PRINT October 1998

Maja Oeri

I was still a teenager when Dieter Roth first showed up in my life about thirty years ago. He came one night to my parents’ house in Basel with a group of actors after a premiere. Already pretty tanked, he sat down at the piano and played a strange, singular kind of music with a dull melancholy refrain. “This is Dieter Roth!” the gallerist Felix Handschin whispered to me. “He’s the greatest, he’s even more important than Beuys, you’ll see.”

I met him properly in 1977 when I was working as an assistant at Handschin’s gallery in Basel. Handschin and Roth—both in financial straits—had, so they thought, discovered the way to make quick money. In the gallery, Roth drew hundreds of “Self-Portraits with Speech Bubble” on cheap, A4 paper. “Cash and Carry” was the name of the operation, but even at 300 Swiss francs a sheet—about $129 in 1977 dollars—it represented too high a risk for the careful Basel public. By the end of the exhibition, only one of the drawings had found a buyer.

I was probably the only one who profited from the “Cash and Carry” exhibition—it was the beginning of my friendship and collaboration with Dieter Roth.

In the mid-’80s Dieter requested that I start to put together his catalogue raisonné. Although with a creative volcano like Dieter this undertaking was doomed from the start, it gave me the opportunity to meet with him daily at his Basel studio. His memory was unbelievable—off the top of his head, he could give me the complete data on works, locations, and owners.

During this period he was working intensively on the chocolate towers. These are two towers made of hundreds of chocolate and sugar sculptures. As chocolate moths and mold were Dieter’s coworkers, the towers were constantly falling apart, and Dieter had to make new casts in a never-ending Sisyphean task. I tried to talk him into selling the work to the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation in Basel—to no avail. “The work isn’t ready yet,” he said, adding—as yet another trestle broke under its burden—“and it will never be.”

With the prospect of getting the chocolate towers into the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel—which he regarded as completely uninterested in his work—through the back door of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, his resistance finally melted. He prepared a beautiful dossier in which the towers were presented in a clean and appetizing fashion, and, with this, I succeeded (before any of the other members had ever seen the original) in convincing the foundation's board to purchase the work. Dieter set up a studio next to the museum. There the towers were installed; there he regularly went to work on them.

Dieter Roth was an alchemist—everything he touched turned into art. Even “flat trash” he collected for years and stored with proper elegance in hundreds of file folders. One day he asked me: “Don’t you want to gather flat trash for me for a year? That would be a relief!” I did it dutifully, but what in his hands became an impressive elevation of the everyday, was entirely insignificant in mine. But with this episode I understood that that was exactly the point. I could see what Dieter had been striving for, in vain, throughout his life: banality, harmlessness, boredom. His genius as an artist was to deny the usual trappings of art. He constantly tried to hide his intellectual superiority and artistic virtuosity behind a “simple man” shtick. He enjoyed hanging photographs of his grandchildren over his desk like an upright family man, and to my children he played the “good uncle” who took them on his knee and read them stories.

He had sensitivity, humor, and generosity to the utmost degree. But he was solitary and tired and suffered under the task allotted to him by fate: he literally had to make art.

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.