Dieter Roth and Bjorn Roth.
For an exhibition coinciding with what would have been the eightieth birthday of Dieter Roth, the Swiss artist who died in 1998 at the age of sixty-eight, Hauser & Wirth surveys some twenty works that Dieter Roth, father, and Bjorn Roth, son, called Tischmatten (Table Mats). These are the cardboard sheets the artist laid over his work tables and upon which a multitude of actions took place: collaging, painting, drawing, pasting, cutting, spraying, gluing, affixing, list making, game playing, address noting, daubing, and doodling. In short, the mats carry the residuum of simply working as an artist. (From the time the younger was fifteen, Vater and Sohn worked together in the studio, both of them apparently contributing to these diaristic corrigenda.) To be sure, with this kind of work, there cannot be "corrections," since, in principle, there are no errors. We all have spilled paint, ink, or coffee while at work--happenstance. Take a pen or pencil and outline the ensuing blemish or stain--no more error but instrumentalized chance.
The mats were then moved to the wall; the horizontal records of tabletop accumulations became "paintings," and their vertical relocation marks a huge narcissistic gamble. Yet the move is fully in character: Roth, after all, once presented a bank of monitors playing surveillance footage of his quotidian life, down to the mundane calls of nature, which were, perhaps, not mundane after all--that is, if one accords a kind of monstre sacre status to the artist (as the Swiss and the Germans do). Under those circumstances, everything counts. Why even trouble with niceties, such as an editing consciousness, since all is sacred relic from the outset?
In short, the Tischmatten are troubling. One difficulty is that in being themselves, they are also like the output of everybody else; after all, the methodology is, for all intents and purposes, utterly universal. Still, a facile linkage to the work, for example, of Joseph Beuys provides a compelling visual parallel, though Beuys is by far the greater guru. Similarly, Daniel Spoerri's tableaux-pieges (snare pictures)--groupings of objects, such as the remnants of a finished meal, that the Swiss artist adhered to a surface and mounted on a wall--must be factored in as related efforts, if not specific models. Indeed, Roth invades the very borders of Fluxus and New Realism, movements that have long accorded him high rank for his spiritual kinship and national origins.
Yet in spite of all the resemblances that leap to the eye, Roth is not trying to remind the viewer of other artists, nor is he "influenced" by them--valetudinarian self-indulgence makes him more predecessor than follower. For example, Roth's role as Schokoladen-Meister should not be forgotten in any discussion of Paul McCarthy's updated coprophilial affectations--a connection, in any case, impossible to avoid on this occasion, granting McCarthy's afterword to the handsome exhibition catalogue. The younger artist's two-page logorrheic run-on plumbs the unconscious, less perhaps Roth's than his own.
To be sure, the distant Dada backdrop of Roth's art confirms the artist's Swiss affiliations, even if his work is so seemingly antithetical to the country's famed and obsessive cleanliness. In Roth's theatricalization of a dandruffy oaf--so evident in the Tischmatten's soiled cardboard sheets--he at once subverts the Swiss stereotype and disavows the groomed Max Bill-like entry he made upon the European scene a half century ago.
A marked false step in this disputative exhibition is the inclusion of worktables themselves--carefully set with pens, pencils, rulers, and various other implements--which trivialize the achievement, such as it is. And, for many viewers, all these orderly sculptures do is remind us of the "tables" of Saul Steinberg, the genial New Yorker cartoonist--an unlikely association that must be put out of mind in order to bend to the will, as well as to the transgressive pleasures, afforded by Dieter Roth's mats.