In the current environment of environmental awareness, the art world is embracing the concepts of recycled objects used to create art with passion, but this is not a new idea by any means. Perhaps the true granddaddy of so-called green artists was the man born in Hanover, Germany, in 1930, who was to become a legend in his own lifetime, Dieter Roth, who established, during the 1970’s, a a museum of his works, as well as a personal archive, in Hamburg, called the Dieter Roth Foundation. Museum and archive are run as a public institution, and visitors can, by appointment only, gain access to an insight into the works and mind of this amazing man.
A German father and Swiss mother meant that the young dieter was brought up in Switzerland, and was incredibly gifted as an artist from very early on. The range of his artistic interests was vast, and though he had first trained to be a graphic designer and commercial artist, he soon found the boundaries of these occupations too limiting.
Having left home in 1953, Dieter saw nine issues of his collaborative magazine Spirale being published between 1953 and 1964, his first foray into ‘Fluxus’ art. ‘Concrete’ art was the fashion then, and dieter took to it gleefully, exhibiting locally. It was in 1954 that he met Daniel Spoerri, who became his great friend and founded the publishing house that later printed some of his early works.
Dieter met and married Icelandic student Sigríður Björnsdóttir in 1957, moving at once with her to to Reykjavik in Iceland, from where emerged several artist’s books of great significance.Soon he was designing textiles, coming up with innovative and intricate jewelery designs, and soon became one of the earliest exponents of optical art. Books and magazines were shredded and turned into sausages, known as lieraturwurst, between 1961 and 1974.
Artistic books of exquisite design were made by him, Dieter wrote poems and even created a sort of German language in which his pseudonym was Diter Rot. He was an accomplished musician, both performing and recording all kinds of sounds. Some of the work for which he is best known involved the use of decaying foodstuffs and other organic materials, because he saw decay as being an integral part of any art work. Chocolate, squashed bananas and other rotting foods featured, but he was not averse to using dung foe a piece of art if he felt it called for.
Art collector and dealer Carl Laszlo, in 1964, as a fortieth birthday celebration, commissioned Dieter to paint his portrait. He painted over ia photograph of Laszlo with processed cheese, in what became the first of the biodegradable works he was to become renowned for. A 1968 series called ‘Insel’ involved his covering a blue panel with foodstuffs arranged as islands, then covering the surface in layers of yogurt, then plaster, before leaving the piece to rot gradually, until only non-biodegradable elements remained.
It was in 1972 that Dieter produced several limited edition productions, among which was ‘Rabbitshitrabbit’, in which the mould for a famous chocolate icon was filled with compacted dung to achieve the desired result. Part of the attraction of Dieter Roth’s work is his eye for the usefulness of trash. Garden sculpture is the name of a long-term project that he began in 1970, and is still being added to today by his son, Bjorn, and others,
He started the project with a birdseed and chocolate bust, put outdoors for birds to feed on. Roth added art pieces, sketches and drawings on and around the bust platform as time went by, always employing materials found on site. Exposure to the elements of the whole piece creates waste that is recycled through tunnels and preserving jars, meaning that ‘GradenSculpture’ continues to grow to this day.
The range of his works is breathtaking, the depth of talent immeasurable, and his influence over other artists is as great today as ever it was, despite his having died of a heart attack at his Swiss home in June 1998. Large Table Ruin, another monumental installation that first emerged in the 70s, and occupied until his death, is perhaps the greatest testament to his art. This truly is a map of the chaotic studio life of this awesome talent, his complex thoughts given solidity.
He himself called the Large Table Ruin a modest relic, indicative of his mistrust of modernity and change. His death signaled the end of additions to this work, which was falling to bits even as the artist fiddled with it. Pieces fell off, others ceased to work properly, in a process that is never ending, because nature always reclaims her own. Dieter Roth was, and still is, a visionary who understood how artistically wonderful the natural world can be. A giant of the art world, sadly missed.