David Roth

Michael Wyman Gallery

One summer, I worked with an anthropologist who collected hundreds of contemporary Mexican hand-painted pots. She analyzed the structure, frequency, distribution, and interrelation of their design elements—birds, flowers, leaves, moons, even cowboys—to deduce which Mexican potmakers sat in groups and which of them sat alone. It turned out that the “group” people borrowed design elements from each other; the “loners” traded designs with no one. Because this revelation(?) proved the charts and literature which generated it, the anthropologist’s pots were as “scientifically” verified as any Fanny Farmer recipe.

In the visual arts, the use of statistical “information theory” to make paintings has the same paranoia of uncertainty. When David Roth demonstrates the facts of color-separation in his large, string paintings, he is doing little more than walking in place. He cuts hundreds of eight-foot strings, pulls each through a handful of colored paint, hangs them individually on line to dry, selects dry strings by a color-progression graph, ties the strings in clumps or units, attaches them all to a horizontal beam, nails the beam to a wall, and voilà! Roth has a “literal” painting. Like Minimal art, this work attempts a pure abstraction, a reduced natural order; and conceptually, it might be supported by theorists like the German mathematician Max Bense, who tries to quantify an “esthetic state.” According to Bense, a work of art is verifiably “great,” based on measurable phenomena in proportion, distribution, and interrelation. So too, Roth claims that there is nothing subjective in his work. He graphs his color patterns, placing paint globs in graph-paper squares to show the number and color of strings in each painting. The graph color-globs and the corresponding string color-clumps are gradually infiltrated with new tones: blue into purple into green into yellow into red into purple. This translation of numerical percentages into color surfaces is the end product. No more wondering: Roth eliminates surprise.

In computer-aided graphics, like the late 1960s Derivations of the Yugoslav Waldemar Cordeiro, and in computer-generated video, like the current work of Chicagoan Dan Sandin, color tones are also given numerical values. In both instances, a pattern, perhaps a poster or else a filmed beach-sequence, is electronically generated. Then a computer subjects that pattern to numerous transformations, the emphasis being on obtaining strange qualities and almost poetic layers of meaning from the original source. Roth is not that inventive; he sticks to his formula. His art is 2 cups appearance, 4 tbsps. variety, and 12 lbs. shape. But I’m not sure what any of this has to do with creativity.

To me, Roth’s paintings look like wall-sized brooms, and when no one in the gallery was looking, I plucked out a few “straws,” and they instantly stuck up with a liberated individuality all their own. This potential for the known to exhibit unknown qualities, although ignored by the artist, unexpectedly made the painting.

C. L. Morrison