PRINT October 1998

Emmett Williams

Our mutual friend Daniel Spoerri introduced Dieter and me at a Tinguely exhibition in Basel in 1960. Daniel had published books of “concrete poetry” by the two of us in Darmstadt the year before, and he thought we might see eye to eye on matters of art and life, and have fun comparing notes. We did, and the meeting was to enrich my life and art beyond telling in these hasty reminiscences, which seem to me so superfluous so soon after the eulogy I delivered at the memorial service just a few blocks away from where we first met so many short years ago.

diter rot. That's the way he defiantly restructured and lowercased not only his own name but the German language in general in those days. Years before we met I had jealously admired the succession of books and book-objects that this wandering German-born Swiss poet-artist-designer had been creating with such ease since the mid-'50s, almost single-handedly inventing the genre we now call artists' books. I might have tried to meet him sooner had I not been somewhat in awe of him. I mean, what kind of guy is going to carry out experiments to determine whether cactus grows better in Camembert or potato salad—and use the results in a painting?

Working with him, or for that matter playing with him, wasn't always easy for his friends and collaborators, for the simple reason that he was usually somewhere else. He was most at home away from home, escaping permanent attachments to any one place or one circle of friends. In this connection I recall the subtitle of his early poetic testament, 246 Little Clouds:

a fictive report
from countries far inside a swiss
who is living abroad
inside himself

He wrote the book, characteristically, on the high seas, aboard the Icelandic freighter Brúarfoss, outward bound from New York, in December 1966. He sent the manuscript to me as a Christmas present.

Half a year later I was also outward bound from New York on the Brúarfoss, destination Reykjavik, with the intention of producing an English language Dieter Roth reader. I was lugging along an unusually heavy collage, Life and Letters 1966, the first large work I completed in the United States after a seventeen-year absence in Europe. It comprised twenty-five plastic toy animals in the shapes of the ABCs, plus a plastic container of “Synthetic Diseased Urine” (the byproduct, I was told by Ray Johnson, who gave it to me, of a US Army research project) for the letter P, all imbedded in concrete, and bound for exhibition in Italy.

Shipping the collage would be prohibitively expensive, Dieter assured me, and he very thoughtfully made a light and airy drawing of it. This drawing, which he signed, became one of his most often reproduced works, and remains the pride of my own collection. (My original “poem in concrete” now hangs in the farmhouse-studio of Dieter's great friend Richard Hamilton at Henley-on-Thames.)

“Permit me to begin with a funny story,” I began my eulogy at the memorial service for Dieter. For, although he did not suffer fools gladly, he loved jokes and funny stories, and his life and work were full of them. And the art establishment was often the butt of his prodigious and sometimes savage wit. In 1982, twenty-two years after our first meeting, we were back in Basel together. As I once related in my essay “An Iceberg on Fire,” he had been awarded the Rembrandt Prize of the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Foundation, and I was asked to deliver the laudatio. There was so much to say about this artist of unfathomable possibilities and resources, “an alchemist who can turn shit into gold” (Dieter loved that phrase!), and the address went on and on and on. After I finished, the distinguished audience settled back into their seats to hear the prizewinner express his gratitude, and perhaps drop a few words of wisdom gleaned from his long, hard battle with art and life. It was the shortest acceptance speech on record. Pocketing the gold medal and waving bye-bye to the judges, he bade the audience “Auf Wiedersehen” and left the stage, all smiles.

But wait! The Basel laudatio came to life again in 1989, when Dieter won the prestigious Lichtwark Prize in Hamburg. Dieter was very happy when I agreed to repeat the Basel address word for word, and perform with him a spontaneous comedy of errors. The audience assembled in the Kunsthalle—including the Lord Mayor—was somewhat shocked when I greeted them as “art lovers of Basel” who had had the wisdom to award the Rembrandt Prize to Dieter Roth.

“No, no, Emmett,” shouted Dieter, “you're in Hamburg, not Basel,” and another voice shouted out that it was the Lichtwark Prize, not Rembrandt. To which I replied, “Okay, so Dieter wins the Rembrandt Prize one year, the Lichtwark Prize in another, with all sorts of prizes big and little in between, it's no big deal.”

We were both in top form that night. I hate to think there'll be no encores. Having a friend like diter rot is a hard act to follow.

Emmett Williams is a poet who lives in Berlin.