On Dieter Roth

Some notes on Dieter Roth for a Walker Art Center tour.

Roth was born in Hannover, Germany in 1930 and he died in 1998 in Basel, Switzerland, at the age of 68. During WW2 he moved to Switzerland to avoid the war while his family remained in Germany. After the war his family moved to Bern where Roth began studying commercial illustration.

Roth was a very talented illustrator. During the 1970s he produced a number of books that were based on ambidexterous drawings he would do in a very rapid style. Most of his early art was painting and drawings that were heavily influenced by op-art and constructivism. He also began working on books very early in his career, a habit which continued throughout his life and had a significant effect on other artists.

In 1960 Roth met Jean Tinguely, a Swiss sculptor, who was well-known for Homage to New York, a self-destructing sculpture that had been installed at MoMA. Roth was also influenced by the Fluxus movement during the 1960s. The result was a set of artworks that took a decisive turn toward conceptualism.

He began making biodegradeable art, especially with foodstuffs. He would place a piece of sausage between papers, and over time the grease from the sausage would spread out to create a sunrise. Or he would nail pieces of food to a board, cover it with yogurt and plaster and then let the food decay. The decay became part of the artwork. Roth continued to use foodstuffs in his art throughout the rest of his career. In 1970 an exhibit in America, called Staple Cheese (A Race), was installed. It consisted of 37 suitcases filled with cheese and left to rot in the gallery.

Roth was an obsessive collector and many of his works depend on the massive accumulation of detail. “Flat Time” was a yearlong collection of every flat piece of paper, food, and other ephmera that Roth encountered during the mid-1970s. He put them all into 600 binders which were shelved in a gallery where visitors could examine them. He took 36,000 photographs of every building in Reykavik, Iceland and then displayed them in a gallery with multiple slide projectors. Near the end of his life he videotaped everything he did - the result was a piece called “Solo Scenes,” video fragments of two years of his life displayed on 130 monitors.

Tonbild, Sound Picture, is a perfect example of this aesthetic of accumulation. The work is an assemblage of material from his studio that was accumulated over 13 years.

“When I was young I wanted to become a real artist,” Mr. Roth once reflected. “Then I started doing something I felt wasn’t real art, and it was through this that I became a well-known artist.”