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Dieter Roth 
Article added on May 19, 2004
Roth Time - the retrospective at MoMA QNS and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

Dieter Roth (1930-1998) is an artist's artist. In this, in the 20th century, he is probably only comparable to Marcel Duchamp (biography in German). Dieter Roth has an enduring influence on the work of his colleagues, as Maja Oeri, President of the Laurenz Foundation, accurately remarked in her forward to the catalogue Roth Time, which accompanies the retrospective at MoMA QNS and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, March 12 to June 7, 2004.

Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective is the first comprehensive overview of the artist's career. It presents fifty years of his creative output across all mediums and categories: paintings, drawings, graphic works, books, sculptures, installations, film and video works. The exhibition presents some 375 artworks, including five large-scale installations at P.S.1. The retrospective is organized in collaboration with Schaulager Basel in Switzerland and Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, where it has been shown previously. Eighteen works are exclusive to the MoMA presentation, including the assemblages Tonbild (Tone picture, 1975-1988) and A la maison (At home, 1975-1978).

The title of the retrospective Roth Zeit (Roth Time) was inspired by the title of a series of small shows at the Galerie Steinmetz in Bonn, Germany, in the 1970's. Theodora Vischer wrote in the catalogue that "The concept suggests a semantic perspective that is strikingly appropriate to Roth's universe as presented in the exhibition."

The Dieter Roth retrospective was, among others, made possible through the help of Björn Roth, the artist's son and collaborator, who has a profound knowledge of this father's work. The lawyer, collector Philipp Buse lent a substantial number of works from the Dieter Roth Foundation in Hamburg.

Theodora Vischer writes in Roth Time that Dieter Roth ignored boundaries, most uncompromisingly perhaps in the 1960's. This meant "disregarding qualitative norms, waiving the security of the system, taking a leap into the void, and going it alone. It is vital, indeed existential, .... because it forced him explicitly to defy his own resistance, his own talents and ambitions. The central message of Roth's art is therefore to be found in an attitude, perhaps a strategy, but not in any subject matter as such, and even less so - as Roth himself said - in morality."

Dieter Roth was an artist of an immense diversity and breadth, producing books, graphics, drawings, paintings, sculptures, assemblages, installations, audio and media works involving slides, sound recordings, film and video. He also worked as a composer, poet, writer and musician. Last but not least, he often collaborated with other artists, subverting the principle of authorship.

Biography of Dieter Roth 1930-1968.
Non-comprehensive sketches based on the book Roth Times.

Dieter (actually Karl-Dietrich) Roth was born in Hannover, Germany, on April 21, 1930 as the first of three sons of Karl-Ulrich, a Swiss businessman who later hold various jobs as an accountant and Vera, his German mother.

Dieter Roth grew up in Hannover and became a member of the paramilitary organization of the Hitler Youth in 1940. From this period dates a permanent and existential anxiety which he first described in literary guise in 1976 in Lebenslauf von 46 Jahren (A curriculum vitae of 46 years).

Thanks to the private Swiss foundation Pro Juventute, he spent several periods in Arosa, Switzerland. In 1942, he definitely moved to Switzerland. Pro Juventute assigned him to the family of Betty and Fritz Wyss in Zurich. They run the Bergheim Pension. In 1944, Dieter wrote to his parents that he had lived in the Reich too long to be genuinely Swiss. The boy was extremely reserved and the Wyss family could not fully win his confidence.

Roth's performances in school made his foster father send him to a gymnasium (college) in St. Gallen in 1945. Pro Juventute covered the cost. In 1946 he started doing etchings on tin, a technique showed to him by a teacher. He preferred to practice the new technique to going on vacation.

In 1947, Dieter Roth's family arrived in Switzerland and they all lived together in the capital, Bern. There, Dieter became dissatisfied with the gymnasium and asked to leave it. In April 1947, he began an apprenticeship as a commercial artist (advertising draftsman, illustrations, etc.) with Friedrich Wüthrich in Bern, whose clients included the cheese union, the milk associations, and a number of small local tradesmen. His commercial works were simple, in a folkloristic mode of representation.

On Sundays, his master gave him watercolor lessons. Roth's relationship with Wüthrich suffered when he began to show independence and developed an interest in classical modernism. His parents no longer allowed him to work on weekends, arguing that he was overtired. Dieter begins to spend his weekends at the home of the aunt of Franz Eggenschwiler, later a well-known artist. There, the two artists were able to paint and draw without any parental interference. Dieter Roth was also influenced by the Paul Klee retrospective he saw at the Bern Kunstmuseum.

In addition to his autodidact activities, Dieter Roth got formal training at the Gewerbeschule (Commercial art school) in Bern. Design, lettering and lithography were among the classes he attended in 1948 and 1949. The teacher, Eugen Jordi also taught him and the sculptor Bernhard Luginbühl the technique of drypoint engraving. And at the artist Rudolf Mumprecht's printing press, Dieter Roth made his early prints.

In 1953, Dieter Roth lived in Bern in order to work with Marcel Wyss and the writer Eugen Gomringer on the publication of the magazine spirale, an idea hatched at the Café Rio.

In 1953, Dieter Roth made a living by freelancing and working periodically for design studios. Among his friends were Peter Luginbühl, Harald Szeemann, Peter Altherr and others. The art dealers Eberhard Kornfeld and Hans Bollinger as well as the director of the Kunsthalle, Arnold Rüdlinger frequented the same cafés as the young artists, which gave them the possibility to meet art professionals as well as international artists.

In 1954, Dieter Roth was inspired by Zurich's concrete artist's such as Max Bill and succeeded in contributing three pictures from 1953 to the last exhibition of the Allianz group at the Helmhaus Zürich. Allianz was a Swiss artists' association founded in 1937 to foster Surrealist and abstract tendencies in contemporary Swiss art. The Zurich concrete artists Max Bill, Camille Graeser, Richard Paul Lohse and Leo Leuppi defined the group's image.

However, Roth's works deviated from the mathematical, modular juxtaposition of colors and shapes cultivated by Allianz. He broke up the geometry of his compositions and explored the phenomena of virtual light and movement in works such as Interferenz Etude, Komposition 2 c and Neujahrsgabe. He also explored the potential of optical effects.

Dieter Roth submitted two sculptures of aluminum and iron to the first outdoor exhibition of Swiss sculpture organized by Marcel Joray. In addition to moving artistically from mere imitation to independent and innovative works, the other major event of 1954 was Dieter Roth's association with Daniel Spoerri, who was hired as a principal dancer by the Bern Stadttheater; it was not until 1960 that Spoerri began working as an artist. Through Spoerri, Roth met many new artists he admired and with whom he would collaborate, among them André Thomkins, Emmett Williams, Robert Filliou and Marcel Broodthaers.

In the 1955 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern Junge Berner Künstler, director Arnold Rüdlinger showed seven works by Dieter Roth. Since 1954, works by Roth have also been on permanent view at Galerie 33. The Danish textile manufacturer Percy von Halling-Koch was impressed by Roth's work, which he felt would make good patterns for textiles.

In 1956 Roth moved to Copenhagen to accept a job for this major Danish textile manufacturer for whom he designed patterns for carpets and fabrics. Although Roth won a gold medal for one of his designs at a trade fair in San Francisco and another one would be printed on the cover of the famous magazine Magnum, none of his patterns ever got into production. However, he redesigned the company's logo, was responsible for the layout and editing of the in-house journal and designed some of the company's advertisements. In the same period, his artistic work concentrated on books and experimental films.

In 1957 Roth moved to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he lived intermittently until his death in 1998. The reason for this move was the woman he loved, Sigridur Björnsdóttir. They married in March of 1957 and their first child was born in November of the same year. Roth's wife already had a seven-year-old daughter. In the early years, the family of four largely lived on her income as an art therapist at the capital's national hospital.

The Iceland association of graphic artists refused to give Dieter Roth a work permit. However, in August, a goldsmith gave him some work to do. This permitted the artist to work on his drawings and books projects in which he reduced his formal vocabulary to two elements, the line and the dot.

Since Dieter Roth was unable to find a publisher for his children's book 1954-57 (Kinderbuch), he founded his own publishing company together with the Iceland writer Einar Bragi. Roth published all his books under that imprint until 1961.

In 1957, Roth showed twenty drawings at an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern. The following year, his wife introduced him to the architect Gudmundur Kristinsson, who would regularly hire him to build models. In addition, Roth had a variety of other occasional jobs, including the design of furniture, toys and drinking glasses. Optical and kinetic art characterized his work from 1957 to 1960. In September 1958, he had his first show in Iceland. The small café Mokka Kaffi showed his graphic work, but the artist did not sell anything.

In 1961 a radical shift in Dieter Roth's approach to art occurred, inspired by Jean Tinguely's and Robert Rauschenberg's melding of creation and destruction. Roth began to make works out of cut-up wastepaper and newspapers. Among them is a Literaturwurst (literature sausage), on view in New York. Roth replaced the meat from sausage recipes with the minced pages of books by writers he envied or whose work he disliked. In the case of the New York exhibit, it was Martin Walser's work Halbzeit that ended up in the sausage.

In the mid-1960's, Dieter Roth began to devise many different strategies for collecting and archiving his fragile works. Legendary in this regard is the collaboration with two generous collectors, the dentist Hanns Sohms and the lawyer Philipp Buse.

In 1965, Dieter Roth was invited to Rhode Island School of Design as visiting professor of graphic design. He resided in Providence for about a year, during which he began to use organic materials such as chocolate and cheese in his work.

The perishable, fugitive materials used by Dieter Roth include cheese, chocolate and spices. Not only the use of these materials but also the language and imagery they evoked was provocative.

Roth experimented with chocolate from 1968 to 1970. One of my favorite works by Dieter Roth is R.O.TH.A.A.VFB. (Portrait of the artist as Vogelfutterbüste (birdseed bust). The first one was made in 1968, the one in the New York retrospective dates from 1970 (dimensions: 23.5 x 15 x 10 cm). The work's name alludes to James Joyce's famous novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which Roth dismissed as kitsch because of its sentimentality. Roth made 30 copies cast in chocolate mixed with birdfeed. The self-portrait shows himself as an old man - he was only 38 in the year 1968. Dieter Roth did not return to chocolate as a material of his art until the 1990's.

Joseph Beuys and Claes Oldenbourg were other artists who occasionally experimented with chocolate in the late 1960's (Kleine Geschichte der Kunst mit Schokolade, Dirk Dobke 2002, 1:151 ff.), but it was Dieter Roth who made the most varied and complex use of chocolate in art.

Until the 1970's, Roth's exhibitions consisted largely of small-gallery presentations of his latest work. Some are legendary, e.g. the 1970 exhibition Staple Cheese (A Race) at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles. It consisted of suitcases filled with rotting cheese. It did not take long for the show to attract not only the attention of the media, but also of the local health authorities. Roth's first major show, Grafik und Bücher (Graphics and Books) opened at the Gemeentemusuem, The Hague, in 1972 and traveled from there to Basel, Zurich, London, Berlin, Düsseldorf and Vancouver.

Between 1968 and the early 1970's, Dieter Roth moved and worked between many cities, including London, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Berlin, Stuttgart, Vienna, Zurich and Los Angeles.

In this period, he made many works based on postcards, including a series of six graphic works featuring Piccadilly Circus in London. These technically complex prints, made with cocoa, tar, glue and ink are on view at the MoMA.

Other works of the early 1970's on show in Queens include surrealistic oil paintings, self-portrait drawings and graphics. Dieter Roth's numerous collaborations with the British artist Richard Hamilton are represented by a series of drawings made with both hands at the same time as well as by the work Tibidabo-Hundezwinger (Tibidabo dog compound, 1978). This work was inspired by a Barcelona dog pound. It consists of drawings, photographs and sound recordings. 

In the 1980's, Dieter Roth began making a systematic inventory of his works on filing cards. Although incomplete, it is a valuable research and study tool. From the 1980's, the MoMA shows Grosser Teppich (Large tapestry, 1984-1986), a collaboration with the Austrian artists Ingrid Wiener and Valie Export. New York also offers a look at "material pictures" made up of objects typically found in an artist's studio as well as Keller-Duo (Cellar duet, 1980-1989), an assemblage reflecting Roth's increasing interest in sound. In this work a synthesizer and two child-sized electric organs are built into two wooden constructions along with several tape recorders and speakers.

In 1998, Dieter Roth worked on Schimmelmuseum (Mold museum), a piece of art began earlier. Together with Philipp Buse, he worked on the institutional consolidation of the Dieter Roth foundation and its archives in Hamburg, Germany. Dirk Dobke was hired as curator. The same year, the Albertina in Vienna was the first museum to present a survey of Roth's prints. And the artist Daniel Spoerri invited Roth and other artists to design sculptures for  Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri, the artists' park on Monte Amiata in Tuscany, Italy. Roth designed an installation that would convert texts arriving by fax into sound, echoing his experimental sound alphabet of the 1960's. In May 1998, the exhibition Die Bücher (The books) opened at the print department of the ETH in Zurich. A few days later, the gallery Hauser and Wirth opened a large Roth exhibition. The Swiss gallery financed the opening of the nearby "Dieter Roth Bar", with furnishings that came from Café Alt Wien in Vienna, Austria; The Dieter Roth Bar in Zurich closed in the summer of 2000.

Unexpectedly, Dieter Roth died on the evening of June 5, 1998 of a heart attack in his studio on Hegenheimerstrasse in Basel, Switzerland.

This article is closely based on the catalogue Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective
. Get the book from In tandem with this catalogue, a book of essays based on the papers presented at a symposium in Basel on July 4 and 5, 2003, is to be published. Written by art historians, curators and other specialists, they examine aspects of Roth's work and life in detail.

German edition/deutsche Ausgabe of Roth Time: Roth Zeit. Lars Müller, Baden, 2003, 303 S. Buch bestellen bei
Dieter Roth at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

In addition to the chronological survey of Roth's career at MoMA QNS, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center presents five of the artist's largest and most complex works exploring the subjects of time, decay, and the diary.

In 1970, Dieter Roth began work on Gartenskulptur (Garden sculpture), a project that continues even beyond his death. It is a meditation on collection, decay and metamorphosis, continuously augmented and developed over a period of almost three decades. Gartenskulptur began with the above mentioned bust from birdseed and chocolate that was placed on a n outdoor platform for birds to pick apart. Over time Roth added various small art pieces and pre-installation sketches and drawings of the work itself on and around the platform. Every incarnation of the piece incorporates materials found on site. The waste that results from Gartenskulptur's exposure to the elements is recycled back into the work through a systems of tunnels and preserving jars, allowing the work to grow with every installation. Gartenskulptur has been installed with the assistance of Björn Roth, the artist's son and collaborator.

Another work by Roth exposed at P.S.1 is Fussboden (Floor, 1975-1992), a wooden studio floor covered with pigment and glue, originally removed from his studio in Iceland and installed in front of a gallery wall, as one would place a painting. It functions as a record of Roth's actions from 1975 to 1992 and asserts that a studio floor is just as much a work of art as the works produced upon its surface.

A third long-term project on display is Flacher Abfall (Flat waste). Roth began it in 1973. He collected food packaging and other found scraps, subsequently encasing them in over 600 binders and filling them in bookshelves. It testifies for Roth's role as collector, cataloguer and archivist. Preserving the refuse that he and others had left behind means creating both an autobiographical record and an environment in which the viewer is forced to confront the ephemeral nature of existence through exposure to this collection of garbage.

Reykjavik Slides (1973-1975 and 1990-1993) is a collection of 30,000 photographic slides purporting to document every single building in the Icelandic capital. Finally, Solo Szenen (Solo scenes, 1997-1998), also shot primarily in Reykjavik, is an installation composed of 131 video monitors and players stacked in a grid of three wooden shelves, each presenting continuous footage of the artist's daily routine. It is the culmination of a series of written, film and video diaries that Dieter Roth began in the early 1980's. It is an attempt at illustrating life as the accumulation of vast quantities of fragments of data.

Deutsch Politik Geschichte Kunst Film Musik Lebensart Reisen
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