Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective

Museum of Modern Art P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
Through June 7, 2004

April 2004

Dieter Roth, “Neujahrsgabe” (New year’s gift) (1954), line etching on parchment. Published by F. Gygi, Bern 1955. © Estate of Dieter Roth. Photo credit: © Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg, photograph by Heini Schneebeli.

It was during a detailed introduction to the Dieter Roth Foundation in Hamburg, Germany that I was first awed by this artist’s eclectic genius. Housed in the former residence of Roth’s friend and longtime patron Philipp Buse, this unique collection of roughly 500 original works, 1,500 prints, and all 250 artist’s books, is both the most thorough compilation of Roth’s oeuvre and one of the art world’s best kept secrets. Forget about crowded tour buses or even daily visitors, at least in 2001, this well-hidden spot on the cultural map resembled a meditative temple rather than a museum. However, with the general public’s interest in Roth still slumbering, his revival was already underway. Following brief appearances in galleries and a phenomenal installation at Documenta 11, the traveling Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective marks the current peak of awareness of this highly influential artists’ artist.

Dieter Roth, “Literaturwurst (Martin Walser: Halbzeit)” (Literature sausage [Martin Walser: Halftime]), 1961. Chopped book pressed into sausage shape, frame. Edition: 50. ©Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg, photograph Heini Schneebeli.

As the final stop on a grand tour, which has come to New York via Schaulager Basel and The Museum Ludwig, Cologne, this retrospective takes full charge of the Museum of Modern Art. Spread over the industrial space in Queens, as well as dominating the third floor of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Roth Time is not only the first extensive showcasing of Roth’s oeuvre in the United States, but simply the artist’s most comprehensive exhibition to date. With nearly a third of the works on loan from Hamburg, this retrospective brings together drawings, graphics, books, paintings, sculptural objects, and films. While the larger museum space presents the results of fifty amazingly productive years chronologically, the installation at P.S.1 comprises five of Roth’s largest works. Though the sheer size of the exhibition, combined with the complex nature of Roth’s creations, might feel daunting at first, it proves a joyous treat to tackle. Shedding light on Roth’s multifaceted passions, various stylistic concerns, as well as his affiliations with the art movements of his time, this show succeeds in honoring a man for whom life equaled art, and home was wherever he was able to create.

Dieter Roth, “Selbstporträt als Doppelporträt” (Self-portrait as double portrait) (1973), oil on canvas. Kunstmuseum Bern. Hermann and Margrit Rupf-Stiftung © Estate of Dieter Roth. Photo by Christian Baur, Basel.

In the earliest works exhibited, such as a self-portrait, a detailed study of a red clover, or a picturesque view of the town of Solothurn, the maturity of the teenager’s eye seems surprising, reflecting a young, yet grown up soul. Born Karl Dietrich Roth in 1930 in Hanover, Germany, to an expatriate Swiss father and a German mother, he grew up amidst the crisis of World War II. Sent to Switzerland in the wake of the increased Allied bombings of Germany in 1943, the thirteen-year-old lived the following three years with foster parents, who ran a hotel and shelter for émigrés, mainly Jewish or communist artists and actors. It was the combination of living within this creative environment of strangers and experiencing immense loneliness that sparked Roth’s desire to express himself with drawings and poetry.

After the family was reunited in 1946, Roth dropped out of school and began an apprenticeship with Friedrich Wüthrich, a prominent graphic designer in Bern. From Cézanne inspired landscapes and color studies modeled after Paul Klee, such as the notable “Cat” (1950), to obvious traces of Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, and Jean (Hans) Arp in a collage “Untitled” (1951) made of leather, rubber, glass, wood, iron, cardboard, paper, linoleum, tin, and jute, the influences disclose the student’s meticulous analysis of modern art. Upon completing his apprenticeship in 1951, Roth had mastered lithography, typography, and graphic design, experienced a nervous breakdown, survived a suicide attempt, and was ready to deepen his search for unique creative expression. With a small group of artists and writers in Bern, he founded Spirale, an “international journal of young art,” wrote romantic poetry, played trumpet in jazz sessions, and showed experimental films in local bookstores. Not until his discovery of the geometric abstractions by Zurich’s “concrete” artists, such as Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, did Roth find his first cohesive stylistic home.

“Composition 2 c” (1954) and “Untitled” (1955) are accomplished examples from this phase. Part technical master’s thesis in Bauhaus aesthetics, in which the well-trained young graphic designer proves his skill, part poetic analysis of light and movement, they generate an astonishing sense of formal elegance and surprise. Spinning Mondrianesque ideas with a nocturnal rhythm, “Composition 2 c” employs the square as dominant structure, featuring a black grid on blue ground. Bouncing off this regulated scaffolding are yellow highlights, which enrich the delicately interwoven pattern made of pasted oil strips and colored paper, with a sense of spatial depth. Recognizing the potential of Roth’s graphics for the decorative arts, the Danish textile manufacturer Percy von Halling-Koch offered him a position as designer. Though Roth accepted, moved to Copenhagen in 1956, and even won a gold medal for one of his works at a trade fair in San Francisco, this enterprise only lasted a year. After falling in love with a young woman from Iceland, he moved north.

In Reykjavik, Roth, who is credited for having been a pioneer in establishing the artist’s book as a medium, increasingly focused on publications. Still struggling with the native tongue of his new environment, the artist began to reinvent a domain generally dependent on fluent language skills. Published by forlag ed, which was founded by Roth and the writer Einar Bragi, “book” (1958-59) is an excellent representative of Roth’s understanding that a book should be “a community of like-minded things pasted or sewed together.” Made of black, white, or colored cardboard, which interlock through hand-cut slits, each sheet becomes a unique work of graphic abstraction. The pages were kept loose without any traditional binding, allowing the viewer to freely arrange the book’s layout. It is this belief in improvisation and transformation that quickly became one of Roth’s primary concerns.

“Rubber-band-picture” (1961) consists of a square sheet of plywood, which holds a large number of evenly spaced nails. Aligned on a grid, the nails are used to hold various fully stretched rubber bands. In contrast to the solidly painted green structure, the shapes created by the red bands resemble minimal line drawings that dominate the picture plane. Reminiscent of ideals promoted by the Düsseldorf based Gruppe ZERO, which was founded in 1958 by German artists Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, “Bead Game” (1961) adds the element of light and movement. Painted in neutral white, an upright, rotating disk is pierced by a grid of nails, which loosely hold several white wooden pellets. When spinning, the disc transforms into a dynamically charged playground, where the clicking sound of the moving marbles underscores the visual patterns. In both cases, the viewer is encouraged to engage with the expressive tools the artist has provided.

The concept that the work should have a life of its own and that the artist’s main challenge is to set up interesting conditions under which the work can flourish, are pushed further in Roth’s food-based projects, inspired by the works of Robert Rauschenberg and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely as Roth abandoned Constructivism in the early sixties. At MOMA, the introduction to this body of work speaks to the senses. After being led through a room devoted to Roth’s longtime project Literature Sausages (begun in 1961)—a series in which the artist made sausages after traditional recipes and replaced the meat with the minced pages of books whose authors he disliked or envied—the viewer finds himself amidst a decaying Schlaraffenland, a darker version of the Brother Grimm’s “land of the lazy/idle.” Immediately, a tempting sweet smell pervades the space, luring the viewer forward. The seductive aroma emanates from “Self Tower/Lion Tower” (1969-1988/2003-2004), a carefully stacked tower of chocolate self-portraits and lion busts that were recently poured from Roth’s original casts. Intended as a “key vehicle of memory,” the unmistakable scent supplements the overall aura of nostalgia. From old-fashioned toys in “Motorcycle Racers III” (1970) to oil crayons in “Two Motorcyclists” (1967), Roth froze objects in chocolate that provoke sentimental associations. Though artists such as Joseph Beuys and Claes Oldenburg experimented with food during the same period, a fact of which Roth was certainly aware, his wide-ranging variations appear as far more obsessive. Cooking up new recipes for artworks, Roth’s material descriptions from this era are hard to match: decayed foodstuffs, pigment, plaster, nails, screws, and wire fixed on pressboard (“Island,” 1968); a slice of sausage molding on top of cardboard and a colored plastic bag (“Small Sunset,” 1968); a print made of a squished banana (“Banana Print,” 1966); enamel, watercolor, and latex paint on papier-mâché and sweets on cardboard and wood (“Untitled,” 1964); slices of sausage and paper caught between sheets of glass, grounded with an iron base (“Sausage Cloud,” 1969).

In the early seventies, Roth turned away from perishable objects as his favored material. Moving constantly, his extensive correspondence, including over a thousand postcards sent from London, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Berlin, Stuttgart, Vienna, Zurich, Los Angeles, and even the high seas aboard the Icelandic freighter Bruarfoss, became an independent project. “Twenty-Nine Postcards to Emmett Williams” (begun in 1975) is one of many card groups mailed to different friends and colleagues, which consist of painted variations of the same photographic motif. By employing the original picture as mere background and formal inspiration—in this case a photograph of three puffins—Roth dismissed the traditional role of postcards to reflect the place or mood of its sender’s location. Installed on a grid, the series sent to Williams, a Fluxus artist and poet, becomes an impressive display of creative possibilities in which each artifact harbors its own travel history and distinct mood.

Though MOMA displays a copious number of projects from the 1970s, including René Magritte-inspired Surrealist self-portraits, such as “Self-Portrait as Volcano” (1973), and a collaborative work with Richard Hamilton and Roth’s son Björn based on a dog pound on Monte Tibidabo, Barcelona (1976), the most complex examples are kept at P.S.1. In the lyrical “Flat Garbage” (1975-76), a work that brings Thomas Hirschhorn to mind, six hundred and twenty-three office binders are filled with almost two years worth of daily collected waste. Held in sheet protectors, each item is part of one day’s catalogue, archived and neatly stacked onto a shelf. A generic office space on the surface, which under its skin bears juicy slices of familiar objects, the work seems a manifestation of the proverb “still waters run deep.” With time, this project’s artistic significance will shift to a historical one. The concept of thorough documentation is also inherent in “Solo Scenes” (1997-98), Roth’s filmed diaries screened from 131 video monitors, and “Reykjavik Slides” (1973-1975), an installation of eight slide projectors and 30,000 continuously projected city shots. Taken at random times of day, under varying weather conditions, and from differing angles, Roth’s urban mosaic is less related to the German conceptual photographers Bernd & Hilla Becher, than functioning as precursor to such artists as Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

The retrospective concludes with the artist’s collages made of cardboard mats taken from tables in Roth’s studio and home to record “traces of my domestic activities,” as well as with his elaborate sound sculptures. “Cellar Duet” (1980-89) incorporates a synthesizer and two electric organs for children, several tape recorders, cassettes, and speakers, all integrated into two large, gesturally painted wooden constructions. In collaboration with Björn, Roth recorded various instruments on several tapes, which the audience is encouraged to choose from and play along with on the provided keys. By engaging the works’ creative facilities, the active participant completes the fusion of the sculptural and musical collage, and hence embraces what in Roth’s oeuvre matters most: the seamless unity of sensual and physical expression.

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