Roth Time: A Dieter Roth
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 and
Richard Hamilton Interfaces 15-16 1977-78
synthetic polymer paint, gouache, enamel, chalk, glue, pencil, ink and/or
collage on cibachrome or on cardboard or on wood, in three-part hinged
wood frames, 17-5/16 x 48-7/16 inches (open)
Tanner Teufen Collection. All image © Estate of Dieter Roth
COVER May 14, 2004: Literaturwurst (Martin Walser: Halbzeit)/Literature
sausage (Martin Walser: Halftime) 1961
chopped book pressed into sausage shape, 20-11/16 x 16-11/16 x 4-11/16
inches, from edition of 50.
Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg
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.
Dieter Roth Selbstbildnis
asl Vulkan (Self-portrait as volcano) 1973.
oil on canvas, 28 x 36-3/16 inches
Private Collection, Bern
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.
(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.
Dieter Roth Reykjavik
Slides Part 1: 1973-75; Part 2: 1990-93.
30,000 slides, with shelving units, slide projectors, and pedestals,
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
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.
(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.
Dieter Roth with
Vera and Björn Roth Keller-Duo/Cellar duet 1980-89. C
c ollage of cassettes, radio/cassette players, loudspeakers, electric
piano, violin, photographs, toys, lamps, Polaroid camera, and painting
utensils; oil and synthetic polymer paint on wood, 78 x 94 x 23-5/8
inches (200 x 240 x 60 cm).
Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg