Dieter Roth

The visual and acoustic spill of this installation was overwhelming, an excessive realization of horror vacui modeled like an illustrated book with many pages (more than 80 drawings, paintings, and prints) and many texts (over 70 books). The influence of Dieter Roth’s background in typography and design and his association with Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus, references to Duchampian notions of chance and to Kurt Schwitters’ “Merz” collections and Dada manifestations—all these can be read into and filtered out of this work. Yet its historical and stylistic connections, and even the legacy of the Germanic graphic tradition, are insufficient to explain its simultaneous pleasure and assault, its chronic mutability. Roth’s self-referential probings call his talent, indeed his entire oeuvre, into question and introduce a sense of shame—an emotion usually invisible in art—that is haunting and discomfiting. The issue of the inseparability of art and life seems less a problem than a given and even a necessity of production in this ongoing Gesamtkunstwerk. The art is as fleshy, vulnerable, and subject to decay as the body of the artist, whose presence is a constant: both author and reader of the texts, he is the central figure of the films and the frequent subject of the drawings.

Since Roth’s work is open-ended, irrational, and fluid, his denial of the functional capacity of definitions becomes central. All things and substances are protean and can be interchanged with something else, and even the artist’s name is variable: DITERROT, diter rot, Karl-Dieterich Roth. Numerous collaborations with publisher Hansjörg Mayer and with artists whose styles are antithetical, like Arnulf Rainer and Richard Hamilton, constitute another variant of Roth’s fascination with unorthodox confrontations and unstable substances. In this exhibition 32 tape recorders hummed a Babel-like concatenation of sounds as disorderly and improvisational as the forms of the slurpy Chicago Wandbild, a 12-panel multimedia conglomerate which Roth constructed over the last eight years in the kitchen of his Chicago patron and friend, Ira Wool (whose collection provided the basis for the exhibition, organized by Mary Jane Jacob). Sour milk, rabbit turds, and chocolate become artistic media, postcards become paintings, and self-portraits, letters. An etching of 1966 is inscribed “my eye is my mouth is my eye,” and a caption for a film segment of a visit to the dentist is “eye for tooth and tooth for eye, said the dentist when he pulled her eye.” This recurring suggestion of cannibalism is formally announced in a drawing, sketched on a restaurant mat, in which two profiles devour each other. More important than the artist’s obsession with food as a medium is his fear of being consumed. For Roth, spectators and critics, parents and children are hostile forces devouring him with their eyes and exposing his “lack of curtains.” In a 1978 interview, Roth addresses them as “cannibals” conspiring against him, and in a catalogue entry for April 11, 1982, he carefully records everything taken into his body that day. Roth’s text oralizes itself, consumes and regurgitates, sometimes even linking oral with genital and anal emission.

Originally created for the 1982 Venice Biennale, the installation of 32 Super 8 films projected simultaneously on a 13-by-36-foot gallery wall provided the cinematic equivalent of Roth’s endless flow of paper. Composed of fragments (three or four sequences were made each day over a four-month period), the films document all aspects of the artist’s life, from his most private moments to tourist views of San Marco in Venice and glittering still lifes of grocer’s shelves. Countless shots show the artist eating, drinking, smoking, reading, driving, meeting friends, and making art. With repetitive routine, the preparation and consumption of food becomes an obvious analogue for the ritualized activity of art production and consumption. Given the homeliness of these activities and a fairly primitive film-making technique, some of the images are as monotonous as the chores they represent; others are visually spectacular—bleak Icelandic seascapes, for example, or blue and white china on a tablecloth. But finally the most memorable are softly lit, still images which show the antihero/artist reading under covers in bed, looking like a giant beached whale.

The underside of Roth’s cornucopia of creativity is exposed in a catalogue he prepared for the film. Using the format of a scrapbook diary illustrated with Polaroids, the text chronicles the same details of daily existence as the film, but the handwritten entries, translated by the artist for this exhibition, capture what eluded celluloid: both artistic and psychological fears and failures, repeated bouts of drinking, hangovers, and depression. These melancholy confessions do not merely invoke sympathy but demonstrate Roth’s pursuit of imperfection or “the strength to show lack of strength.” Confessional tracts are not unfamiliar adjuncts to the figure of the alienated avant-garde artist; Roth’s fragmentation procedures, his defiance of convention, and even his nasty transgressions are also standard Modern strategies. But his blunt admissions of gargantuan fallibility transcend rhetoric and prosaic self-indulgence to evoke the mood of Franz Kafka and Günter Grass.

From a psychological perspective the proliferating self-portraits, bursting books, and continual collecting appear like items on a pathological menu—evidence of narcissism, fetishism, and obsession. Like some of the physical and esthetic transgressions of ’70s body art, Roth’s poetic admissions are frightening because they are so bizarre and so immediate. In rejecting more current masks of irony or cloaks of theatrical representation to mediate his alarming exposure of emptiness, Roth pushes the reader to the same edge on which he balances, forcing the question of the location of the art between private psychology and public presentation. Despite the flood of work he produces, he regrets his inability to reveal what he calls the “terrible” in his work; he should take comfort in the fact that the “terrible” does indeed stalk through his language, albeit constantly deferred by his “horrible joy of production.” As inventive and even beautiful as Roth’s individual artist’s books are, his real artistic power lies in his Gesamtkunstwerk, in its continual slippage between boundaries and its plenitude of imaginative improvisation.

Judith Russi Kirshner