Dieter Roth

1930 - 1998

Died in Basel (CH), born in Hannover (DE).

Dieter Roth was a Swiss poet, sculptor, graphic designer and interdisciplinary contrarian who initially started in the tradition of the Romantic poet-painter. During WWII the young Roth ended up in Switzerland and was able to escape the bombings and the Nazi youth movement. During those years he stayed in a kind of hotel, as a stranger among strangers. Unlike his parents, his foster parents let young Dieter do whatever he wanted. At the age of seventeen he left school and did an internship as a graphic designer. Someone had told him that you could print by scratching a surface, smearing something on it and then pressing it onto a carrier. On weekdays he worked for magazines, advertising agencies, etc. During the weekend he experimented with what soon became the birth of his own oeuvre.

The young Roth looked in the mirror, scratched his self-portrait on the bottom of a can, applied shoe polish and then printed it. He thought it was a failure. Ten years later he followed the same process in combination with oil paintings. It would become a constant throughout his oeuvre: his self-portrait popping up in a work of art that is defaced and half destroyed so that it can take on a life of its own. 

“What interests me are the things that go wrong, that go downhill, and how, despite this, they support and embolden the image.”

Roth spent much of his adult life in Reykjavik, Iceland. It isolated him from the art world yet simultaneously placed him in a more strategic position between Europe and the United States. It enabled him to create his own aesthetic that was predominantly anti-aesthetic. He was very impressed by the work of the sculptor, painter and poet Hans Arp and the painter André Thomkins. His work became a fight against the older generation and those he admired. Roth wanted to be the best in every discipline he encountered.

In the 1950s and 1960s he became part of the Fluxus movement and met artists such as Ben Vautier, Dorothy Iannone and Robert Filliou. Roth took part in happenings and Fluxus concerts and further expanded his arsenal of useful disciplines. There were no brakes.

He never threw anything away because everything seemed designed to him. It's the work of thousands of designers that we throw away. Roth combined the precision of a minimalist who eliminates everything superfluous until virtually nothing remains, with the obsessive accumulation of a restless chaotic, a bricoleur and Dadaist who simply can't say 'no' to anything, never really makes a decision, but immediately executes whatever comes into his head; an artist who seemed to want to drown in the swamp of an immense oeuvre that was never intended to stand the test of time. Roth mastered almost all disciplines and combined painting, sculpture, printing, photography, videos and sound in all-encompassing works. Fascinated by the mechanisms of transformation, Roth used a wide range of materials and objects such as utensils, furniture, monitors and food in a process that revealed the constant mutability of the work. According to Roth, works of art had to change, just as people grow old and die.

With Portrait of the artist as a Vogelfutterbüste from 1968 he made a series of busts, multiples of himself as an old man using a mixture of chocolate and birdseed. The statues were placed on a pedestal in a park so that the birds could eat them. 

A few years earlier, Roth had taken the art form of 'concrete poetry' into unknown and unseen territory with Literaturwurst (1961-1964). He processed existing books by, among others, Günter Grass or the complete works of Hegel into sausages; the text was put through the grinder together with fat and spices. The cover of the book in question was glued to the crust of the sausage and Roth made a separate publication with the recipe. In 1966 he published a series of poetry collections under the title Scheisse- Neue Gedichte von Diter Roth. In the opening poem mein Auge ist ein Mund he expresses his lifelong quest to break away from traditional aesthetics and to undermine the dominance of the gaze in the visual arts. Roth makes works and publications from cheese, yoghurt, bananas and chocolate, as if he wants to use these perishable materials to add the rotting smell of death to the 'art gaze'.

In 1970 Roth organised Staple Cheese: A Race in the Eugenia Butler Gallery (Los Angeles). In addition to other 'cheese work', he showed 37 travel suitcases filled with Cheddar, Limburger, Camembert and Brie. The suitcases were initially closed like books. Each day a suitcase was opened and the other cheese work began to stink and rot under the warm California spring sun, to the point that the city health inspector ordered the work removed. The exhibition was also a powerful example of anti-commercial thinking. It was much discussed, but there was no way to deal with this anti-aesthete who stuck out his tongue at the circus.

“I would call myself an inventor of machines intended to entertain (or inspire) feelings (or thoughts) that help navigate this Central European civilization that is wading in junk.”

In the 1980s and 1990s Dieter Roth focused on large installations. His most famous work of this period was Gartenskulptur (Garden Sculpture), a constantly evolving installation with various works of art mounted on trellises. The installation was assembled in various gardens and later in indoor spaces as well. It was a collaboration with his son Björn Roth.

Over the next decade Roth continued to explore ideas relentlessly, regardless of the medium he used. Although drawing would remain instrumental to him, no medium was safe from his masterful hand. His graphic work also stands out. The perishable nature on which much of his work is made seems like a small nightmare for conservators, but the fact that these organic materials have taken over the artist's 'work' in the long term creates a sometimes beautiful aesthetic and poetry in which you can clearly see the hand of Dieter Roth, even though he has constantly worked against this throughout his prodigious career.

“I think the afterimage of my work is the opposite of what I have done or what is there; even though it may be quite disgusting, the afterimage will be a smart and bright thing.”

The creation process was life. The finished product death. Roth put a stop to that.

“For me, art is finished. Because it has nothing more to say. It cannot tell the truth. The moment a drawing is hung on the wall it no longer has anything to say. It's just there to look at.”


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