The rubble of post-war Germany—from its famine and ruined cities to its lost dreams and moral bankruptcy—haunts the art of two generations. Beuys, Richter, Kiefer, and company seem to have sucked in Kant and Hegel with their mothers’ milk; death and the sublime are their bread and butter. Their lesser-known contemporary Dieter Roth, whose life and anarchic sensibility veered wildly from his youth in fascist Germany, was content to play the fool instead, mocking their solemnities with an antic art that still spoke constantly of mortality.
Born in Hannover, Roth was sent as a teenager to Switzerland (birthplace of both his father and Dada) to seek shelter from Allied bombings and wartime deprivation; until his death in 1998, at age 68, he moved peripatetically between his adopted homeland in Iceland; Basel, Switzerland; and a dizzying array of off-center locations, from Düsseldorf to Providence, Rhode Island. Once his art matured, he left behind a whirlwind of debris and putrefaction, converting nature’s destructive force into fertile ground for creation.
Roth claimed that a desire for “quantity, rather than quality” motivated his proliferating oeuvre. Viewing the exhaustive and exhausting survey that curator Gary Garrels has organized at MOMA—which includes drawings, paintings, prints, books, sculpture, assemblages, films, jewelry, tapestry, musical compositions, and documentation of performances, such as readings of the poetry Roth considered his true vocation—it’s easy to believe him. Often, this policy makes for tough going. “No more!” one wants to cry out, eyes glazed over, when confronted with the umpteenth collage in which a host of cast-off items—broken typewriters, paint-smeared bunnies, cacti in coffee mugs, etc.—seems to surge up from the oceanic depths of disused cabinets and dresser drawers, irrepressibly.
Give it time. And don’t miss the remarkable companion show at MOMA’s affiliate, P.S.1 (reviewed below), comprising five of the artist’s mammoth installations. A sense of repulsion is integral to Roth’s art, which, with its spectacular ups and downs, suggests a personality both larger than life and ultimately unforgettable.
A chorus of barking canines greets you at MOMA, as the soundtrack for a multimedia installation from the 1970s, recorded in a Spanish dog pound, spills over from a later gallery. This wrenches attention away from Roth’s tame early works, which show the influence of modernist masters such as Klee, Cézanne, and Mondrian. By the next room, he already seems a different artist, having taken up textile design in Copenhagen and fallen under the sway of Constructivist experiments with optical illusion, typographical innovation, and elegant, hard-edged abstraction.
In Reykjavík, where Roth moved in 1957 to marry Sigridur Björnsdóttir, he continued making books—odd little volumes pieced together from the pages of Icelandic newspapers, yesterday’s news bound for all eternity. Living in poverty and relative isolation amid the island’s harsh beauty (his primary link to the art world being his correspondence with the Fluxus artist Daniel Spoerri), he pursued a strategy of reversing all aesthetic hierarchies.
Consider his Literaturwurst—sausages made with the shredded books of authors whom Roth disliked or envied. The Nazis had burned books (and ended up with nothing to eat). How much wiser, then, to grind and mix them with spices, stuff them in casings, and frame the results, in a marvelously ironic and biting send-up of high culture. (The series, begun in 1961, culminated in 1974 with the collected works of Hegel.)
Roth encountered Jean Tinguely at a 1960 exhibition of the Swiss sculptor’s rusty, broken- down constructions in Basel. Tinguely’s use of time and found materials in his kinetic works came as a revelation. Soon, the transformations wrought by the decay of organic material took center stage in Roth’s oeuvre.
One room in the current show houses these ghoulish and melancholy creations: delicate prints made by sending Easter eggs through the presses; slices of sausage sandwiched between glass and paper, their fat bleeding aureoles like sunsets; the incinerated remains of 30-year-old bananas, preserved with their molds like cave paintings; toy motorcycle racers buried in chocolate. The latter substance, with its anal and childlike associations, became his signature material, cast into innumerable, faintly ridiculous self-portraits, subject to invasion by larvae and winged insects, its cloying scent filling the gallery with memories of past sweetness. Among contemporary artists, the works of Janine Antoni and Paul McCarthy show Roth’s influence.
Roth continued switching styles, circling back, and engaging in numerous collaborations, for the better part of three decades, though few subsequent works share the power of his “decay art” to make the passages of the hours palpable. Among them is a life-sized tapestry woven according to his instructions by Ingrid Weiner over the course of two years, showing the elder artist surrounded by the detritus of his studio, like a master artisan in some Dutch still life. At once grandiose and archaic—with the trash of a throwaway culture memorialized in a medieval medium—it’s a fitting tribute to a man who made transience his life’s business.