Robert Watts: Photography into Sculpture and Other Works

by Donald Goddard

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In 1987, a year before he died, Robert Watts made 45 Cal. Bullet Entering Light Bulb, in which a bullet, seemingly having traveled from the right nearly touches a light bulb marked by fissures of breaking. It is one of the few works of Watts' in which the objects are real--a bullet and a light bulb. Both retain their integrity of form--their hard exteriors--in very close proximity, though it seems evident (from the title and experience) that the bulb will be imminently destroyed, disintegrated, by the bullet.

Bullet Entering Light
© Robert Watts 2001
45 Cal. Bullet Entering Light Bulb, 1987
Wood box, plexiglas, bullet, light bulb
10" x 19" x 4 1/4"

Objects break along certain lines; life forces are crystallized. The photograph is such a crystallization, even the movie. Photographs of food on a plate, as in Laminated Dinner Table with Dinners and Floral Center Piece, represent discreet groups of food (peas, chops, chips) collaged on photographs of plates, something like TV dinners but even further removed. Reality is reconstituted in such a way that it is both more than real (familiar) and completely not real at all, so that it almost seems silly to deal with reality, or perhaps reality itself is silly. BLT is a black and white photo of bacon, lettuce, and tomato embedded in a three-inch-thick, bread-shaped and -sized, perfectly smooth and transparent piece of lucite. Bread (Ten Loaves) is a series of plaster loaves painted in sequentially darker shades of gray (cooking stages, photographic scale) with the final one wrapped in aluminum foil (manufacturing process). Everything is hard and/or flat, shiny, reflective, impenetrable. It simply exists, in the form that we see.
Laminated Table
© Robert Watts 2001
Laminated Dinner Table with Dinners and Floral Center Piece, 1965
Laminate photographs, glass, wood
29" x 36" x 36"

Then there is something without form that may be within everything. In 1975 Watts photographed some friends visiting his house but the photographs weren't at all what he expected. The people show up only vaguely and occasionally, replaced by abstract flares of light and areas of dark. Of course, we don't have to believe Watts' story abut the eight small photos that make up the work (Topaz) along with his explanatory text in which he speculates about psychic energy, but we do have to consider it, which is all we can do with any work of art.

Three Clouds
© Robert Watts 2001
Three Clouds 1965
Photographs mounted on wood, plexiglas, on three plastic laminate pedestals
45 3/4" x 10 1/2" x 10 1/2"

There are other anomalous conditions and phenomena, beyond reach, or perhaps beyond human intervention. Clouds appear in Watts' movie fragments, often on a split screen moving up on one side and down on the other, creating shapes that then disappear. The wind blows clouds, flowers, water, and grass. A naked woman moves under a sheet of plastic, as though that might give her a more definitive sense of reality. It is impossible to know the wholeness of these things. The Portrait Dress of vinyl, cellophane, thread, and polyester has sewn into it black and white photos of teeth, hands, nipples, eyelashes, etc., parts that incompletely reconstitute the female body in a garment that then covers much of the body of a real woman. Three Clouds correlates clouds, human skin, and white plexiglass by constituting them as cubes mounted on plastic laminate pedestals. Clouds are far away and unpredictable; now they are not. Women are out of reach; now one can focus on some Psalter characteristics. A piece not in this show calls upon the clouds and their movements to make music. The music is there. It just needs to be realized. A piece that is in this show, Girl with a Mole That Lights Up, wanly focuses attention away from the larger field of sexuality.

Portrait Dress
© Robert Watts 2001
Portrait Dress, 1965
Vinyl, cellophane, photographic film, thread, polyester
37 1/2" x 21" x 1"

In his essay for the catalogue of an exhibition at Columbia University in 1999 (Experiments in the Everyday: Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts), Benjamin H.D. Buchloh is right, in his somewhat tortured prose, to recognize the phenomenological differences between Watts' work and that of the contemporaneous Pop artists--Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and others. The latter turned into a celebration, the former remained an investigation in which the object is subject to critical rather than commercial thought, even in regard to commerce itself. Each work represents a special situation, a particular configuration of idea or energy that is constantly forming, rather than variation on a theme or gloss on a familiar phenomenon. Each phenomenon is new, whether known or not, and the light never goes out.

Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition can be seen through Saturday, June 30, 2001, at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, 535 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011. Tel. 212 255 8450. 8744. Website:


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