Robert Watts’ path to becoming a prime mover of the Fluxus art movement was unconventional. After studying mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville, Watts was an officer in the U.S. Navy, serving aboard aircraft carriers. After leaving the Navy, Watts, a/k/a Bob Watts and Doctor Bob, moved to New York in 1948 and studied at the Art Students League and then Columbia University; at Columbia, Watts earned a History of Art degree, focusing on non-Western and pre-Columbian art. Watts subsequently became a member of artistic academia, as a professor of art at Rutgers University’s Douglass College.
In the decade after his establishment in academia, Watts began exhibiting his proto-pop art. After participating in several such gallery shows — notably 1960′s “New Forms, New Media” at the Martha Jackson Gallery, 1963′s “Popular Image” exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Art, and 1964′s “American Supermarket” exhibition at Bianchini Gallery — Watts decided to extract himself from the gallery system and become a part of the New York anti-art community, a community that was spearheaded by the vision of George Maciunas.
Watts’ work Black Eggs was shown in the “American Supermarket” exhibition and at the Leo Castell Gallery in 1964.
Of Watts, Castilli said: “[His] work obviously related to that of the Pop artists that I had discovered a few years before… Watts’ chromed objects closely related to Johns’ cast beer cans and flashlights, for instance. The 1964 exhibition also included Watts’ sculpture of plaster cast loaves of bread on shelves. That work, in particular, I think of as one of his most important inventions.”
Watts lunched and collaborated with George Brecht for years. In 1962, Watts and Brecht organized The Yam Festival, a mail art-centric venue “for all manner of immaterial, experimental, as yet unclassified forms of expression.” University of Sydney Art History Professor Julia Robinson notes: “In all of its formats and strategies Brecht’s and Watt’s Yam Festival operated as an alternative to the gallery system, producing ‘art’ that could not be bought.” — Julia Robinson
“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.” — Frances Richard, 2001
Robert Watts – String Composition
Robert Watts – Trace #22 (1965)