PRINT October 1998

Patrick Frey

What do I want to say? What for? To whom?
What do I want to ask? What for? Of whom?
What do I want to say with this asking? To whom?
What do I want to ask with this saying? Of whom?

—Notebook, Page 283, 3rd Variant, Basel 1998

Where should one begin in writing about the artist and his work—the organization is rhizomatic, the intentions don’t proceed in a single direction but are a system of tangled paths twisting through a thicket that’s never been cleared, paths that are also perhaps lines of flight? Dieter Roth often fled out of shame, out of an “aggressive modesty,” as he himself called it. Two months before his death, at the opening in Zurich of his exhibition at the Graphische Sammlung der ETH—where his highly refined, formal concrete-poetry works of the ’40s could be viewed as well as the fantastic volumes of poems and drawings from the ’70s like “Scheisse” (Shit), “Mehr Scheisse” (More shit), “Gesamte Scheisse” (Complete shit), “Verdammte Scheisse” (Damned shit), “Verdammte Gesamte Kacke” (Damned complete crap), and “Gesamte Verdammte Kacke” (Complete damned crap)—a memorable encounter between two artistic worlds took place. Roth was signing one of his exhibition posters as a round man in a close-fitting dark suit and tinted glasses (let’s call him K.) sat down close beside him and addressed him—in a slightly pushy way—with the words, “Dieter Roth? Hi, I am K., nice to meet you. I like your exhibition.” Roth turned to the ’70s art star, gazed directly into the tinted lenses, and said calmly, “Who are you? I don’t know you!” K. shrunk slightly, saved himself with a brief, patronizing smile, and repeated, somewhat in disbelief, “I am K. I am an artist, I live in New York.” With a completely innocent face, Roth answered: “Nevertheless, I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are!” As the celebrated New Yorker noticed that he wasn’t getting across, he recovered with the helpless joke, “Well, then maybe you know my wife, she is an artist too and she also lives in New York!” To which Roth replied by merely shaking his head. Finally, K. gave up and positioned himself, slightly enervated—grinning, half with embarrassment, half with arrogance—beside the artist David Weiss in order to observe the phenomenon of Dieter Roth from a safer distance. Roth continued signing his posters, apparently unmoved, until he furtively leaned over toward me and said, with a straight face, in a low voice: “Well, this guy’s a real toughie, isn’t he?”

Later, as we were passing through the long corridor on the way to dinner, I wanted to ask him whether he had actually not recognized the famous Conceptual artist or whether that had just been a little power game when he said, “That’s the worst, isn’t it, on these occasions, these shams, these sham toughies.” By this I guess he meant everything—the embarrassment of every opening, his age and alcohol-related forgetfulness, the vanity with which the well-known wanted to share the stage on his night, maybe even the vanity of being an artist in general. Later I discovered that K. had found a dictionary of artists, searched out the entry under his name, and laid it open to that page on the table in front of Roth. One could hardly have staged the encounter between artistic antipodes better: K., an artist who, with a single work, derived from a single “concept” heavily inspired by an early-twentieth-century logico-philosophical text, became world renowned and who has been engaged ever since with formal variants on the same theme; Roth, who never trusted any “good idea” or concept in his polymorphic work-in-progress; K., the prototype of the artist who paints with philosophemes, always for the salon; Roth, the angry philosopher and poet, who, driven by angst, lust, and melancholy, in the face of the sheer transitory thingliness of the world, cannot free himself, above all not from the material in the sense of “Complete Shit.”

Actually, he understood himself to be a writer, a poet. “That’s more agreeable than war!” he wrote on December 16, 1990 (I can write here, on my chair, in my room, on my page undisturbed). “But the body is going under.” His concept of the poetic was free of lyrical escapism; when he wrote poetry he played a language game as amusing as it was hopeless—or maybe even a language battle against chaos and entropy. Only under the premise that making art is a special form of creative waste production was he able to endure that all-encompassing sense of shame from which so many other self-confident, successful artists feel totally free, a feeling of ridiculousness and embarrassment that arises, if, as a “timid person” (and this is how Roth saw himself) one must claim to be an artist, to bring forth art, with all the loftiness attached to it: significance, order, beauty, truth, etc.

Writing means thinking and thinking, in Roth’s case, meant a rage-driven ordering of all that assailed him, of the incessantly decaying Big Real. Thinking meant writing poetry—Dichtung—in the sense of the condensation (Verdichtung) of garbage, in this case, the precipitous words and sentences that briefly molded themselves to thoughts and then became frayed again, disintegrated, to become new garbage, to form a new poetic humus. But this dung remains fertilizing only if while writing/writing poetry/thinking all the smallest and largest feelings of the thinking subject and the circumstances—particularly the fragilities—of his writing body also came into play.

Such a complex, radically poetic practice also formed the underlying structure of Roth’s art. The category of beauty in art—and those other wonderful concepts that somehow incline toward “purity” and “perfection,” everything crystalline, sublime, perfectly functioning—never revealed themselves in Roth’s work as an ideal or ideologically given goal, but rather only as a categorical, virile desire—indeed, as painful cravings. For him the beautiful was certainly not to be created; at most it was something that occurred, for a few felicitous seconds, a possible moment of happiness. He intentionally left much of his work to chance. Beauty arose here on the entropic shoulder of the road, long after the artist had left the scene, as the most essential of all the ordered waste products. Beauty, perfection, and maybe even something like sublimity are found in Roth’s work where art gradually passes over into nature, into proliferation, being eaten and decaying, where maggots and worms permanently doom a chocolate sculpture to incompletion, where Novalis’ blue flowers bloom out of mold and rot, where the fuzz of mildew spores conjures a breath of gray-green white on paper, more fragrant and light than any pastel chalk in a virtuoso hand could ever hope to be.

“But the body is going under.” For this reason, writing, being an artist, is not “agreeable” but at most “more agreeable than war,” as he put it, because art must report from this “going under of the body” with no concern for losses. Roth’s art was condemned, indeed, damned to all eternity, to find “formulas” that don’t try to elude bodily ruin but that embody—and momentarily—overcome it. “Formula,” like “fear” (or all fears that afflict the artist and his formula-seeking spirit), is a central concept for Roth. The “1 formula = 1 work =1 artist life” would have been absolutely unthinkable for Roth. No formula without fear; without fear, no formula (and this of course applies to formal matters). Formulas come with a price, and the more effective and long-lived, the more dangerous, the higher the price, the greater the fear.

For “Formulas work out, bodies go under” [Formeln gehn auf, Körper gehn unter]. Thus runs Roth’s laconic hyperformula of the paradox (and torment) of his existence—or the existence of the artist in general. And of course this (untranslatable) hyperformula is itself a precarious language game, already a stale joke, in which, however, Roth’s incomparable potential lies in wait, that anarchistic-melancholy drive of a philosopher who cannot keep the chaos of concrete reality away from his body and who for this reason accumulates the objects that exist, according to plan, until they are exhausted or dissipated. In other words, a thinker who thinks the world as a system of waste to be brought into order, who “after the correct perceptions and equations longs as if for the light of the rising sun and nonetheless cannot allow himself to be beguiled by the Apollonian.” About four years ago, after I had noted down that last sentence in a rather elegiac review of one of Roth’s exhibitions, he called me up and said: “An acquaintance sent me a copy of this art magazine [it was Parkett], I read that and just wanted to express my gratitude.” I was of course pleased, we exchanged niceties and then he asked me: “And do you really think what you’ve written there?” “But of course, certainly, no question,” I stammered, taken completely unawares (a little like K.), and I’ll never know exactly how seriously he meant his question, just as K., at the end of the day, could no longer discover whether Roth really didn’t know his name or had only wanted to offer him a small lesson in aggressive modesty.

Patrick Frey is a writer who lives in Zurich.

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.