Irony Tower

Article excerpt

A German artist friend once told me what made him sign up for Dieter Roth's class at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie in 1968. Meeting the professor for the first time he noticed the fear in his eyes and simply couldn't help but feel intrigued. Fear was a powerful motivator for Roth, one that put him on his path - to conquer through wit and intelligence the domain of art, which promised him a measure of safety, while he continually tested art's limits, not as a revolutionary avant-gardist but as an ironic commentator and skeptical moralist. His classes, by the way, weren't held at the Akademie; instead, he assembled his students in a nearby bar, to keep a safe distance from the school. It later irked him that Beuys got all the credit for unconventional teaching at Dusseldorf.

I don't know precisely what Roth discussed with students, but perhaps he spoke of his vision of art, as he once formulated it in a simple diagram in Philadelphia in 1964. There he presented the history of art ill the twentieth century in the form of a staircase: the stairs were labeled "talent," the landings "irony." For every step forward, irony took artistic talent to another level. Though Roth was impressed by the Modernist optimism he encountered in the US in the '60s, the pragmatic American outlook probably represents the antithesis of his conception of language and the world. It's no accident that Roth struck up a friendship with Richard Hamilton and Marcel Broodthaers, with whom he planned a theme exhibition for dogs (among other things, the work would be hung at canine eye-level).

Dieter Roth follows in the tradition of such painter-poets as Arp, Klee, and Schwitters, whose literary-pictorial art in turn comes out of German Romanticism. In his innocent explorations during the '60s, carried out in such unpretentious media as drawings and poems, Roth constructed tentative worlds governed by mutations and multiple variations - worlds regulated, that is, by nonregulation. In that period, his refined formulations and poetic subtlety had no rival - certainly not in the activism of Fluxus. One looks in vain to Roth for ideological assaults on various Modernist narratives and art-historical progressions; rather than attack them, he'd follow their traces, draining them of their certainties in the process; he knocked the wind out of formalism's ineluctable logic, blatantly attaching his tools to the production of that momentum, or even dipping it in chocolate.

In so doing, he took lucid stock of the present. There's an unforgettable scene of his offering his commentary on a work of Beuys' in Vienna in 1979: he drew attention to the solemn pathos of Beuys' relics by placing cheap utensils alongside the auratic objects and drawing an arrow on the floor to bring out the comparison. In the process, he implicated himself along with those whose practices he was calling into question: "I find that artists as we know them, myself included, pull a sort of curtain up before themselves. …