PRINT October 1998

Gary Garrels

Journeys begin and end often in unexpected places. In 1984 I had gone to Düsseldorf to see the sprawling exhibition “von hier aus,” a survey more or less of contemporary German art organized by Kasper Koenig. I did see and learn a lot about German art, but Koenig, as is his wont, kept the side doors open and Roth slipped in, or more likely, given his ways, was skeptically inducted. Though Roth was born in Hannover, during World War II he had been shipped off by his parents to Switzerland, which would remain as much a home to him as any other place for the rest of his life. He didn’t really fit in the exhibition, although the title, which might be translated as “from here on,” somehow seemed more apt when it came to his work than that of others. The work was messy without being summary, indulgently autobiographical, with details as obsessively remitted as those of any German artist but without their closure or typical finish. There was something grand and elegant in the work, suffusing and holding together what otherwise might have come across as merely pathetic and cast aside. Roth’s art came as a great surprise. As my mind kept returning to his work over the passing days, I was aghast at the betrayal of my own propensity toward a classic order. But I was hooked, and a new trail had to be pursued to find out something more about the enigmatic Dieter Roth.

By 1990 (more or less—which box are the journals packed in?), aided and abetted by Roth’s friends, I found myself in Basel with a plot now fully hatched to persuade the artist to agree to an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts, where I was then director of programs. By this point I better understood the foibles and singularity of his work and with quixotic pride was convinced that Dia might at last give him a deserved audience in America. I was warmly welcomed with coffee and pastries and conversation, allowed to roam and explore the studio—a storehouse and workshop seemingly without beginning or end but with a sixth sense of order, a private dialect that I hoped with practice and a good ear I might be more fully able to master. We exchanged letters and books, I made other visits to Basel, and we began to discuss how an exhibition might take shape. Of course, in the end that meant Roth traveling to New York. Here the journey ended. No answers to my letters.

Not too long afterward, I left Dia, but I always retained the hope that some day the conversation would begin again. There might be some situation that Roth would find friendly enough, if not enticing, to persuade him to undertake a journey. For in the end I realized that was all that could be said or asked. For Roth art was not a series of appointments and transactions, exhibitions and objects. Art was life itself, banal and grand, selfish and kind, reticent and exposed, controlled and impulsive, fleeting and monumental—all we have as human beings with a contingent presence on earth.

Stranger than the way my journey began, on the night Roth died I found myself flying from San Francisco to Basel. With no plans to see him, I arrived and was told of his death. Like a pilgrim, the next days were spent visiting the sites of his art in Basel and Zurich, celebrating what had been left behind as much as the force that had created the exquisite carapace that could never quite separate art from life. It is we and it is art that have been left behind. I trust in the years ahead I will know something that has previously eluded me, and I know that something of what I will learn will be due to Dieter Roth.

Gary Garrels is Elise S. Haas Chief Curator and Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.