Loosening Up: Dieter Roth's Tragedy by Donald Kuspit
"Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective," Mar. 12-June 7, 2004, at MoMA QNS and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Queens, N.Y.
There's a poignant paradox at the core of Dieter Roth's development: the more creatively free he becomes, the more he seems to disintegrate, until his work comes to deal with deterioration itself -- his own as well as the world's. Indeed, the more open to new materials, methods and ideas, the more his art itself seems to disintegrate, almost to the point where he himself thinks it is meaningless "garbage" and "shit," to use his own terms. Restlessly moving from avant-garde idea to avant-garde idea, he signals the increasing restlessness, verging on directionlessness -- the ultimate decadence -- of the avant-garde even as he epitomizes its energy and creativity.
Roth's first works are finicky little constructivist designs, strongly influenced by the geometrical abstractions of Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, the leaders of the so-called Zrich "concrete" movement. Like their works, his are self-contained, tightly organized, indeed, almost hermetically geometrical -- a tidy closed system. Crystal clear for all their optical excitement -- typically generated by juxtaposing primary colors (the abruptness of the juxtaposition creates what might be called a "eureka" perceptual effect) -- the works suggest a comfortable, even facile intellectuality.
Precision covers for lack of inspiration; the dialectic of colors is banal and mechanical -- mere pattern-making, however varied the patterns. Roth's Rotary Relief Sculptures (1960) make the tired point succinctly: the intensity of Bill and Lohse has been sacrificed to predictability. His is a textbook optical-kinetic art, that is, an academic exercise in the already old avant-garde idea -- Duchamp made rotary disks in the 1920s -- of the "machine of art."
Roth continued in this uptight, "practical" vein -- he in fact worked as a book and textile designer -- until his 1961 encounter with Jean Tinguely in Basel. It was Roth's "breaththrough" -- to his unconscious as well as in art. Tinguely's sensational Homage to New York (1960) had just been "performed" in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Tinguely's self-destructing art machine -- a comment on technology?; on the dialectic of art and technology?; on their destructive effect on each other? (the final result is a Pyrrhic victory -- a lot of ironic junk) -- excited Roth no end.
He wrote: "It was simply a completely different world from my Constructivism, it was something like a paradise that I'd lost." It would turn out to be the childhood paradise of polymorphous perversity, but at the time it represented instant liberation from the repressive constraints of Constructivism, and with that the freedom to express himself with whatever means and in whatever style he wanted.
Roth loosened up, abandoning his geometrical reserve and rigidity for unreserved, chaotic expression, leading him to appropriate and amplify, to spectacular excess, virtually every known mode of avant-garde art-making. But Tinguely's Homage to New York was a dance of death rather than a dance of life, and Roth tended to confuse as well as fuse them. This no doubt had something to do with the fact that Roth was raised in the death camp of wartime Nazi Germany, and spent his adolescence in neutral Switzerland, which was another kind of living death.
Roth was always attracted to such fatal, barren places, as his fascination with Iceland suggests. He was born in Hannover in 1930, sent to Zrich in 1943 to escape the wartime bombing, and married a woman from Iceland in 1956. He moved there that year, staying until he separated from his wife in 1964, then worked at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design.
It was in the United States that he began to make his so-called "decay objects" -- edible materials such as cheese, chocolate and fruit, and thus life-giving, in the process of rotting and thus becoming inedible, and as such symbols of impending death -- that perfectly embodied his sense of living death. Did it have something to do with his sense of America, where everything was possible (suggesting inexhaustible vitality) but nothing meant very much (suggesting emotional death)?
Roth's fascination with the transformation of life into death -- their closeness to and even co-implication of each other -- remains a constant of his art. Reykjavik Slides, made in Iceland in 1973-75 and 1990-93, conveys -- less dramatically and more subtly than the "decay objects" -- the same sense of death-in-life and life-in-death. Roth photographed all 30,000 houses in the Icelandic capital, projecting the resulting slides on eight machines. No human being is in sight, the houses are anonymously geometrical, and the Warhol-like repetitive inertia of the series has a deadening effect, suggesting Roth's depression, or at least his loss of appetite for life. In a film shot from an automobile, there are also glimpses of rather stark landscapes, with no signs of life, however organically suggestive the weird shapes sometimes are.
The basic problem was that Roth had no secure sense of himself, as Double Self-Portrait (1973) -- an optical hollow man -- suggests. It is a self without a core -- without a stablizing center. The series of Interfaces (1977-78), made with Richard Hamilton, confirm the point: their identities blur into one confusion, thus reducing Rimbaud's "I am an other" to absurdity. Roth's art became a Sisyphean search for a self -- an obsessive attempt at self-creation, with the self always elusive and protean -- that led to ironic posturing, climaxing in the self-portrait of Large Tapestry (1984-86), which looks like a mocking reprise of Rembrandts majestic 1658 Self-Portrait. Roth's work looks somewhat tarnished and trashy in comparison, suggesting the distance downward art has come. Roth's picture seems like a devolution of Rembrandt's -- a fall from the heights of art and the self. Serene pride has been replaced by vacuous arrogance, interiority by exteriority, integrity by exhibitionism. Compared to the self-possessed, dignified Rembrandt, Roth looks like a ham actor, even an imposter -- a pretender to the throne of art.
Roth stares into space, at nothing in particular, suggesting that he is in a kind of stupor, even demented, while Rembrandt is fully awake and gazes at the spectator, without flinching, in control of the relationship. However old, Rembrandt remains in his prime -- thus his authoritative presence -- while Roth, the avant-garde artist near the end of the avant-garde trail (to no self in particular) has the frustrated, spent look of an actor who has run out of roles to play. It is as though Roth has given himself an enema and put the results on display -- the junk that litters the picture, suggesting the puzzle of an incomplete, crumbling self -- confirming that he is, after all, the mucky mirage he appears to be.
The avant-garde artist has degenerated into a junk dealer -- a scatological scavenger. We are a long way from the sublime presence of Rembrandt -- the traditional artist in all his power and glory, self-assurance and vigor. In short, Roth's nihilistic self-portrait -- a portrait of the avant-garde artist at his wit's end, his possibilities exhausted by aimless play -- lacks the emotional depth and calm insight of Rembrandt's self-portrait, the self-recognition of an artist who knows his art will last forever. Not only because it is beautifully made but because it offers people a model of mature selfhood. The difference between the disintegrated Roth and the integrated Rembrandt is the difference between pathological and healthy narcissism.
It is worth noting that "authority" derives from "auctoritas," meaning "warrant for growth," suggesting that Roth, for all his restless activity, never grew up, certainly not into the mature self that Rembrandt became -- a self capable of making mature art. Abandoning Constructivist geometry, Roth lost his small foothold in the sublime, and used art to gratify his impulses -- the more infantile the more immediate their artistic gratification had to be. Thus the speed with which he worked, as though if he lost himself in the immediacy of his art-making he would not have to face the desperation behind it.
His works look increasingly improvised and precarious, suggesting that they failed to do what they were supposed to do: defend against the passage of time, which slowly but surely erodes the feeling of immediacy, replacing youth-giving abandonment to the moment with reflection on loss. Like so many avant-garde artists, Roth was blind to the fact that the test of art is its staying power, that is, the delayed reflective gratification it offers, strengthening the self by showing it its sublimity -- its power to rise above its needs by meditating on existence as such.
There is, then, a good deal of ironical truth in the official interpretation of Roth as a postmodernist announcing the "death of the author" (and individuality) -- so we are told by the theoreticians at the Museum of Modern Art -- for his work has no authority and esthetic individuality other than that it borrows from his modernist predecessors. His is the classical compromised position of the epigone -- the successor in desperate search for an innovative identity and significance of his own but not entirely able to find one because he is so heavily dependent on the identity and innovations of his predecessors, already firmly established in the art historical firmament.
Roth's originality resides in the fact that he reduces modernist art to a redundant Dadaistic spectacle. Indeed, his oeuvre conveys a certain seasoned sameness -- meaningless excess in the form of redundancy, which is the morbid secret of spectacle -- for all its lively variety. Roth is ironically consistent, compensating for his failure to achieve what became his unconscious ambition the moment he met Tinguely: the integration of Zrich Constructivism and Basel Destructivism, as it were, with the hope of creating the ultimate modernist art.
Tinguely said he found poetry in the machine. Roth seemed to have found much more poetry in the destruction and chaotic wreckage Tinguely's machine left in its wake. Homage to New York became instant garbage, suggesting what Tinguely thought of New York -- certainly not such a nice, neat, well-ordered place as Basel -- as well as of art and perhaps life in general.
Tinguely's self-destructing work shows how readily creativity becomes entropic. It may in fact exist to make the best of entropy. Roth's Garden Sculpture (1968-96) is probably a homage to Tinguely, but, unlike Tinguely's art machine and Roth's -- and Duchamp's -- early art machines, it is made entirely of garbage. It is in fact a kind of compost heap; actual plants grow on it, suggesting new organic life in the midst of mechanical decay. Indeed, it is a kind of technological wasteland, for it consists mostly of ruins of machines. Television sets abound, their screens smashed, suggesting an attack on the dominance of the media, with its common sense intelligibility. Thus Roth passes judgment on petty bourgeois perception and understanding, as so many avant-garde artists have done before him, but he carries his damnation to an apocalyptic extreme from which there is no return to everyday sanity. We are left with the dregs, including the hopeful weed.
Roth's decadent art machine needs a patina of maggots and worms to confirm that it is the corpse of avant-garde ambition. His triumph of death -- of art as well as life -- doesn't want to be embalmed for posterity. Certainly not the way the aging Rembrandt embalmed himself. For such esthetic embalming suggests that there is a cure for death -- that art can heal and raise the dead, which means it celebrates life -- and thus would subvert the utter pessimism of Roth's necrophiliac garden. The garden of artistic paradise that Tinguely promised Roth turned out to be irredeemably polluted.
Tinguely taught Roth to stop following rules and trust his irrationality. But to do so meant the downfall of the sense of self -- the experience of integration -- his Constructivism gave him by way of its rational, self-integrating structure. The result was a random exploration of structurelessness itself, leading him to believe that there was no structuring principle in art or life, that is, no firm foundation for creativity and self. Often working in series -- his multiples clearly owe something to Duchamp's, although they are less cynical and more convulsive (wet and emotionally evocative rather than dry and intellectually provocative) -- he achieves a nominal sense of structure and self. He frames the chaos by repeating it -- and it always seems new and fresh, that is, deceptively vital -- but the repetitiveness takes over, suggesting that Roth is stuck in a rut. That is, the uninhibited, Basel-inspired destructive works are as subtly redundant -- unchanging, inflexible -- as the earlier Zrich-inspired designer abstractions, but with a much more disturbing emotional content and import. This seems especially evident in the series of self-portrait busts made of chocolate, all doomed to melt -- decay. They clearly owe something to Beuys' fat pieces, but they lack Beuys' therapeutic intention.
Indeed, Roth's self-portraits glory in pathology, like Messerschmidt's. A further debt to Beuys is evident in Roth's Literature Sausages -- ground up pages of books by authors he disliked or envied -- that can't help but remind one of Nazi book burning. Their negativity and nihilism shows that they are not the storage batteries of healing energy that Beuys' Irish sausages were meant to be. Was Roth in some way reliving the trauma of the Nazi period, or did the Nazi heritage show up in his "totalitarian" comprehensiveness? He produced crop after crop of experimental art, as though he was a collective avant-garde farm. His hyperbolic totalization of avant-garde art is certainly a form of decadence.
Roth was profoundly prolific, but it was all in vain. In the mid-'60s he papered a large gallery with hundreds of drawings, inviting the spectator to take one. He made a book of some 300 rubber-stamp drawings and worked with edible materials -- fruit, cheese and birdseed as well as chocolate. He kept diaries and wrote poems -- his first book was called Shit. New Poems by Dieter Roth -- and made numerous prints. He was a Fluxus performer and made "speedy drawings" of dogs, based on photographs, with two hands at once. He made sound pieces, using electric organs, synthesizers and tape recorders.
Much of his work updates and extends ideas of Kurt Schwitters, also born in Hannover. Schwitters moved from two-dimensional collage to three-dimensional assemblage, and so did Roth. Roth's studio became the equivalent of Schwitters's Merzbau. It is impossible to document all of Roth's activities, but they were deeply influential, especially on younger German artists, for example, Martin Kippenberger. Many of his ideas were taken over, without acknowledgement -- probably because of ignorance -- by young American artists. Roth remained artistically young in spirit and relentlessly experimental, even as he turned avant-garde experimentation into standard operating procedure, that is, a tired clich of creative method.
But, as I said, it was all in vain: the result was always transient shit, sometimes brightly colored, sometimes morbidly funny -- Roth had a tendency to caricature and self-caricature -- but always throw-away art, however optically exquisite it often was. But the final installations are far from exquisite. In a consummate act of desperation, he displays the floor of his Icelandic studio as though it was a painting (1975-92 installation), completely confusing entropy and creativity. Art has become meaningless -- as long as something is associated with the artist it becomes art. (An old Duchampian game, still eagerly played by those who want to put the halo of art on every profane thing, as if art still had the power to sanctify things, when it has just become another word -- as Duchamp intended.) But this suggests that Roth is idolizing his meaninglessness to himself. He may be signaling the environment in which he makes art, but if the environment itself is art, then he has no need to make art. Thus the installation is a suicidal gesture -- the auto-da-f of an avant-garde heretic, made when avant-garde experimentation is no longer a heresy. Indeed, it has become de rigueur -- utterly orthodox and thus banal.
The sense of meaninglessness gets a new, rather Germanic twist in Flat Garbage (1975-76 and 1992), an archive of trash, carefully ordered, catalogued and pressed between the pages of books, like dead flowers. Indeed, an archive is a kind of cemetery. Roth is entombing himself, or rather his art. The whole thing reeks of self-monumentalizing -- the postmodern equivalent of the pyramid, which, however much it is supposed to suggest eternity, is after all a one-note architectural hymn to death, that is, a memento mori become a delusion of grandeur.
But then it may be Roth's ironic way of finally integrating Constructivism and Destructivism: pure geomety hides and contains the relics of self-expression (even though it is the death of the self that is expressed with mundane finality). Looking at the neatly lined up office binders (623) on their slick shelves I thought of the crypts of the stars in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, wondering whether there is a similar cemetery for artist stars. (I understand there's one in Southampton, where Pollock is buried. Other artists want to be buried as close to him as possible, as though that would make them stars, if only posthumously.) Boxed in their little coffins, they're prematurely museumed.
Roth's trays of slides have become academic -- the raw material of academic research. Indeed, they're standing at attention waiting for some necrophiliac doctoral student, whose dissertation on Roth will probably end up unread in a library, the way Roth's trash ends up unseen in its boxes. All that self-legitimating archaeological effort and hope in vain!
But wait! Solo Scenes (1997-98 ['98 was the year of Roth's death]) is a tour de force of self-presentation. An installation of 131 video monitors (when I saw it two were not functioning) arranged in a grid of three grand wood shelves displays, continuously and simultaneously, footage of verbal and visual diaries that Roth kept in the early '80s, including a six month account of his life that appeared in the 1982 Venice Biennale. It is another archive and cemetery -- another confusion of garbage and memory. And another grandstanding narcissistic display.
Clearly every boring detail of the artist's life must be of interest to someone or other, if only in passing. It is also a mass cultural avant-garde spectacle: a pathetic attempt to mass-culturize avant-garde art by turning it into a spectacle -- as the redundant use of television sets indicates -- thus giving Roth his popular due. (More Warhol-envy, and also another tip of Roth's hat to an avant-garde predecessor, Nam June Paik.) The trashed television sets of Garden Sculpture have been restored and redeemed by being put to avant-garde use -- by being enlisted to propagate the true avant-garde faith (which is of course that high art is dead, that is, completely conquered by and assimilated into, and as, kitsch).
But it doesn't work. It's a spectacle all right, but the images are boring compared to those on television: we know those are boring, but we don't expect avant-garde art to be boring. Roth uses found everyday images which lack the cosmetic slickness that makes kitsch spectacles entertaining. We want to stay on the glamorous surface in popular culture, not pretend there's some secret depth we don't know anything about. What depth, after all, is there in garbage -- although, of course, its the very pits -- even when it's well-packaged, so that it seems to be ironical art?
A final point: unlike the shelves in Flat Garbage, those in Solo Scenes lack sides, so that they resemble Sol LeWitt's open squares. But Roth doesn't believe less is more, which is why he bombards us with trashy images and objects. However familiar, they subvert the everyday surface of life by suggesting its seamy underside. This is why Roth's work reminds me of Wilfred Bion's wry joke that all one needs to be a psychoanalyst -- and postart lover, one might add -- is the ability to survive bombardment, particularly from people throwing their shit at you.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.