Text: Jennifer Piejko
Times have changed in New York; apparently it's not the party it used to be. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Roxy, a former roller rink and nightclub operating during New York's nightlife heyday of the '80s has been transformed into the new outpost of Hauser & Wirth, one of the most expansive and ambitious galleries in the world. Inaugurating the new Chelsea space is an exhibition of the works of who the gallery considers the quintessential Swiss artist (and his heirs): Dieter Roth (1930-1998). Dieter Roth. Björn Roth is an exhibition of the late Roth and his eldest son, Björn, a frequent collaborator of his and an artist in his own right. Considering that Dieter Roth's oeuvre contemplates the never-ending, testing the last remnants of the still-living, one can expect future generations to continue in the family business.
Dieter Roth was born in Germany in 1930, and escaped the traumas of World War II by spending his summers in Switzerland. He never really returned once he turned 13, and eventually settled in Iceland. At first, he did everything an artist might want to do: collaborating on the magazine Spirale until the early 1960s, writing poetry, eventually publishing his own artist books. Later, he granted anyone with access to a printer to own a Dieter Roth original through the Order Form exhibitions of the 1970s, where visitors could take a sheet of directions to a printer and create their own print or multiple.
His "multiples" were merely replications of virtually anything that interested him. He made sculptures from molds of bunny rabbits using sugar, spices, toys, and jigsaw puzzle pieces. On display at Hauser & Wirth is a fully functioning industrial kitchen and mini factory where assistants mold chocolate busts of Roth père from luxurious E. Guittard chocolate. A looming column of brightly colored molded sugar sculptures, Zuckerturm (Sugar tower) (1994), looms nearby, the broken ones strewn on the floor like the remains of a piñata after a child’s birthday party.
The early ‘60s ushered in his period of biodegradeable art, though one should not take this title to mean that these works disappeared or decomposed once they were finished; rather, his interest was in working with the non-decomposable, the refuse of preservatives, and he manipulated his materials to a slow death. Using yogurt and processed cheese to create portraits, then leaving them out indefinitely, until only the very last elements were left, leaves us with only a corpse of a painting. His Tischruine (Table Ruin) works show us the opposite: studio and worktables are buried under mounds of everyday scraps, all held equally valuable as sources of possible inspiration. Many of such works have endured decades of relentless decay. This attitude dictated Roth’s artistic style through most of his career, as he neatly dismissed Fluxus, Concrete Art, Op Art, and many other styles and concepts, though never being able to ignore them completely.
The biodegradable art is a reminder of just how much is thrown away when there is still a bit of life left. "No Title (Bananas)" (1965-1966), on display here, is the result of a single banana pressed through an etching press, stretched on linen. Framed, the piece is over sixteen feet long. The tablescapes, essentially work desks piled high with what many would simply call junk, here are elevated to installations, supporting layers of history and the details of life and work in an artist's studio. The enormous, imposing Floors, here propped up as impossible canvases, are the floors from the artists' studio in Iceland. As an artist, Dieter Roth placed no limits on his mediums; rather, limits were his only consistent tool. Limits determined and broken by life spans.