Dieter Roth: (detail)Garden Sculpture

What Are Masterpieces?

“Roth Time,” the first U.S. retrospective of Dieter Roth (1930-1998), is now at P.S.1 and MoMA QNS through June 7. [See the MoMA website for an online exhibition.] Ten years ago I could not have predicted that such a survey — actually a double-header — would receive the Museum of Modern Art imprimatur. Although Roth was European (German mother, Swiss father), there hasn’t been much of a market for his work in the U.S.A., or much critical support. School of Paris he was not, nor was he a formalist of the postwar kind. Although we may now see his kinship to Dada, he certainly wasn’t a surrealist of either the biomorphic or the illusionistic ilk. And he wasn’t an Abstract Expressionist. (He certainly wasn’t Frank Stella.) Things have changed at MoMA.

Because of Roth’s innovations in the realm of artists books, I thought of him in the Fluxus orbit. Fluxus was a loosely organized, international group of performance- and “ephemera”-oriented artists. Didn’t Roth cast chocolate busts of himself and instruct a collector how to make sausages out of the complete works of Hegel? Yes, as a matter of fact, and you can see examples of his chocolates and his Literaturwursts at the MoMA arm of the show.

In fact, Roth hated Fluxus: “It was the club of the untalented who made a verbal virtue of their lack of talent so that nobody could say they had no talent,” he told an interviewer. “The modesty that they ascribed to themselves was actually a good insight in that sense. Because they had to be modest because they were so incapable.”

But we also learn that George Maciunas, self-proclaimed founder of Fluxus, rejected the prospect of producing one of Roth’s Literaturwursts. Hell hath no fury like an artist scorned.

So, if not exactly in the central zone of Fluxus, where do we put Roth? One of his oldest friends was Daniel Spoerri, who made a name for himself by gluing down the remains of dinner parties and exhibiting them as paintings. Roth also collaborated with Richard Hamilton, the pioneer of British Pop, and he felt liberated by Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures, the most famous of which is his 1960 Homage to New York which self-destructed in MoMA’s elegant sculpture garden within a period of 27 minutes. Roth also met and liked Robert Filliou and Marcel Broodthaers. But art-world sociograms will get us only so far. Could one mix together characteristics of the works of all these artists and come up with Dieter Roth’s Garden Sculpture? No, not really.

I am sure that at MoMA, you will find Roth’s books, prints, jewelry, assemblage, studio tabletops, drawings made with slices of sausage allowed to rot, and monoprints made with banana skins all very tasty. The best, like the big works at P.S.1, are forlorn with a vengeance, and yet not without humor. I’d bet anything that Roth’s Mold Museum in Hamburg is fairly provocative too, with its towers of chocolate self-portrait busts purposefully left vulnerable to gravity and insects.

Roth himself was full of mild weirdnesses. In 1957, he moved to Iceland to be with the love of his life and tried to make a living designing jewelry and furniture. At one point he lived in the basement of a laundry in Reykjavik. He was suspicious of art dealers and preferred to set up his own exhibitions and sell his own work. Later in life, he would require collectors to put money on the table before he would take them into his studio. He wanted to be recognized as a writer more than as an artist. For awhile he couldn’t even decide on his own name: Dieter Roth became dieter roth, then diter rot (1959), then dieter rot (1968), and dieter roth in 1973.

Most of this information comes from the excellent narrative chronology in the MoMA catalog (by Bernadette Walter and Dirk Dobke). But for all their serviceability, these texts do not help to distinguish Roth from his contemporaries. He doesn’t offer the high drama and big myth of either Joseph Beuys or Yves Klein. He did, however, produced at least one spectacular masterpiece.

But before we get to that, we have to go through more easily grasped and probably less important contributions. Roth redefined (or de-defined) the book as any accumulation of pages, bound or unbound. Of more contemporary import is his use of fugitive materials. Truly, chocolate — not glass, as I once said — is the new marble. One artist is even known now for toothpaste paintings. Employing chocolate, bread, cheese, bananas and the like, Roth collaborated with mold.

I’d also add his innovative use of smell. Apparently his rotting materials were so odoriferous that few would enter the galleries brave enough to show his art. He also did at least one sweet-smelling work with spices, Spice Window (1970). But it is the rot that worked best. He even had a piece that was a mold race between two oozing colonies.

That which makes Roth different from the artists he knew and was influenced by (Spoerri, Hamilton, etc.) can be found in the major installations at P.S.1. Not only was he insanely prolific, he was ambitious.

I certainly like Solo Scenes (1997-98), comprising 131 monitors playing tapes of Roth lounging around, working, sleeping, reading, puttering. It goes a long way to answer the question of what it’s really like to be an artist. No drama; one big nothing. But is this work really about old age and aging? If so, we can add it to the growing body of work on that subject: John Coplans’ self-portrait nudes and Barbara Zucker’s recent jewelry made by casting her own wrinkles. We could also add Agnes Varda’s The Cleaners, a documentary screed on various forms of scavenging. She keeps moving her digital camera back to her wrinkled hands as if discovering them for the first time. (Note: near the end of the film, she also points out that she has left the mold on the walls of her house because she enjoys the way it looks.)

And as a fan of Iceland, how could I not like Roth’s Reykjavik Slides (1973-1975, 1990-1993)? Here we are bombarded with images of every house in Iceland’s capital. It proves how subjective photography is. Someday I would like to compare Roth’s slides with mine. I haven’t photographed every house in Reykjavik, but I have been there several times and I assure you my slides are not as gloomy as his. Even sleet on the streets looks good to me.

Roth’s abject homage to his adopted homeland (using 30,000 slides) is not as obsessive as the 623 office binders that make up Flat Garbage (1975-76/1992). You may never want to see this garbage again, or most likely will see it everywhere in the world, but the cumulative weight and archival obsessiveness is enormous.

The masterpiece, however, is Garden Sculpture (first called Garden Tool), the saga of a self-portrait bust made of bird seed placed outside in 1989 and how it grew and grew — and, carried forward by Roth’s son and collaborator Bjorn (and his grandson), will never stop growing. No longer exhibited outdoors, it now comes with plants, strange liquids produced from run-offs, windows, staircases, books, rolled-up carpets, and video monitors showing tapes of previous incarnations as well as the present one under construction. It also comes with its own workroom on public display, an integral part of the sculpture. The handout states the artwork is now 60 feet long, but it feels much, much bigger, looking like a ship made of cast-offs and wreckage.

This is the piece that gives depth and meaning to Roth’s entire career: it is immense, casual, monstrous, offhand. And, in fact, so antimetaphysical that the more you walk around it, the more metaphysical it gets. The thing that makes Roth different from his colleagues is that almost in spite of himself (given his anti-art world quirkiness), he managed to produce a masterpiece, one that will continue to drive museum people crazy.

As a friend of mine in the museum world said: Imagine being the registrar in charge? Think of the thousands of pieces that have to be kept track of? The plants that have to be watered? It’s a museum nightmare.

Roth’s Garden Sculpture is both his masterpiece and a masterpiece. It is iconic.

Here we might compare it to the work of his immediate predecessors, Beuys and Klein, both Europeans and the artists to match or beat. Is Beuys’ Lecture to a Dead Hare a masterpiece? It is certainly iconic, although it is now only a photograph or an idea. Which Klein all-blue painting is his masterpiece, or is it International Yves Klein blue that is iconic? That a color can be iconic is a masterpiece in itself. Both Beuys and Klein were metaphysicians, whereas Roth, on the surface, was not. Can the poignant be profound?

But as Gertrude Stein once asked, what are masterpieces? One can become an important artist without producing a masterpiece (Miro). Some great artists produce more than one (Duchamp). And, of course, because of postmodernism, we are now supposed to be artists without masterpieces and without genius. This is either a dim-witted idea of postmodernism or shows how dim-witted postmodernism was. Garden Sculpture is about decay, but it is also about growth. It’s a masterpiece because it questions both authorship and closure. It is the quintessential antimasterpiece masterpiece.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone