Dieter Roth

Article excerpt

Dieter Roth

Craig Saper

Felicitas Thun. Dieter Roth: Printed Pressed Bound, 1949-1979. xh. cat. Philadelphia: Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design and Cologne: Oktagon, 1998. 197 PP.. 87 color ills., [66 b/w. $45 paper.

Exhibition schedule: Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art and Design, May 26 July 30, 1999.

Writing a brief review of a comprehensive Dieter Roth exhibition (with sixty graphic prints, sixty books, and ten assemblages), one inevitably feels like packing his many volumes of works into a Viennese wust. Roth's own Literaturwuste (Literature Sausages) series consists of shredded pages of, for example, the twenty volumes of Hegel's philosophy boiled and stuffed into twenty animal intestines and individually labeled.

That image, one of the most striking in the exhibition, offers an iconic summary of Roth's aesthetic concerns, his methods of working, his importance for the arts in the last half of the twentieth century, and even an image of his pranksterish sense of humor. Reviewing the exhibition and catalogue, one might also consider how the curator packaged Roth's work and career, and how she suggested his importance for the arts.

Roth died unexpectedly in 1998, and the exhibition planned before his death became a posthumous summary of his hfe and career as an innovative printmaker and key figure in book arts. Born Karl Dietrich Roth in Germany in 1930, he emigrated physically to Switzerland and Iceland, and aesthetically from the Bauhaus interest in the clean lines of concrete art to a fascination with self destructing artworks, using everyday refuse and the techniques of smearing and smudging his prints.

Those shifts in his interests parallel the shift in European art from constructivist concerns before 1960 toward conceptual art like that associated with Fluxus, the Vienna Actionists, and Pop artists like Richard Hamilton. Roth collaborated with these artists, making the connections literal, and he explains that the aesthetic shift happened after he saw Jean Tinguely's selfdestructing machines. Fluxus artist Dick Higgins published the English language edition of Roth's book 286 Little Clouds, and a number of the artists associated with these movements produced works in homage to Roth. But, Roth himself was never quite in any particular group, and Higgins, commenting on his unique influence said he was a "one-man movement." Roth himself founded six different presses, mostly to publish his own work, and his use of the trappings of infrastructure as artworks in themselves is not easily captured in a comprehensive exhibition.

Roth's oeuvre, in this exhibition, highlights the startling shift from the efforts at producing a universal aesthetic language in, for example, the magazine Spirale coedited with Eugen Gomringer, who went on to found the International Concrete Poetry Movement, to the process-oriented, transient, and autobiographical works. The catalogue does construct this context, but the exhibition, in its effort to collect so much of Roth's work, does not include examples of these other works that would make the context integral to the exhibition.

Using unusual materials, like cheese, chocolate, rabbit droppings, tar, glue, cocoa powder, sour milk, moldy foods, licorice sticks, and other found materials, Roth introduced printmaking methods that are now among the standard practices of artists. In their exhibition more than in their reproduction, one appreciates the found objects as part of the work. You recall the previous use and function of the object or substance, and this process puts you in the position of the artist involved in making art. …