PRINT October 1998

Dieter Schwarz

A German artist friend once told me what made him sign up for Dieter Roth’s class at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in 1968. Meeting the professor for the first time he noticed the fear in his eyes and simply couldn’t help but feel intrigued. Fear was a powerful motivator for Roth, one that put him on his path—to conquer through wit and intelligence the domain of art, which promised him a measure of safety, while he continually tested art’s limits, not as a revolutionary avant-gardist but as an ironic commentator and skeptical moralist. His classes, by the way, weren’t held at the Akademie; instead, he assembled his students in a nearby bar, to keep a safe distance from the school. It later irked him that Beuys got all the credit for unconventional teaching at Düsseldorf.

I don’t know precisely what Roth discussed with students, but perhaps he spoke of his vision of art, as he once formulated it in a simple diagram in Philadelphia in 1964. There he presented the history of art in the twentieth century in the form of a staircase: the stairs were labeled “talent,” the landings “irony.” For every step forward, irony took artistic talent to another level. Though Roth was impressed by the Modernist optimism he encountered in the US in the ’60s, the pragmatic American outlook probably represents the antithesis of his conception of language and the world. It’s no accident that Roth struck up a friendship with Richard Hamilton and Marcel Broodthaers, with whom he planned a theme exhibition for dogs (among other things, the work would be hung at canine eye-level).

Dieter Roth follows in the tradition of such painter-poets as Arp, Klee, and Schwitters, whose literary-pictorial art in turn comes out of German Romanticism. In his innocent explorations during the ’60s, carried out in such unpretentious media as drawings and poems, Roth constructed tentative worlds governed by mutations and multiple variations—worlds regulated, that is, by nonregulation. In that period, his refined formulations and poetic subtlety had no rival—certainly not in the activism of Fluxus. One looks in vain to Roth for ideological assaults on various Modernist narratives and art-historical progressions; rather than attack them, he’d follow their traces, draining them of their certainties in the process; he knocked the wind out of formalism’s ineluctable logic, blatantly attaching his tools to the production of that momentum, or even dipping it in chocolate.

In so doing, he took lucid stock of the present. There’s an unforgettable scene of his offering his commentary on a work of Beuys’ in Vienna in 1979: he drew attention to the solemn pathos of Beuys’ relics by placing cheap utensils alongside the auratic objects and drawing an arrow on the floor to bring out the comparison. In the process, he implicated himself along with those whose practices he was calling into question: “I find that artists as we know them, myself included, pull a sort of curtain up before themselves. When it comes up, it’s a mask, but usually it’s just hazy curtains recalling something that may once have been good. It’s often vaguely reminiscent of religious painting.” The quote comes from one of our many conversations in the ’80s, which we tape-recorded since Roth amusingly enough imagined we could make money publishing them as syndicated newspaper columns.

When Roth pursued a project, he stuck to whatever rules he’d established at the outset: in 1976 he began the daily practice of collecting flat pieces of trash, which he then stored away in files. A few years later he set out to photograph every house in Reykjavik; he’d show the resulting slides on several projectors. The clarity of the concept dissolves as found particularities begin to take over. Viewers are seized with a deep melancholy as they watch the regular alternation between images, different yet at the same time indistinguishable.

Over the last decade Roth decided to keep a straightforward account of his life for presentation. But looking at these diaries and photos, you sense the reporting is always a sort of staging. Roth loved reading diaries and correspondences; it was an area of literature in which he was exceptionally well versed. His knowledge of the genre allowed him a huge repertoire of possibilities for self-representation without sharing a real intimacy with the spectator. There were certain roles he played with supreme virtuosity—the poet in his garret, say, or the protagonist of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (as we can see in his final work, single-scene videos running simultaneously on several monitors). Yet Roth never got so caught up in the role-playing that he totally hid its deeper motivation: “I came upon the word redemption through André Thomkins. We were talking about why he does all the things he does, why one always keeps going and trying things out. And I asked him: Why do you go on thinking, starting over again? And he said: ‘I’m hoping for redemption.’”

The deep fear of being falsely categorized led Roth to shun dealers and museum officials. He found their professionalism threatening, calling them “the artist’s natural enemy.” In the last years, rather than accept invitations from museums, he preferred to show in a copy shop in a suburb of Basel. If some retrospective of Roth’s work does eventually come to pass, I hope the organizers will think better than to simply gather works together. Roth doesn’t deserve to have his entire skeptical enterprise buried under the artifacts he’s left behind: the pictures and objects are merely the “object mechanism” that he both intended and didn’t intend, whose motley appearance pointed to something internal: “No One knows if there’s such a thing as thought. There are only signs—language, talk, markings—of something we call thought. And that may be nothing at all.”

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.