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Robert Watts papers, 1883-1989 (bulk 1940-1988)

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Watts (Robert) papers

Biographical / Historical Note

Robert Watts, born in 1923, spent his childhood and adolescence in Iowa and Louisville, Kentucky. The son of a mechanical engineer, Watts also earned an engineering degree, but after serving in World War II, went on to study art history at Columbia University. His emphasis was the study of ancient art and architecture in the Americas and Australia; his Master's thesis was on the masks of the Alaskan Eskimo (M.A. 1951).

For several years Watts worked as an abstract expressionist painter while teaching in the engineering department at Rutgers University. By the late 1950s he had moved to the art department and had also begun to employ his engineering training in his art, initially making boxes with electro-mechanical circuitry. Rutgers colleague Allan Kaprow, sculptor-chemist George Brecht, and Watts together wrote a proposal for an experimental laboratory for multi-media art entitled "Project in Multiple Dimensions" (1957-1958). Though never funded, this proposal articulated new assumptions about art in its relation to the everyday and to increasingly accessible media technologies, soon to find expression in the happenings, events, and installations of the 1960s, and eventually in the formation of Fluxus and Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.).

The everyday objects Watts reinvented as artifacts (cartons of eggs, stamps, floor mops) associated him with Pop Art, and his pieces appeared in the landmark 1963 Bianchini Supermarket Show. Philosophically, however, he was most allied with Fluxus, of which he was a founding and lifelong member. Persistently seeking ways to infiltrate commodity culture with art, Watts de-emphasized himself as creator while brilliantly illuminating infrastructural systems such as the U.S. postal service, mint, patent office or F.B.I. He worked in a wide range of novel media, including neon, laminates, Polaroid photography, video, film, sound, and light. While his studies in ancient art inform much of his work indirectly, they most distinctly appear in the African statues made of chrome. He collaborated with Fluxus associates on many events, workshops and festivals, including Yam Festival (1963) and FluxYear/Gemini (1974; 1978). In 1967, Watts and George Maciunas worked with Herman Fine to create a company called Implosions for producing and distributing ironic anti-commodities, such as disfiguring masks or transparent plastic dresses.

As an art professor, Watts was equally ingenious, establishing an Experimental Workshop at Rutgers that he took to the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1968. Believing that approaches to teaching art had to be radically changed, Watts encouraged a collaborative and spontaneous approach to creating multi-media events, some featuring recurring characters in Watts' work, like the Fur Family. In 1970 he co-edited an anthology, Proposals for Art Education.

Though most often exhibited in group shows, Watts had significant solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art and Rene Block Gallery in New York, the Ricke Gallery in Kassel, and at Multhipla and Francesco Conz Gallery in Milan. Since his death in 1988, Watts' prescience as an artist has been increasingly recognized, most influentially in a 1990 show at Leo Castelli Gallery, in Experiments in the Everyday: Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts (1999) and in Off-Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-garde (1999).

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