole compartments to become filled by the required parts of an idea which becomes assembled into a meaningful wholeness.

In the academic paper, Project In Multiple Dimensions, that Watts coauthored with Allan Kaprow and George Brecht in 1957-58, Watts penned a few short lines that, for me, comes perhaps closer than any other of his subsequent statements which succinctly speak to the burning questions at the heart of his broad body of art work and personal philosophical preoccupations. According to Watts,

An important problem to be studied here are the relationships of objects to environments. When does an object become an environment? What aspects of light, sound, movement cause an object to separate out or merge with an environment. [2]

This may be more simply summarized as the "figure/ground" problem, or as the "binding problem" in the parlance of neuroscience, or as part of the perception resolution of relativity of a "spacetime event" by separate observers. But there are necessities for human functioning in the appearance of dualities as well as a need to resolve them together as one at other times – as is often noted in the suggested dual distinctions of Eastern and Western thought.
As with many artists of Fluxus, which has been called the first truly international "art movement", the dichotomies of West mind/East mind were on the mind of Watts and emerged apparent in much of his work. In BUDDHA at work, Watts situates the image of a figure seated not because of a decisive end to his journey, as with the Buddha, but is at rest due to concrete, medical circumstances. The two figures on the sides, which you may choose to see as identical, yet opposing in some symbolic pairing, appear to be impossibly penetrating the Buddha from the exterior to effectively polish, smooth or sooth his interior heart. But the title says it is the BUDDHA at work, not the attendants – are we then to think Watts would have us take the meaning to be that it is by our working within the Buddha that we are the recipients of his labor?
In the main, the imagery within the Flux Med series falls into dual categories that carry along their metaphors in attendance. Among the separations here are the body/the machine, health and fitness/illness and deformity, the whole/the parts, male/female and the beauty/ugliness of physical forms and human behavior. In Egyptians had a word for it, Watts transforms the original horror of the medical gravure showing a fully formed, but deceased baby dissected into grisly parts being removed in order to save the mother’s life. The arm we see emerging from the mother’s womb in the collage appears as imaged in the original, but the artist has mitigated the tragedy of the breached individual by referencing the womb as the fertile ground of a larger creation – the garden of humanity, culture, and civilization itself. The ‘landscape’ of pictographs we see within the space of our origins is at the same time an illustration of humankind and its interdependence on tools and that, which as much as anything, makes us human –the word, language. The importance of tools in defining humanity, whatever their function may be to the non-specialist, is reiterated outside the womb again as we have traveled from the Egyptian epoch which is within us, in our past development, up to the Industrial Age of increasing specialization. The two curious tools seem to be hovering in space, along side the pair of hands - one hand small and morbid, but in the able grip of a matured, helping hand. Watts has transformed a scene of the personal misfortune of one human into a tender act of empathy because we are a society of creatures capable of altruism.
Out of the mouths of babes and High-Tech Display are linked with the artist’s ethnographically inspired sensitivity to the various cults of fertility and the juvenile innocence of "observed fact" inherent to the natural world. As in Egyptians had a word for it, High-Tech Display reminds us that the breeding ground of all human life is biological, and feminine at its source, but that within that beginning is a projected future "ground" of man-made divisions into "states" of being - an intellectualized, industrialized and segmented division of life into differing sets of rules and regulations. In Egyptians… we see the inflection of a mechanized language upon the female ground, while in High-Tech… we see the projection of imaginary state lines that separate one set of people and rules from another. The mapped off area we see in the womb of the pregnant woman is also the region of planet Earth where the artist, Robert Watts happened to come of age. The ambiguities that exist between "place" of origins, between the strictly biological in the concrete sense, and intellectual in the strictly, mental modeled sense is almost never an accident in a work by Watts.

Out of the mouths of babes needs little elaboration, unless one is unfamiliar with the connotations of the phrase. Children cannot help but speak the truth. Here we see a malformed youth, a sight that would surely sadden you with empathy. But what is at stake here? It is not the physical beauty – the esthetics of perfect human form. It is not yet the beauty even of words, but of laughing in the experience of butterflies.
Given Watts’ close relationship with George Maciunas to the end of the latter’s life, there are suggestive biographical readings within the Flux Med series. G.M. as a student of Dr. Hyde is hardly mysterious to anyone who knows of Maciunas’ notoriety as a dramatic character. The figure chosen by Watts superficially resembles the bespectacled Maciunas; moreover Watts, who enjoyed a relatively compatible relationship with Maciunas, pokes good humored fun at his friend’s checkered reputation alternately as a honored authority or as a beast. The potion that turned him to the dark side - Mr. Hyde - was the mechanizations of the enterprise of art, or anti-art, whichever way one may choose to see it. Similarly, there is a reference to Maciunas in Flux S & M with elements of truth relating to his relationship with his wife Billie Hutching, whom he married late in his life during a terminal illness that caused him great physical pain - pain which could be mitigated by the practice of sadomasochism. In this same frame, it is most likely that Flux Tickle and Flux Cure are references to Maciunas’ illness. It was known well enough in advance to be almost certainly terminal that he underwent significant shifts in personality dispositions.

When I consider the content of Flux Med as a suite of works I am less reminded of the similarity to certain collages of Max Ernst than I am of those of the sensibility of Hannah Höch or Richard Hamilton. Watts used combinations of feminine and masculine symbols and consumer ware in many images among his stamps, films, sculptures, photographs, and intermedia works of various descriptions. He often paired female/male as body/machine, with the former being most often figurative representations of eggs and reproductive organs and the latter being most often signified by mechanistic tools or abstracted systems such as numbers, alphabets, or nonsensical information and mappings.

In the caption commentary of the illustration of Hannah Höch’s collage Dada-Ernst 1920-21, I find some relevance to Watts’ treatment of collage elements and in matters of his handling of male and female imagery. The caption for Höch’s collage reads:

Dada-Ernst can mean "Dada serious" as well as alluding to Max Ernst, at this time based in Cologne. The image of the open legs with an eye pasted in the position of the vulva is one of the most undisguised sexual references in all modern art. [3]

In his comprehensive book Collage, The Making of Modern Art, Brandon Taylor describes the remarkable works by Höch:

... Höch uses the child-like device of replacement (superimposition), which functions to burlesque a given image by placing the wrong head on the wrong body, reversing or inverting the head, or detaching it altogether…. We can appreciate Höch’s independence relative to the male Dadas by looking at Dada-Ernst (1920-1), with its sexual references, its air of glamour, its interest in clothing and revelation of the body; or Untitled in 1921 in which the Russian dancer Claudia Pavlova’s image from the June 1921 issue of De Dame is shockingly replaced by a pensive female gaze, a pointing male figure, machine parts and a sewing pattern which looks like a satire on the unequally gendered mechanization of labour in the post-war world. Both these and other early works register Höch’s life-long concerns - the war between the genders (her battles with Hausmann), the feminist mask (culture versus nature), and the trans-gendered individual. (4)

Robert Watts Events 1964, Fluxus Edition
This object was published by George Maciunas with components that date from as early as 1962. Watts had produced events with George Brecht in their "Delivery Event" and "Lantern Extract" from their two-man collaboration Yam Festival in 1962-1963. The image card visible toward the lower left here was incorporated into the 1987 Flux Med series and, for the occasion, given the title X-Ray eyes by Watts.
Photo by Larry Miller © 1999

Because of Francesco Conz’s sharp eye for material, Watts came up with Dr. Bob and Flux Med. It should be noted that three images published in Flux Med were first published in the Fluxus Edition Robert Watts Events 1964 – as event cards – images that had no titles.
Dr. Bob added the titles, Wouldn’t it be great if......?, How in the world does she do It?, and X-Ray eyes. The latter image brings a clear memory of something Watts said to me once, which struck me as an unusually direct and forthright declaration from someone who was usually tight-lipped. He said, "I don’t miss much". What he meant was that he considered himself a keen observer of nature- everything around him, and I believe it was so, as evidenced in his work. X-Ray eyes, represents that power of observation as a naturalist that he had, along with his turning those eyes inward onto Self, as an ‘object’ not separate from the ‘environment’.

Larry Miller © 2008


[1] Brandon Taylor, Collage, The Making of Modern Art, (Thames & Hudson, New York 2004), 58.
[2] Allan Kaprow, Robert Watts and George Brecht, "Project in Multiple Dimensions",
(in Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963, edited by Joan Marter, The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey and Rutgers University Press, New Jersey and London, 1999), 158.
[3] Taylor, 48.
[4] Ibid.

Published in: Robert Watts. Flux Med, exhibition catalogue, Artpool, Budapest, 2008, pp. 7-29.