Münchenstein, Switzerland

Left to right: Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst (Martin Walser: “Halbzeit”) (Literary sausage [Martin Walser: “Half-time”]), 1961, shredded book and sausage ingredients, 20 5/8 x 16 3/4 x 4 3/4“. Dieter Roth, P.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the Artist as Vogelfutterbüste), 1970, chocolate, 9 1/4 x 5 7/8 x 4”.

Left to right: Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst (Martin Walser: “Halbzeit”) (Literary sausage [Martin Walser: “Half-time”]), 1961, shredded book and sausage ingredients, 20 5/8 x 16 3/4 x 4 3/4“. Dieter Roth, P.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the Artist as Vogelfutterbüste), 1970, chocolate, 9 1/4 x 5 7/8 x 4”.

Dieter Roth


“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,” wrote Richard Hamilton in these pages a few months after Roth’s death in the summer of 1998. And among these supporters were not only fellow artists of different generations—from Hamilton and Marcel Broodthaers to Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades—but also a small number of totally devoted friends and collectors who provided studio space and apartments all over Europe and also, more surprisingly, took over various forms of production and archiving. There was Roth’s lawyer Philipp Buse, who personally framed many of his pictures and who, in the early 1990s, founded the private Dieter Roth Museum in Hamburg; there was Roth’s Stuttgart dentist (and, obviously, dear friend) Hanns Sohm, who, instructed by the artist, would put various German novels or even the complete works of Hegel through a meat grinder, mix the shreds with herbs, and turn them into “literary sausage”; and then there is Maja Oeri, Roth’s friend and benefactor for a quarter century, who feels she’s received so much more from the artist than she’s ever been able to give back. Fortunately, she has the means to change that. The present exhibition, the first major event at the brand-new Schaulager—Oeri’s most ambitious initiative, which addresses issues of storage and research in addition to exhibitions—represents a substantial attempt to cementhis reputation: “Roth Zeit” (Roth time), organized by the Schaulager’s director, Theodora Vischer, is a massive retrospective, displaying some five hundred items from five decades—books and book-related objects, works on paper, design objects (such as rings), postcards, paintings and pictures in the widest senses, multiples, films, records and other audio works, sculptures, and a number of very, very large installations.

Roth tended to shun art dealers and museum professionals, and during his last years he preferred, as his friend Dieter Schwarz reminds us, to exhibit in a copy shop in a suburb of Basel. What would he have thought of the idea of a large-scale retrospective? As Schwarz—who conducted some of the most amusing interviews with the artist—pointed out in an obituary, staying true to Roth’s vision in such a show is a delicate task: “If some retrospective of Roth’s work does eventually come to pass, I hope the organizers will think better than to simply gather works together. Roth doesn’t deserve to have his entire skeptical enterprise buried under the artifacts he’s left behind.” Although one can only congratulate the organizers on a well-installed and pedagogically lucid exhibition, I can’t get these words out of my head. It’s not that I know how it should be done better—in fact, this show teaches me plenty—but judging from my own slightly low mood after spending hours in the show, I figure there must be some other way.

Or maybe there isn’t, because Roth now is dead. Normally just thinking about Roth—whom I saw in action only a few times—makes me happy. Perhaps it’s just that the amassment of Roth’s things, all that stuff he’s left behind, will never compensate for the absence of the subversive energy and grotesque comedy that gave the ongoing and open-ended process its magnetism, a kind of appeal that I still feel when reading the long and wildly entertaining interviews that Barbara Wien recently collected in the volume Gesammelte Interviews (Edition Hansjörg Mayer, 2002). That charisma is also on display in Solo Szenen (Solo scenes, 1997–98), that last grandiose staging of the theatrical persona “Dieter Roth” which Harald Szeemann placed at the very center of the 1999 Venice Biennale. The 128 monitors documenting the artist in his home fulfilling the most ordinary of tasks—washing the dishes, taking down notes, playing the piano, going to the bathroom—made quite an impression on me then, and it has lost nothing of its appeal today. This is Roth in his favorite role as antiheroic thinker of everyday life—modeled, some say, after Krapp in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, but I always think of Thomas Bernhard’s deeply pessimistic philosopher-eccentrics involved simultaneously in intense Schopenhauerian speculations and in more down-to-earth activities such as, say, cheese production. For instance, Bernhard’s monologue “Einfach Kompliziert” (Simply complicated) could have been sampled from Roth’s postalcoholic ruminations. Solo Scenes, shot in Reykjavík and Hamburg after a long period of heavy drinking, is a touching testimony to the vulnerabilities of being human—theatrical to the core, yet frank and without vanities. This to me is the most grand installation in the show and a real masterpiece of late-twentieth-century European art, by an artist for whom the very idea of a masterpiece could only be ridiculous and who claimed, “I don’t work very hard at making perfect works of art. I’m not very keen on being the best or making perfect things.”

So who was Dieter Roth? A trans-disciplinary “total” artist comparable to Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys (as the exhibition’s press material suggests)? A concrete poet branching out into the nonlinguistic world of sausages and garbage? Or just a high-energy scatologist with the unlimited will to produce constantly new “shit”? In one of his many attempts to describe his own activities, he concludes: “I would call myself an inventor of machines that are meant to entertain (or inspire) feelings (or thoughts) that help to digest this Central European civilization wading in junk.” The digestive metaphors recurred all through his career. In 1966 he published a collection of poems under what he later called the “ironic = anxious neutralizing” title ScheisseNeue Gedichte von Diter Rot (Shit—New poems by Diter Rot), soon to be followed by other collections of “more shit,” “damn shit,” “complete shit,” and so on. In the first volume, the poem “mein Auge ist ein Mund” (my eye is a mouth), formulates the basic parameters of a lifelong attempt to break out of traditional aesthetics as something linked to vision and to question the hegemony of the eye and the ocular metaphors that dominate all discourse about art. Here he establishes the notion of an all-encompassing metabolism, and also draws scatological conclusions:

my eye is a mouth
my eyelids are the mouth’s lips
my eye lashes are the mouth’s teeth
my eyeball is the mouth’s tongue
my iris is the top of the tongue
my pupil is the mouth’s kiss
my eye socket is the mouth’s palate
my optic nerve is the mouth’s pharynx
my brain is the mouth’s stomach
my images are the mouth’s digestion
my life is the mouth’s excrement

Roth often described himself as a poet involved in a kind of guest performance in the art world (but in fact he was never taken quite seriously in the literary world). His experiments with the book as an object took concrete poetry one step further into the materially concrete. Compared with books by American contemporaries such as George Brecht or Ed Ruscha, Roth’s books are more “stuffy,” he admitted. His specialty: “Kitsch. Heavy Kitsch. Kind of a Nietzschean Pudding.” But there are also other dishes involved, the silliest—and, I have to admit, amusing—being “Literaturwurst” (Literary sausage). The whole project started in 1961, seemingly as a way to handle his literary envy. The first books, by Günter Grass and Martin Walser, were successful ones he for various reasons found particularly annoying. The very first, Grass’s Hundejahre (Dog years), was made as a gift for his friend Daniel Spoerri: It was shredded, mixed with fat and herbs according to a traditional recipe, and turned into a sausage carrying the author’s name and the title on a small label.

Chocolate, sour milk, cheese, and slices of sausage were some materials of preference. A few important pieces are not in the show because they are either too fragile to be moved or they have disappeared. A legendary work, Staple Cheese (A Race), 1970, the first of Roth’s works to appear in the United States, is gone forever, thrown into the garbage by Jim Butler (husband of Eugenia Butler, in whose gallery the work was originally shown) because of its unbearable smell, rumor has it. Being based in Reykjavík for most of his adult life, Roth was removed from the art world but also quite strategically placed between Europe and the US. Indeed, his thirty-seven suitcases filled with different kinds of cheese and displayed in an LA gallery attracted not only enormous numbers of flies and insects but also a lot of attention from the press, even from the leading international daily, the International Herald Tribune. Sanitary inspectors were brought in and finally closed the show. But all of this publicity did not lead to a breakthrough in the US, instead inspiring only a strange poem by Paul McCarthy celebrating the rotting cheese.

In a short 1975 statement about Roth, Szeemann declared, “There are two fundamental possibilities available to an artist: to negate, stripping away until nothing remains, or to accumulate, to embrace additively until one has reached the limit of fullness. The subversive, at times contrarian Dieter Roth—loving and caustic, chaotic and precise—[has] pursued both paths at once.” Both tendencies are visible in the present show. A work such as the beautiful Reykjavík Slides, 1973–75 and 1990–93, a continuous projection of some thirty thousand photographs of Icelandic houses, demonstrates a reductive scrutiny of the object—the single house—but also a manic will to add item after item. The same goes for Flacher Abfall (Flat trash), 1975–76, a bizarre archive of flat garbage found on the streets, presented in hundreds of file folders. Roth’s accumulative impulse dominates completely in Gartenskulptur (Garden sculpture), 1968–96, a collaboration with his son Björn Roth, and perhaps the central piece in the show. Built out of radically heterogeneous materials—wood, metal, wires, plants, video monitors and recorders, toys, foodstuffs, jars of colored liquids, and so on—it constructs its own perplexing cosmos. Part jungle, part vehicle, it seems capable of swallowing anything coming its way. Here the additive tendency verges on bulimia, and Roth has invented a genre of his own.

Hamilton also suggests that Roth had set out on a lifelong mission to destroy the art market. Through a kind of individual pricing, he did in fact produce a very confused market for his art, but even more effectively, his choice of materials creates problems not only for the market but just as much for institutions that collect and store art. The fact that Roth’s works are bound to decompose—yogurt and chocolate aren’t meant to last for generations—turn preserving his productions into a great challenge for the museum. Only with hesitancy did he introduce preservatives and other devices for slowing down the degeneration, and then probably only because the process of corrosion and decomposition becomes even more visible when displayed in slow motion. Basel’s Schaulager no doubt represents the art world’s single most powerful device to stop the decay. It’s an impressive machine, but is it powerful enough? I take a last look at a vulnerable-looking chocolate head—already full of small craters—and feel assured that Dieter Roth is smiling in his heaven.

“Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective” will be on view at Schaulager, Basel, through Sept. 14; travels to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Oct. 18–Jan. 11, 2004; and MoMA QNS and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, Mar. 10–June 7, 2004.

Daniel Birnbaum, a contributing editor of Artforum, is director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt and heads the institution’s Portikus gallery.