The closest the Watts Towers have ever come to being transported to the Walker was when the Towers were featured in a 1974-75 Visual Arts show here, Naives and Visionaries, curated by then-director Martin Friedman. The Watts Tower artist, Simon Rodia, couldn’t be interviewed for or attend the show; he had passed away ten years earlier, but the show featured giant paneled photographs of his masterwork.
The Walker’s amazing librarian, Rosemary Furtak, showed me a great article from the New Yorker on Simon Rodia by the American writer Calvin Trillin, published in the May 29, 1965 issue. The article in its entirety is a great read, perhaps yet another reason to invest in this, eh? Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the Trillin article, which sets the story nicely:
“If a man who has not labeled himself an artist happens to produce a work of art, he is likely to cause a lot of confusion and inconvenience. Working from 1921 until 1954, Sam Rodia, an uneducated Italian immigrant who had settled in a district of Los Angeles called Watts, constructed a dreamlike complex of openwork towers and other structures in his yard and encrusted them with a sparkling mosaic composed mainly of what had once been refuse. The result is almost certainly a work of art—though the fact that it is not only unlabelled but unique has made it difficult for art critics to decide precisely what kind of work of art—and it has certainly been an inconvenience.
For one thing, Rodia’s work is large—the tallest of his towers, a lacy spire that looks something like a bizarre, multicolored model of the Eiffel Tower, is ninety-nine and a half feet tall—so the question of what it might be takes on a practical as well as an academic significance. City building officials who might treat most works of art with deference, if not always with sympathy, tend to treat a large unlabelled one the same way they would treat an office building, a house, or, most damaging, a structure that fits no category at all.
Rodia was not concerned with any profit he might make from the towers—in fact, he spent most of what money he did have on materials for their construction—and eventually he was not even concerned with the towers themselves. In 1954, when he was about seventy-nine, he deemed his property to a neighbor for nothing, announced that he was going away to die, and disappeared. Five years later, when it seemed almost certain that the City of Los Angeles was going to tear down the towers as a safety hazard, Rodia was discovered living in Martinez, a small city not far from San Francisco. Upon being informed of the demolition threat, he told a Los Angeles reporter, ‘I don’t want to have any more to do with them.’ He has not been back to Watts since.”
Simon Rodia died a month before the Watts riots, which his Towers survived completely unscathed. The Towers have also survived numerous earthquakes, and still stand. But visitors to the Towers aren’t allowed inside their fenced-in perimeter, so it’ll be a better bargain to invest in a ticket to Roger Guenveur Smith’s Watts Towers Project, running this Thursday evening-Saturday evening. Daniel Foster has already had more of an inside-look than any of us could hope for, and Roger’s “jazz-infused meditation” is sure to transport us to (as Trillin would say) “that district in Los Angeles called Watts”.
Many thanks to Barb Economon and Jill Vuchetich for finding these photos in the Walker archives.