On ViewHauser & Wirth
October 6 – October 30, 2010
The genesis of these works dates from the 1980s, when Dieter Roth (1930–1998), a Swiss-German artist best known for his art books, sculptures, and pictures made from rotting foodstuffs, decided to place gray cardboard mats on the worktables in the studios of his various homes and apartments. He initially used them as writing mats, covering them with doodles, sketches, and all the “traces of domestic activities,” as Dieter put it.
The mats eventually became the foundation for all manner of collages and assemblages, a progression through time with continually shifting arrangements of objects and drawings, their seemingly anarchic placement achieving a certain “symmetrical ornamentation.” Often driven by a puckish sense of humor, Roth approached the mats as mosaics of experimental and concrete art, as well as new realism, Fluxus, post-Surrealism, and even neo-Dada. These not-totally-finished collage-assemblages, cut into sections and reassembled, are presented here as so-called “wall paintings,” such as the large (33 by 41 inches) mat / collage “Bürotisch-Matte, Bali-Mosfellssveit” (1994-96), which is mounted on plywood and covered with traces of pencil, India ink, and acrylic and oil paint, along with postcards and Polaroids of Roth’s grandchildren and his house in Iceland.
At the age of 15, Dieter’s son Björn joined his father’s efforts, recording a world of creation and wayward ideas in documents / diaries-cum-paintings. But, as Björn makes clear in the essay, “Now I Am Somebody,” which appears in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, the elder artist couldn’t shake a feeling of shame while producing his works. “To my thinking,” writes Björn, “Roth’s shame was associated on a very fundamental and systemic level with the whole business of making art, showing it, looking at it, judging it, and selling it.”
He continues with a quote from Dieter Roth himself, a twist on Jasper Johns that was published in the introduction to Volume 7 of his Collected Works and underscores his misgivings about the whole enterprise of making art:
ON THE VISUAL ARTS: “Take a thing and put it on one thing
Take a thing and put it on 2 things
Take a thing and put it on 3 things
Take a thing and put it on 4 things
Take a thing and put it on 6 things
Take a thing and put it on 7 things
... sell any time.”
The Roths’ acts of creation take on immediacy on the gallery’s second floor, where paintbrushes, pencils, markers and graphite crayons (all kept in recycled glass food jars), cans of spray paint, and scissors are scattered across the surfaces of actual worktables. The best pieces in the exhibit are the seemingly random collages that were made from the traces of real life: coffee stains and leftover food, the impression left behind from a hot plate, a child’s traced hand with a childish doodle alongside it, or a chess board drawn directly on the mat, where father and grandson used to play. A calling card, left next to a bunch of marker-pens, is surrounded by writings poetically titled, “The Lake of Tears.”
The materials are obviously autobiographical and have a diarist narrative—including phone numbers of friends and art dealers—enhanced by ink blots and traces of adhesive. Roth considered the mats important for the development of his painting in the late 1980s. In the course of exploring the mats’ mirror imagery, he discovered that he was moving in the direction of ornamental “flower painting”: “The axis looks like a stem, the spots like leaves, the objects like blossoms,” he wrote.
According to Björn, the tables and mats became a unifying element even though they worked in six different studios. The dark undertones and furious, obsessive energy of Dieter’s work ultimately separated him from many of the more lighthearted Fluxus artists. He was a fluent draftsman and expert printmaker, perhaps despite himself, and his drawings and prints contained his wild energy within peculiarly virtuosic forms.
The central piece, “Kaffeetisch-mit-Telefonecken-Matte, Bali / Mosvellsveit” (1990–1993) is a collaborative collage between Dieter and his sons Björn and Karl, daughter Vera, and his grandchildren. Here on gray cardboard, cut into three sections (for transportation in a suitcase) and then reassembled, are drawings of a yellow banana “à la Warhol” and a black-and-white chessboard in an opposite corner. It’s a masterpiece comparable to a silent jazz score—a table chorus performed by a tag team excelling in destruction and creation, playful humor and critical inquiry—that plays on the balance between transience and order, the abject and the beautiful.
As Jack Kerouac once mused: “I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others, but give them life, and not only life, but that great consciousness of life.”