ArtWeekend

Preserving Dieter Roth’s Ephemeral Art

There’s a discrepancy between Roth’s relationship with his art — so much of which was never meant to last — and its reception by an art establishment that has canonized the late artist.

Dieter Roth / Björn Roth, “The Studio of Dieter and Björn Roth, Ackermannshof, Basel” (1995–2008),mixed media installation; worktables, photographs, various objects, dimensions variable (photo by Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zürich. All images © Dieter Roth Estate and courtesy the Estate and Hauser & Wirth)

Books. Dieter Roth. Björn Roth. Studio at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea is a sprawling homage to the life and work of the legendary German-Swiss artist Dieter Roth, curated by Roth’s son and collaborator, artist Björn Roth.

The exhibition is divided thematically into two main areas. “Books” refers to the books Roth produced from the 1950s onward — which range from journals to photocopied images to poetry to abstract and representational drawings — as well as the series “Flacher Abfall / Flat Waste” (1975-76).

“Studio” is literally the studio that the Roths shared from 1995 to 1998 in Switzerland, along with over-painted photographs of the studio by Björn Roth. Following his father’s death in 1998, Björn catalogued the contents of the space with the intention of recreating it as an artwork. “The Studio of Dieter and Björn Roth, Ackermannschof, Basel” (1995-2008) is installed in the gallery’s main floor front room.

The sheer number of artworks in the exhibition is staggering. The dual focus does not interrupt the flow as much as it underscores the continuity between the workplace and the work. According to the press release, Roth saw the studio as “not merely a locale, but also a concept of ultimate, central meaning.” The studio’s placement near the entrance leads visitors into the nerve center of Roth’s practice before they encounter the abundance of work in the adjacent rooms and upper floors.

Dieter Roth, “Flacher Abfall / Flat Waste” (1975–1976/1992), mixed media in 623 A4 folders in 5 wooden shelving units and 7 wall-mounted shelves, dimensions variable

While the younger Roth, as the curator, might have had this in mind, the studio has little mystique without the artworks, and the coherence of the exhibition depends on mystique of Roth the elder. Throughout four-plus decades of making art, he was exceptionally prolific and inventive, crossing boundaries between media and genre and moving from one locale to another. In the early 1960s he began working with biodegradable materials, in particular foods such as chocolate and cheese.

Roth was fascinated with the act of creation and he created constantly. The objects are but one product of this voracious creativity, yet, they proliferated; there are hundreds of them in this exhibition alone. Some of Roth’s creations stand alone, such as symmetrical drawings deftly sketched with both hands simultaneously. These are reminders of his skill as a draftsman. Others are conceptual, as in “Flacher Abfall / Flat Waste”: for one year, Roth kept everyday ephemera that was under five millimeters thick and preserved it in more than 600 binders (a single item in each plastic sleeve), lining dozens of bookshelves.

“Flacher Abfall / Flat Waste” reveals nothing unusual about the materials that filled Roth’s day-to-day existence. Encompassing postcards, receipts, paper packaging, and fruit peels, among other items, the project can be viewed as a comment on accumulation or the remnants of an artist’s obsession — partly with accretion and waste, partly with himself. It is clearly positioned as an artwork. What it is not is a set of precious objects, nor would Roth have wanted that.

Dieter Roth, “246 little clouds” (detail) (ca. 1976), original handwritten manuscript and template for Collected Works Vol 17; 171 pages, 3 pages handwritten instructions, 25.5 x 38 cm / 10 x 15 inches

One problem with bringing these bodies of work together is that the scope is overwhelming — though Roth’s artistic ambitions could be overwhelming, too. Another, trickier problem is that the presentation and environment result in precisely what Roth seemed to oppose — the institutionalization of a fundamentally renegade practice, and the elevation of his objects.

The exhibition of framed drawings and objects in glass vitrines, within the cultivated space of the three-story gallery, works against the emphasis on physical processes, bricolage, and, at times, slapdash aesthetic that is apparent in Roth’s studio and his drawings, journals, and other projects. More attention to Roth’s biography and motivations in a less expansive exhibition might better open the work to the lines of philosophical and scientific inquiry that so occupied him.

Part of the difficulty, however, lies in the subject. Although he surrounded himself with innovative artists, at the center of his art was the commanding presence of Dieter Roth. Edith Jud’s 2003 documentary Dieter Roth, screened at Hauser & Wirth on July 11, shows the artist collaborating and interacting with artists including Richard Hamilton, Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer, and Dorothy Iannone, with whom Roth had a seven-year relationship. Yet Roth is the polestar. (Iannone is particularly short-changed; though she clearly adored Roth, what is compelling about their relationship is how he served as the muse fueling her own prolific and impressive art practice. There is little evidence of that here.

The film is indicative of the exhibition’s blind spots, detailing Roth’s ideas and enterprises with a kind of hero worship that imbalances the collaborative and ephemeral aspects of his practice. It exposes a discrepancy between Roth’s relationship with his art — so much of which was never meant to last — and its reception by an art establishment that has canonized the late artist. In this history, Roth’s objects are inextricable from the process of creation and eventual decomposition, as well as the artistic process as an expression of singular creative genius (a myth that is unmistakably masculine).

Dieter Roth / Björn Roth, “The Studio of Dieter and Björn Roth, Ackermannshof, Basel” (1995–2008),mixed media installation; worktables, photographs, various objects, dimensions variable (photo by Stefan Altenburger Photography, Zürich)

Although not actually part of the exhibition, the most satisfying experience of Roth’s work may be the Roth Bar. Tucked away in the Hauser & Wirth bookshop next to the gallery, the Roth Bar was conceived by Dieter Roth as an evolving installation of found materials. An incarnation was constructed in 1997 for the artist’s first Hauser & Wirth exhibition, in Zurich. The current Roth Bar, created by Björn Roth and his sons, Oddur and Einar, integrates work by the Roths with scavenged objects, video monitors, and a functional bar. The Roth Bar achieves what so much of the exhibition can’t quite reach — not only bridging art and life but presenting Roth’s art as active, alive, and, in time, gone.

Books. Dieter Roth. Björn Roth. Studio continues at Hauser & Wirth (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea) through July 28.

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