Sunday, March 31, 2013

Lab Roth

Dieter Roth was born in Hamburg in 1930, and, in 1943 his family fled to his mother's native Switzerland.  He ended up living in a house in Zurich, the birthplace of Dada, along with other refugees, including Jewish and Communist artists.  He began making art in that house and didn't stop until his death in 1998.  In that half century, Roth produced an extraordinary range of work, which is now being honored at two exhibitions in New York--one at MoMA and the other at the impressive Hauser and Wirth gallery in Soho.  Roth was first and foremost an experimentalist.  What is most impressive about his output is the variety of media, techniques, and concepts that he explored.  One charming and timely example (courtesy of MoMA) is the bunny made from rabbit droppings, above. Part artist, part mad scientist, his work is a celebration of the artistic process even more than the product, though some of the products are remarkable to behold.

The MoMA show spans Roth's career, and includes some of his early experiments in graphic arts.  These include prints, books, postcards.  One impressive series includes images of tourist destinations that have been modified or partially occluded with blocks of color.  He also began using newspapers as a medium at this time.  The above left example show Roth experimenting with Pop iconography including comic images and printers dots, around the same time as Lichtenstein and Polke.  The image on the right (from the MoMA site) shows a tiny book made from newspaper.  Roth made books obsessively, and was obsessed with printed word.  The images below (left image from MoMA) show examples of his Literaturwurst--sausages made from classic books.

These sausage forms also relate to two other kinds of media experiments that can be found in Roth's work.  He liked to use food products to create art, as in frames spices below (courtesy of MoMA), and he also made a number of biodegradble works, in which foodstuffs were allowed to decay, as in the jarred doll, covered in mould on the right.  These experiments began in 1964.  The draw attention to the impermanence of art.  Everything is in a state of decay.  The world's masterpieces are changing each year, and will eventually return to dust.  This notion of impermanence resonates with themes in Zen Buddhism.  The Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi is intended to celebrate the transience and imperfection of all things.   Roth's rotting works also have a post-modern appeal; they reminds us that artists are not in total control of what they produce.  Biodegrable art is collaborative art--the minuscule mindless organisms living all around us take part in selecting their colors and forms.

Food and decay are also important themes in the Hauser and Wirth exhibition.  That show includes some of Roth's celebrated experiments with chocolate and candy as art media.  Done in collaboration with Dieter's son Björn Roth, also an artist, the exhibition was involved a performative element of gradual creation, as well as decay.  A group of assistants cast numerous heads using various confections, and built two tall towers with them, over a period of weeks.  One is a colorful collection of canine-looking (apparently lions, however) and self-portraits of Roth (like the yellow one below).   The other is made of chocolate Roth heads, which develop a white film over time.

The gallery show also included prints, paintings, video, and a grand installation.  One of the collaborative paintings, which a wonderful and extremely knowledgeable security guard identified as his favorite, is reproduced on the left.  It shows a figure in a chair looking out at a seascape with swirls of color--perhaps an artist's mind intermingling with the world.  The installation recreates an artist's studio.  A number of these have appeared elsewhere (e.g., P.S.1 and the Hamburger Bahnhof).  Though visually assaulting, they reinforce the mad scientist theme, by presenting world of alchemical chaos, in which food products (such as beer bottles) and traditional art media are interspersed.  Two small details are presented below along with a video still showing the elder Roth at work in his laboratory.

By sheer salience and scale, the centerpiece at Hauser and Wirth is a giant floor (two floors, actually) that were laboriously shipped at incredible expense from the artist's former studio in Iceland.  Roth moved to Iceland after the war, married an Icelandic woman, became a citizen, and raised three children there, including Björn.  This outpost allowed him to conduct his endless experiments at one remove from the epicenters or European and American art.  Though hardly an outsider, it is likely that geographical distance helped Roth avoid getting completely absorbed into one of the successive movements that emerged after the war.  He was affiliated with Fluxus, and one can find many hints of pop, new realism, conceptualism, and arte povera in his work.  He often walked in lock step with current trends.  But he never became wedded to a single approach, and that restless spirit makes his work seem more contemporary and more urgent than the pantheonic figures which whom these movements are associated.  Roth's studio floor (made with red tiles that were apparently pervasive in Europe) can be seen as a giant readymade.  It looks like an abstract painting, but its many marks are created by accident, not intention.  Like Roth's biodegradable art, it can also be compared to a gargantuan peri dish in which the artist himself has left tell-tale traces.  Fortunately this is not the only trace he left behind.  These two exhibitions remind us that Roth was among the most productive and inventive artists of the later 20th century, and his contributions should be elevated from the footnotes into the main texts of art history.