Dieter Roth


If Dieter Roth were granted three wishes, as in a fairy tale, he would wish for everything—three times. “Don't forget or repress to stamp the ‘most’ into the 'speedy drawings'” reads one of Roth's instructions from July 1987. This instruction refers to his newest book, 1234 Soft MOST Speedy Drawings, 1987. Each of the drawings takes up one entire page, and thus the book has 1,234 pages. Here “speedy” refers not only to the artist's execution of the drawings but to the reader's paging through the book, for the reader looks at the book with a speed of a motorcycle racing by. Such a metaphor might easily have come from Roth himself, for the motorcycle rider was a motif that fascinated him in the '60s. In his most beautiful book Mundunculum, 1975, he recreated the movement of a motorcycle by stamping an image of the bike many times in succession, with the images overlapping in a progression from light to dark. With other motifs (a hat, bag, cage, head, or light bulb) he proceeded in the same manner. Their ordering gives these abstract geometric stamped images an organic meaning, because this order takes on an erotic—mostly phallic—form. Reproduction takes place along an imaginary symmetrical axis that develops “in between everything and nothing.” Over a period of time, this division has created a line—a line that Roth has used to distance himself from the idea of progress. That is what the motorcycle images and the “speedy drawings” have in common. A stamped impression is placed over the previous one and is only an intermediate step in a process of movement; one drawing leads to the next. Each image causes the previous one to be forgotten. What remains is a structure of lines and the artist's energy; what matters is no longer the quality of the individual drawings but the quantity. Roth wrote more than 25 years ago “ . . . instead of showing quality (surprising quality) we show quantity (surprising quantity).”

While many publishing companies from throughout the world fought for position and attention with elaborate displays of their “quality” products at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, Roth turned the tables with his books in this exhibition. He originally developed his principle of quality using advertising as a model. He viewed advertising's concept of “quality” as a subtle method of increasing quantity, and hence profit and power. From such multiplication an explosion develops that includes in itself an implosion, because multiplication means an infinite division through which the object has to collapse into itself. Roth lays claim to everything and at the same time exposes everything to destruction, an attitude that is present even in his newest works.

In addition to a retrospective of all of Roth's hooks, this exhibition assembled a variety of his works from the past three decades, including collages made from pieces of clothing and found objects that he covered with white wax. These too show that, despite his principle of quantity, he achieves qualitative results. This was also demonstrated in his Kinderbuch 1954–57 (Children's book 1954–57), one of his earliest books—which made fun of constructivist art by means of a large series of variations of colorful geometric elements—and his “sausages,” which he created by chopping up books by authors that he could not stand and stuffing them into casings. Roth made the book into an art object very early on, but he moved in the direction of making it more and more accessible rather than less.

Anne Krauter

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.