Robert Watts

"Art on Art," Leslie Tonkonow Gallery, through Jul 28

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Untitled, from “Tree-Wind Paintings”

Untitled, from “Tree-Wind Paintings” Photograph courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Gallery

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No, that burnt smell in the gallery is not your imagination. It’s the accidental result—along with scorch marks and chunks of exposed wall—of Robert Watts’s 1986 sculpture Venus. Hot, Intermittent. A silhouette of the Venus de Milo, rendered in electric toaster wire, started a fire after it was installed on the wall; it now rests unplugged on the gallery floor. The estate of the late artist, a seminal but lesser-known member of Fluxus who died in 1988, deemed the incident an apt expression of Watts’s oeuvre and requested that the evidence remain on display. The maverick artist may no longer be with us, but his feisty brand of Conceptualism lives on in this small, tightly focused show.

Watts was obsessed with issues of authorship, originality and the commodification of art; he also liked to have fun (the spark of Duchamp is keenly felt in the show). High points include a re-creation of Ingres’s signature in red neon, documentation of the artist’s effort to trademark the phrase Pop Art and selections from “Tree-Wind Paintings,” a series of automatic works created by dangling magic markers from branches. A rare photo of the project portrays the artist lying peacefully on his back in the shade, next to a drawing-in-progress. Its title: Tree Working, Artist Resting.

So why isn’t Watts, who influenced everyone from Kaprow to Koons, better known? Perhaps he was too much of an iconoclast even for Fluxus. Or perhaps he understood just how antithetical a high-profile career would be to his message. Nonetheless, despite all his irreverence, Watts was as serious as they come.—Sarah Schmerler

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