Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective
33 Street at Queens Blvd.
Long Island City, Queens
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, Queens
March 12-June 7, 2004
Dieter Roth (1930-1998) was a Jack of all trades, master of none. He is known as the artist who “not only erased the line between art and life but also pulverized the two into a single process.” But was art ever separate from life? This false dichotomy has propped up the dubious practices of many artists. Roth named volumes of his poetry and drawings Shit, More Shit, Complete Shit, Damned Shit, and Damned Complete Crap. This suggests that he considered the creative process to be no different from a bodily function. At the same time he had the hubris to think that his daily routines, eating, sleeping, reading, and the objects that surrounded him, were interesting enough to be art. The by-products of this so-called blending of art and life needed to be packaged in a clever way in order for the intelligentsia to consider them art.
According to his friend Richard Hamilton, “He had set out on a mission to destroy the art market.” However iconoclastic he was, Roth couldn’t escape navel gazing and the belief in the Midas touch of the artist. Successful artists can’t escape the petrifaction of their work. The two large scale exhibits currently on view at MoMA and P.S. 1 make it clear that Roth’s fear of museums and galleries was well founded. The display of his work behind sheets of glass and in display cases undermines it in many ways.
Dieter Roth wanted to go beyond the purely visual. In the beginning of his career he experimented with Op-Art, the goal of which is to directly impact human physiology and go beyond illusionism. His Literature Sausages consist of chopped up pages from a book pressed into sausage casing. What would Hegel’s oeuvre taste like? This dadaist gesture encapsulates the visual artist’s contempt for the written word. But it also supports the idea that Roth was bitter about his failure as a poet. None of his books of concrete poetry are in print and the literary world never took notice of them.
Many of the drawings in this exhibit look like blind contour drawings and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. “Tibidabo,” (1978) is made up of pre-recorded sounds of dogs barking in a dog pound in Monte Tibidabo, Barcelona, hundreds of photographs of the dogs taken by Roth and his sons, and 1600 playful “speedy drawings” of sausage like dogs. Supposedly Roth got depressed while making these recordings, but I guess he felt we would get more out of them. The combination of lamentful dog sounds, photographs, and playful drawings is disjointed but not provocative. Without resorting to video or film, Roth combined image and sound and assemblages and sound, but the sum and substance of these disparate elements fails to be emotive. The multiple stimulants are distracting. Just because the art stimulates more than one sense doesn’t mean the viewer has a deeper experience.
Roth was not able to completely circumvent the artist’s need to synthesize. The ugly and monotonous assemblages which take up the last few rooms of the MoMA exhibit are made from studio detritus and cassette players playing random sounds or snippets of music. None of these assemblages really hold together and the music doesn’t add to the objects, and vice versa. Paint is half-heartedly slathered on them, and the assemblages made of articles of clothing have gobs of glue poured on them. The purpose of the glue and paint is to unify the whole. Unification of a surface is an age old task performed by painters and sculptors alike, and Roth could not escape it. Just because you are sloppy about it or use off-beat materials doesn’t mean the goal is any different.
Roth was obsessed with his own image and the biodegradable materials he used might be a stand in for his own decaying physicality. His use of food and other biodegradable materials is nothing new. Check out the African art section of the Met when you get a chance. Most of the works made from biodegradable materials are behind glass. This cancels the impact the works have on the olfactory system. The glass and wood containers or frames which hold the art made of spices and rotting stuff overpower the art. With some of these objects, the glass covering them is foggy in spots and often the work is little more than a muddy indiscernible mess pressed behind glass. Some of these pieces are easy to make out and we view them as paintings. We can appreciate the discoloration, the mottled surfaces. No matter how off-beat the materials are, we still focus on formal qualities of the work. The impact of the chocolate lions and self portraits is not amplified by the repetition of forms. They do give off a pleasant subtle odor but they are ugly lumps. “Portrait of the Artist as Birdseed Bust,” (1970), has an interesting patina.
The oil paintings Roth did in the early seventies, fragmented rebuses floating in front of anonymous horizon lines (“Self Portrait as Volcano,” (1973)), aren’t very good. These kitschy images prove that Roth wasn’t much of a colorist.
“Flat Waste,” (1975-1976/1992) is a faux archive of common objects that are small enough to fit into plastic sleeves and 623 office binders. Roth put cigarette butts, bottle caps, soiled napkins and tissue paper, and magazines into the sleeves. Roth plays the archivist, neatly packaging and presenting personal/impersonal objects. Typically, an archive will include a finding aid, guide or inventory, which helps users find their way through the collection, and an introduction to the collection which briefly describes the contents. The classification of objects is done in a very systematic way. Everything is broken up into groups and sub-groups. Nothing is haphazard about this process. This conceptual art piece toys with the idea of the archive, creates a semblance of order. A major flaw of much conceptual art is that it borrows from the sciences, solemnly or mockingly emulates them, but lacks their vigor. The conceptual artist plays dress up. This is a boring record of his existence, and like other works in this exhibit it is a tautology.
“Solo Scenes,” (1997-98) is diaristic. On 128 monitors we see Roth puttering around his living quarters naked, robed, and fully dressed. He is awake, asleep, defecating, reading and writing, making art, chatting on the phone or with visitors, and eating and drinking. Roth tried to deflate the mythic image of the artist but failed to do so. These actions are being viewed by us because they are being done by an important artist. This installation gives us the illusion of omnipotence. If we add it all up do we have the sum total of a life? In a strange way this installation reinforces the psychological opaqueness of the artist and his life and works.
More obsessive/compulsive energy is on display in the “Reykjavik Slides,” (1973-75/1990-1993). 30,000 continuously projected slides of all of the houses or dwellings in Reykjavik, Iceland are meant to impress through the sheer uselessness of the task the artist set before himself. You have to wonder what the point of the monotony is. The images of house exteriors and the lack of interior shots emphasize the alienated or misanthropic feelings of the photographer. But again, we are impressed more by quantity than quality.
“Floor,” (1975-92) is the wooden floor which was in Roth’s Iceland studio. Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator of P.S. 1 tells us that, “[A] studio floor is just as much a work of art as the works it supports.” Not really. The context the floor appears in forces us to consider it as art. Once again, we are supposed to believe in the magical powers of the artist who can turn anything into art. The sheer size of the floor and the way it is precariously propped up against the wall is impressive, but why should we take interest in it, except for the fact that it is the studio floor of the famous artist Dieter Roth.
“Garden Sculpture,” (1968-96) relates to another anemic genre perhaps initiated by Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, from 1961. This 60′ long mass of stuff includes household items, plants, jars full of icky liquids, and video monitors showing footage of the installation being made. To include information about the making of the object in the object itself is a tiresome gesture that has been repeated by way too many artists. Seen as sculpture this is a mess. Common objects are elevated to the lofty realm of art without any transformation taking place. It is like wandering around the basement of a suburban house but not as mysterious. The display of the different tools that were used to make “Garden Sculpture” in the adjoining room is really pointless and didn’t enhance the experience of seeing the work in progress. Once again we are supposed to be overwhelmed by the size of the installation. The fact that this installation is ongoing or never complete is supposed to add to its meaning, but this just makes it pretentious.
Roth’s art didn’t develop. He started over and over again. He was a dabbler. There is something disingenuous about much of this exhibit. Roth’s boredom with visual art is palpable. His use of off-beat materials and his monotonous conceptual art did not disrupt the art market, but will probably keep art conservationists busy for years.