When I was in art school, there was a painting professor who would shock new grad students by propping their palettes up next to their paintings and explaining, in great detail, why the palette was aesthetically superior. The students were crushed. How could a perfunctory manipulation of materials possibly be more successful than their über-personal paintings? He’d then rebuild their egos until they painted exactly like him, but I think he had it right the first time—materials are everything.
For Dieter Roth (1930 – 1998) everything in life was potential fodder for work. He brought a kitchen sink approach to the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk that included rotting food, photographs, paint, crayons, film, sound and all sorts of random crapola. Although it could be considered a bit OCD, Roth saved the gray mat boards that covered his worktables and considered them objects d’art in their own right. Called Tischmatten (German for table mats), these works are currently enjoying their own lofty retrospective at Hauser & Wirth.
The best Tischmatten seem barely able to contain the avalanche of stuff that came across Roth’s desk. In Bürotisch-Matte, Bali-Mosfellssveit, layers of photos, Q-tips, straws, ribbons and drawings cling impossibly to the surface. Similarly, Forcierte Matte (Abandonnements=Etüde) includes gravity-defying plops of acrylic paint that give the work a visual heft that is lacking in the rest of the show. Although a couple of the early works are daringly spare, the magic is lost when the sheer number of alike works visually reduces them to a few stains, a math problem and a couple of paint squiggles. Unfortunately, and although it goes against Roth’s conceptual ethos, some editing might have worked in his favor.
In the upstairs gallery, entire desk set-ups have been reinstalled as sculptures. Empty chairs and desks make the artist’s absence palpable. I tried to picture the famously reclusive Roth doodling away at these desks while ignoring calls from curators and galleries but somehow the whole thing felt sanitized. They’re way too boring to be good sculptures and way too clean to serve as some sort of studio period piece. Rather, they feel like lonely archival shrines that just scream “dead artist.”
Despite the dialog surrounding Roth’s work, which tends to focus on its abject qualities, a warm sentiment creeps into the Tischmatten that were family collaborations. Reluctant to play along with conventional art world systems, Roth included his family into his working process. Kaffeetisch-mit-Telefonecken-Matte, Bali/Mosvellsveit (with Björn, Karl, Vera Roth and others) reads like a haphazard scrap booking project as a chessboard mixes collage-like with photos and childlike drawings. Given the long history of male artists isolating themselves in their studios, it’s nice to see that Roth was a dad who didn’t care if the kids spilled stuff in his.