“Dieter Roth. Björn Roth” Explores Disorder and Decay


Dieter Roth’s massive new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s 25,000-square-foot Chelsea space is like the miracle foodstuff of the moment, 100 percent raw cacao: It’s dark, it’s bitter, and it’s supposed to be good for you.

The uptown gallery’s inaugural showat its second Gotham address—an entire block of West 18th Street, where the old Roxy disco used to be—promises to muscle in on New York’s creative doldrums with a perverse junkyard-like display. In this ramshackle expanse, the Swiss-based merchant and the Roth Foundation (the artist passed away in 1998) are looking to bring about a welcome revolution in taste. Say good-bye to brand-name abstract paintings (the artistic equivalent of Big Macs), kitschy sculptures with shiny surfaces (Ding Dongs), and slacker formalism (Bushwick moonshine). Say hello instead to archival installations that feature brightly colored sugar statues, busts of the artist done in chocolate, and shots of herbaceous Jägermeister—art as imagined by a weirdo Willy Wonka.

Although the food involved in this rare American exhibition of Roth’s work runs to the tame—he made sausages from books in Iceland and once packed a Los Angeles gallery with 37 suitcases filled with moldy cheese—the late Mittel-European character was well known for “inviting nature to have its way with unstable mediums.” An artist devoted to exorcising the uptight demons of come-hither formalism, Roth made a career of transforming comestibles and clutter—or other people’s idea of it, anyway—into art that first shocked, then decayed. A pioneer of the sort of “scatter art” later artists (especially Americans) turned into a tic, Roth cherished entropy and disorder the way plein air artists did light and air. Eventually, his eccentricities, as well as the plaudits, piled up. Even in this relatively sanitized exhibition, there are places where it’s easy to confuse Roth’s pileups with the storied bedlam of Henry Darger’s closets or, less flatteringly, the hoarding of the Collyer brothers.

An artist whose legacy is far better known in Europe than in the U.S.—a fact readily acknowledged by Hauser & Wirth director Marc Payot during the show preview—Roth represents a content-rich strain of art that, historically speaking, rises up against mannered form during especially trying periods. A cyclical phenomenon that emerges whenever artistic taste cants toward the expensively shiny or vacuously pretty—like, say, right now—Roth’s explorations of his own noodlings helped reboot postwar art with a healthy dose of what philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin once called “grotesque realism.” Eventually, the era’s mixing of art and life resulted in a parade of movements—nouveau réalisme, pop, fluxus, maximilism, eat art (which rightly belongs to Roth’s good friend Daniel Spoerri). Although Roth was perfectly at home in each, none prevented him from following his own dystopian, compulsive path to artistic radicalism.

The overriding leitmotif for this colossal show—which consists of some 100 objects, including prints, food towers, wall-mounted assemblages, self-portraits made from old clothes, paintings executed on tablecloths, a sprawling environment created from grungy studio materials, two 100-foot cutout studio floors stood up vertically, a wall of video monitors, plus a working bar (it serves coffee and the Jäger)—is Roth’s evolving penchant for collaboration. A process he began with colleagues like Spoerri, Richard Hamilton, Arnulf Rainer, and Hermann Nitsch over time expanded to include his son, Björn, and his grandsons, Oddur and Einar. Now 51, 29, and 24, respectively, they have taken on the mantle of Roth’s cranky iconoclasm as a family business. Judging by the not-so-discreet jumbles in the old Roxy space, theirs are not just mere recreations—it’s more like Madame Tussauds looked after by the gang in Shameless.

Messy in every way save in its single-minded pursuit of decay, the current display of Roth’s work—the title is a nod to the clannish enterprise—resists criticism as only work done by rejects can. Notions like composition, paint handling, sculptural volume, and color selection are, of course, totally beside the point in an exhibition where skill is scuppered, and the dominant hue is stained cardboard. Transformation for Roth—or “Rot” as he sometimes liked to spell his name—lay not in dirtying a piece of cloth with yet another portrait of Jesus, but instead in pulping and composting the act of creation itself. Ultimately, what Roth was after overflowed even art’s flexible limitations: He wanted to swap out entropy for generativity, condemning art, as it were, to first sit there, and then, more remorselessly, to just hurry up and die.

Most of Roth’s artworks, consequently, carry the whiff of the mortuary. Take the Roth family’s restaging of Grosse Tischruine (Large Table Ruin). Originally created and resuscitated by Dieter and Björn between 1978 and 1998, the piece’s latest iteration expands the relic that was once the artist’s crowded studio table into four decades’ worth of drills, hammers, projectors, films, old TVs, paint cans, beer bottles, lamps, and artist’s tools. The works Selbstturm (Self Tower) and Zuckerturm (Sugar Tower), despite their declared resemblance to the twin towers (shades of Karlheinz Stockhausen here), constitute drab, dead affairs in metal, glass, and cast confectionary material, erected for little purpose except to collapse in on themselves (as they have done on a couple of occasions). And his twin upright studio floors—inevitably titled The Floor I and The Floor II—are gargantuan, yes, but very much the decades-old exhibition filler Björn declared them to be on my visit. (According to Roth fils, the idea for turning floors into jumbo-size “paintings” occurred to Roth père when he ran out of art for a show.)

This inertia, though, is not shared by Solo Scenes. Roth’s final artwork, the 128-monitor video installation documenting the artist’s last year of life before passing from alcoholism—it includes footage of him sleeping, working, and sitting on the toilet—provides a dose of real pathos that hits home, albeit diffusely. It remains the exhibition’s most memorable work, even if, contrary to the gallery literature, it bears zero resemblance to Rembrandt’s penetrating, life-affirming self-portraits.

Roth made few distinctions when it came to his own compulsive activity: His life was his art, and as such, it propounded a Beckett-like determination to make a big abstract point about destruction—namely, that it’s just as good as creation. Roth’s work boils down to that one gnomic realization. And in a fancy showroom art environment like ours, the observation is not without its merits. Unfortunately, his work as carried on today by his family and his ambitious dealers hits a nearly uniformly sour note. In the end, there’s not much to look at, really—except a very dirty kitchen sink.