From Eyesore to Icon: Outsider Art, Racial Politics, and the Watts Towers


Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowships in American Art


History of Art


For nearly a century a massive sculptural environment has stood in the Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Built by a working-class Italian immigrant, in the 1950s the Watts Towers underwent a remarkable transformation from eccentric hobby to internationally renowned monument. This dissertation connects the Watts Towers’ emergence as a public icon with its impact on Ferus Gallery artists, members of the black avant-garde, and authors of the emerging category of outsider art. It argues that the history of the Watts Towers’ influence and institutionalization reveals a turning point in contemporary American art when boundaries that had been drawn along lines of geography, material use, and social identity began to dissolve. Using the Watts Towers as a thread to connect seemingly disparate artists and visual discourses, this dissertation paints a picture of the complexities involved when art’s insiders move out and its outsiders move in.