PRINT October 1998

Richard Hamilton

There were three great European artists I was proud to number among my friends. Marcel Broodthaers was the first to go, and he, sadly, did not live long enough to enjoy the recognition he began to receive toward the end of his life. Joseph Beuys was awarded his laurels at a Guggenheim show in 1979 and shot to number one in Willy Baumgart’s world listing of artists in Capital, the German financial newspaper. He carried his celebrity with splendor until he died. Dieter Roth resisted fame all his life; in spite of his self-proclaimed jealousy of other artists’ success, he did little to encourage his supporters.

A photographer once asked him if he might be permitted to make a portrait. Dieter refused, saying, “It took me forty-six years to grow this face; why should I give it to you?” He always distrusted dealers because they wished to profit from his art; even devoted collectors were viewed with suspicion as potential merchants. Yet he was the most generous man I knew, and his many friends (often those he later regarded, sometimes unreasonably, as enemies) were showered with books, painted postcards, and artworks. He was as free with his money as with his art, and many a less successful artist benefited from his largesse.

When Dieter’s friends meet, they know they can look forward to a long session of tales of his exploits. The stories, usually outrageously surreal, provoke hysterical laughter that subsides with heads shaking as though in disbelief. Like his art, his humor often involved food. I once saw him at a dinner party contemplating four scallops left on his plate. As if to avoid offending his hostess, he explained that he would eat them later, and put one sauce-covered scallop into each of his waistcoat pockets. Don’t let the waistcoat fool you; he was not a snappy or a formal dresser. For most of the time I knew him, he wore secondhand clothes that he was given. It was a deliberate technique to avoid having to choose the style, color, pattern, or fabric of a suit. He would give friends money and ask them to buy a shirt for him so that such a pointless decision might be bypassed.

Dieter was a subversive. It was as though he had set out on a mission to destroy the art market. Through a technique of variable pricing, undercutting one dealer by selling a similar product to another at half the price, he did succeed in producing a confused market for his work. Another effective method was the use of food as a medium. Dairy products such as cheese, custard, and yogurt were favored, but many sublime works came cast in chocolate. Raw minced meat was shunned only when he was warned of the danger of botulism. He tested dealers who pressed him to exhibit by subjecting them to rancid, flyblown artworks that became increasingly offensive during the course of an exhibition. Those who sat it out were given only grudging respect.

One extraordinary sculpture, painting, object (it defies classification) consisted of a series of closely packed sheets of glass, arranged so that they made a deep block. Pressed between panes were single slices of dried sausage taken from a six-inch-diameter salami. Each staggered slice was placed so that the reconstructed sausage created a diagonal perspective through the block—at first sight it seemed like a lot of work for a modest effect. When I saw it a few months later I was overwhelmed by its sheer beauty. The salami had grown a mold, spreading like a pale green fog between sheets of glass so that the distal slices disappeared into a mist. It had become a magical picture of a zeppelin emerging from a cloud of mildew.

Such creativity is not for museums; his sculpture and his paintings were banned from many. Only the most foolhardy collector would let his food art through the front door (though Dieter told me that one enthusiast kept his art in a big freezer chest). Even his prints were vetted for contamination from molds because one piece of paper signed by Dieter could fox a whole collection.

It wasn’t always so. When I first encountered Dieter, in 1960, he was meticulous to an extreme. Under the name Diter Rot, his mastery of letterpress printing made him the consummate concrete poet. When offset litho released him from the discipline of metal type, the newfound freedom and the realization that he could write directly on the plate took him to unimagined heights of book publishing. His books alone would give him a place of honor in twentieth-century art. As a printmaker he had few competitors, whether in screenprint, etching, collotype, stone-lithography, offset, the Polaroid camera, or the photocopier—if a medium didn’t exist for print, he would discover it.

German was his native tongue, but he spoke French, English, and Icelandic fluently. He got by anywhere in Scandinavia and in most European countries. When he begged me to find him a secondhand copy of the six-volume edition of David Hume’s letters—the kind of English prose that could help him through a bad night—I was ashamed that I possessed little of his knowledge of my own language.

I didn’t know Dieter as a young man but there are photographs that prove him to have been incredibly handsome—his features were flawless and perfectly placed on a heroic head that would have delighted Donatello. His looks suffered from a lifetime of boozing, but the sensitivity they once declared still shone behind the clown’s mask he chose to adopt. It is a privilege to have admired and loved him.