Di(e)ter Rot(h) was born Karl-Dietrich Roth in 1930, in Hanover, Germany. He moved to Switzerland in 1940, and from 1947 until 1951, he was an apprentice of commercial graphics with Friedrich Wüthrich in Bern. Together with Bernhard Luginbühl, he visited the trade school in Bern, taking classes in typography. Aside from first linocuts and woodcuts, soon followed by works made from painted scrap metal, Roth’s art has been shaped by his interest in writing as well as graphic arts, water-color painting (Solothurner Wandbild (Solothurn Wallpainting), 1952), and experiments in the field of Op Art. Together with Marcel Wyss and Eugen Gomringer, he founded the journal »spirale« (»spiral«) which focused on art and poetry. Between 1953 and 1964, nine issues were published. Together with Rolf Iseli, Peter Meier, and Walter Vögeli, Roth was then in charge of the Gallery 33 in Bern which showed his works. Roth kept up his focus on graphic arts also during his stay in Denmark (1955 — 56) where he did textile designs as an employee of Unika-Vaev in Kopenhagen. More stays abroad followed in the late 1950s. From 1957 to 1958, Roth worked as a graphic designer and publisher in Reykjavík, Iceland, and in 1959, he shortly worked in New York where he got to know Josef Albers. His Op Art books, bok 2and bok 3, were done in 1960 — 61. Back in Reykjavík, he created kinetic pictures, sculptures, and constructivist rubber stamp pictures.
Roth’s works done in the following years – works on paper, paintings, and books that especially dealt with concrete art – were again marked by his affinity for artistic experiments and the crossing of boundaries constituted by the medium. At the same time, he continued his focus on graphic art and design. Examples are his jewelry and furniture designs from the late 1950s. It appears as a consistent development of his work that Roth started to explore new paths in the 1960s, emphasizing the choice of materials. He founded a small print shop to produce books that were published until the 1970s in the edition hansjörg mayer, which Roth co-edited. Objects made of newsprint, cheese-cases, graphic prints made of pressed bananas, portrait busts made of chocolate, piles of material consisting of layered food, and glass boxes filled with layers of spices, document Roth’s interest in negotiating the boundaries of genres and materials and in thematically addressing temporality and transience. During this time, Roth also participated in Mauricio Kagel’s film »Ludwig van« and fashioned props such as Die Badewanne des Ludwig van (The Bathtub of Ludwig van) or the Franz Léhar-Sofa (Franz Léhar Couch).
Meticulously and systematically documented in several hundred folders, Roth created a large archive of textual material, of refuse and scrap materials such as cigarette butts, garbage, railroad tickets, wilted flowers, etc. Out of these ordered material life-traces, his material pictures and objects emerged (Flacher Abfall (FlatTrash), 1975 — 76; Reykjavik Slides 1973 — 75, 1990 — 93). In the early 1970s, Roth started to build a private museum with adjoining archive, together with an art collector from Hamburg. It is now called »Dieter Roth Foundation« and is located in Hamburg. During the same time, Roth also began his collaboration with Stefan Wewerka, both artists entering a dialogic process of creating art and engaging in the mutual modification and finishing of works (die kassentexte (the cash register texts);urbane matsche (urban mud), 1970). Beyond material works and archive, Roth also created a comprehensive collection of graphic art that includes Collaborations(1971ff.), done with Richard Hamilton. Because of these collaborations and projects, Roth started to work in different locations. Aside from his residence in Düsseldorf, he also kept apartments or studios in Vienna and Stuttgart. Together with artist friends, he kept engaging in magazine projects, fusing various forms of artistic expression situated between text and drawing (Zeitschrift für Alles (Magazine for Everything), 1975). During this time, his first mirror-symmetrical speed drawings emerged (Speedy-Drawings, 1977ff.), which Roth did with both hands, sometimes as part of Actions. Moreover, he increasingly turned towards projects and Actions based on music and sound (Quadrupel Konzert (Quadrupel Concert); 45 Minuten Klavier Improvisation in steigender Betrunkenheit (45 Minutes Piano Improvisation in a State of Increasing Drunkenness), 1977).
During the early 1980s, when Roth commuted between Iceland and Switzerland, his work underwent a visible change. He did the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, presenting an installation that consisted of 40 film projectors for super-8 films, simultaneously showing autobiographical scenes from the year 1982. Documentary aspects as well as a reference to Roth’s own biography also became evident in the new spatial installations and small-format works created in the 1980s and 1990s, which linked perspectives of temporality and psychological self-awareness. Roth’s book A Diary – Ein Tagebuch, also referred to in the later video projection Soloszenen (Solo Scenes, 1997 — 1998), again documented this change. With Schimmelmuseum (White Horse Museum; in German, Schimmel means white horse as well as mould), placed in a carriage house in Hamburg, Roth created an installation that once more brought together concepts of temporality and transience he had dealt with since the late 1960s.
Since 1958, Roth’s works have been shown in solo exhibitions. Especially in the context of Concrete Art, Zero, and Fluxus, in the dense intersection between literature and fine arts, his works have also been shown in group exhibitions. Roth participated in the Documenta 4. Among the exhibitions he initiated himself are the traveling exhibitions »Grafik und Bücher« (»Graphic Arts and Books«, 1971 — 79), the Bestellzettelausstellung (Call Slips Exhibition, 1972), and exhibitions organized together with Franz Eggenschwiler and Alfonso Hüppi (1976). Moreover, there were exhibition-like performances with Arnulf Rainer (Grafik Biennale (Graphics Biennale), 1979). In the 1990s, Roth continued these projects with his wife Vera Roth and his son Björn, but also with friends from Iceland, in Holderbank, in Vienna, and Marseilles. Since 1974, his work has been honored with retrospectives (Hamburger Kunstverein); in 2003, a large exhibition took place in Basel (Schaulager).
Any attempt at containing Roth’s work in strict categories is doomed to be a failing endeavor. There is his closeness to the Fluxus movement and the Nouveaux Réalistes. There is also the enormously broad spectrum of his works, incorporating constructivist, Op Art-influenced, actionist tendencies, while at the same time seeking the confrontation between literature, publishing work, music and Action Art. Finally, there is the reference to Tinguely and Spoerri, the collaboration with Hamilton, Hüppi, and Eggenschwiler. Concentrating on his own biography and on the conditions of space and time, Roth »only« wanted to show his »täglich stattfindendes Gelebe« (»daily business of living«) – and in order to do this he used all the mediums and genres that art provides.
Dieter Roth died in 1998 in Basel.
Roth Zeit, Eine Dieter Roth Retrospektive: Ausst.-Kat. Schaulager, Münchenstein/Basel, hg. v. Th. Vischer, B. Walter, Baden 2003
Dieter Roth, Gedrucktes Gepresstes Gebundenes 1949 — 1979: Ausst.-Kat. hg. v. d. Graphischen Sammlung Albertina, Wien 1998
Dieter Roth, Zeichnungen: Ausst.-Kat. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Graphische Sammlung, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Kunstmuseum Solothurn 1988
Dieter Roth, Gesammelte Werke: Edition Hansjörg Mayer hg. v. Roth/Mayer, Stuttgart, London, Reykjavik 1970ff