Expert Eye

MoMA Curator Sarah Suzuki on How Dieter Roth Invented the Artist's Book

MoMA Curator Sarah Suzuki on How Dieter Roth Invented the Artist's Book
Dieter Roth in his studio

Today the artist's book—a medium combining image and text in a book-like package but meant to be engaged with as art rather than read—is a widely known and wildly popular format, with both established artists like Lawrence Weiner and Richard Tuttle to rising stars like Bjarne Melgaard and Darren Bader creating significant examples. In fact, the artist book is so firmly established—with organizations like Printed Matter and the Editions | Artists' Book Fair long ago rising to meet demand for the works—that it's hard to believe that the medium is less than 50 years old, and more or less indebted to a single artist: Dieter Roth.  

Currently the subject of a landmark exhibition at MoMA that ends this month, the books, multiples, and editions of this tremendously protean German-Swiss dynamo both set a template for future artists to follow and reached such a level of reckless audacity and experimentation that few dare to emulate him too closely. An artist who in fact considered himself a writer first and foremost—"I make art only to support my habit, which is to write and publish books," he once said—Roth first began to create books using the printmaking techniques he learned working at an advertising agency and gradually began to evolve into more and more avant-garde terrain, printing all manner of content (concrete poems, found newspaper columns, geometric shapes) on plastic and other cheap materials, and eventually incorporating food into his books. 

These notorious food pieces involved "pressing" or "squashing" (his terms of choice) such ingredients as cheese, chocolate, lard, sausage, and fruits and vegetables into his books and editions to create works that would eventually putrefy and disintegrate. (The artist, who passed away in 1998 at the age of 68, relished the fact that his name is pronounced "Rot," and often signed his works that way.) While later in his life he moved on to making videos (one of which is included in Massimilianio Gioni's "The Encyclopedic Palace" at the Venice Biennale) as well as massive sculptures and installations, often in collaboration with his son, Bjorn, or with other artists, these food works—like the seminal Portrait of the Artist as a Birdseed Bust, a likeness of Roth's head made from chocolate and birdseed, intended to be placed in a garden and pecked into oblivion—helped his name, and today pose countless problems for the museums that hope to exhibit them. 

To find out more about Roth's role in inventing the artist's book, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to "Wait, Later This Will Be Nothing: Editions by Dieter Roth" curator Sarah Suzuki about the artist's idiosyncratic approach, his prickly relationship with the art establishment, and why his stinky food works make him "the father of modern conservation."

"book c6" (1959), artist's book of hand-cut cardstockbook c6 (1959), artist's book of hand-cut cardstock 

Dieter Roth had a terrifically varied body of work, but a large part of his legacy is his status as the inventor of the artist's book, or the book as art object. Could you talk a little bit more about the format, and how Roth came to invent it?

That's one of his contributions. In his way, Roth was a poet for most of his life, and a frustrated poet at that. As a teenager during World War II he ended up in a hotel in Switzerland that housed a number of refugees, including artists and actors and poets. He himself was reading the great poets and started writing his own verse at a young age. But what's really incredible about Roth is the way he started to totally reinvent what a book could be. When he began making books in the early 1950s he decided that, for him, a book didn't need a binding or a sequence or a text or even an image.

Instead, he called these "like-minded communities of things," and this gave him a tremendous freedom in what he could present. He made books with loose sheets that can be oriented in any direction, whose pages can be shuffled or invite other kinds of interaction, like children's book [1957], which has colored shapes that grow or shrink as you flip through it. This is an interest that starts in the '50s and runs all the way until the end of his life, even though the show stops in 1972. 

Since then, the artist's book has been widely adopted as a format—certainly Ed Ruscha would be the American counterpart to Roth—and it's so present these days. Recently I've seen projects by artists like Tauba Auerbach or Dan Walsh that seem to draw so much on Roth's legacy—this idea that a book doesn't require a text or a sequence or a narrative structure but is instead just another option, another vehicle for presenting work. 

Now, to be fair, books are always a visual medium because you need to be able to read them, but did he think of his books as a visual art medium primarily? Or were they somehow a hybrid?

There's a great interview that Roth did with [University of Chicago molecular scientist] Dr. Ira Wool, who was a great supporter of Roth's throughout much of his career and is the person in whose honor the show at MoMA was funded. In the interview, Roth basically breaks his work down into three kinds of book projects: there are non-verbal, strictly visual projects, like bok 8c or children's book; there are books that are much more text-geared, like the Scheisse from 1965, which has no images, just text; then there are what he himself called "hybrids," which are the volumes that kind of fit between the two types. So I think he was very aware in his own practice of the way that the format could be broken down and serve a lot of different functions, whether it was verbal, or visual, or a combination of the two. 

"Big Sunset" (1968), pressing of sausage on cardstock in plastic coverBig Sunset (1968), pressing of sausage on cardstock in plastic cover

As your exhibition shows, Roth also made editions, prints, multiples throughout his career, and together with his books they make up the bulk of his artistic output. The idea of multiples is not new—Duchamp, Roth's idol, made them the core of his art as well. Yet there is still something radical about an artist who primarily works in editions and multiples, given the importance that the entire art establishment—from museums to the market—places on the unique art object. What drew Roth to this approach?

I think there are a couple of different things in play here, and one of them has to do with Roth's general disdain for the art market. He was someone who moved from gallery to gallery, and was even suspicious of the market system on an institutional level. In fact, he was always subverting and kind of mucking about with his own market—he would tell a dealer in one city that a work had one price and he would tell a dealer in another city that the same work was priced totally differently. I think the idea of trying to dilute the almost mythic value of the unique art object was something that he was really invested in because of his distaste of the market, which was, in his lifetime, something that he participated in but was never monstrously successful in. 

For Roth, the multiples were also a way to live, since he was able to send these objects out into the world and survive off of them—which for an artist is the endgame, to be able to make a living off what you love. He didn't necessarily have to work through a gallery or a dealer, and his work would be disseminated much wider than just Cologne or Dusseldorf, opening his work to a much broader audience. It gave him a great deal of freedom.

Also, even though his relationships with colleagues were often prickly, he was drawn to multiples from very beginning in the '50s by their collaborative spirit, both with his audience—a book isn't activated until you turn the page—and the master printers he was working with. The printer Harmut Kaminski was a great ally of Roth's and went far beyond the idea of cranking the thing through the press, actually standing outside in the garden with a hose to rust the metal plates for Root Treatment. That collaborative spirit is one of those recurring notes in Roth's work, and the edition, whether it's a multiple or a book or a print, provided the opportunity to collaborate in a way that unique objects don't necessarily offer.

In your exhibition you draw attention to a quote by Roth from one of his books that states "Power = Quantity." What did he mean by that?

As a young man, Roth was an intern at an advertising agency, and while there he acquired a knowledge of production—how typography can be effective, and how posters or advertisements could be made, whether through screenprint or lithography. That quote comes from a work he made related to the Daily Mirror, which was London's tabloid newspaper. He realized through his work in advertising that the mark of success for magazines and newspapers wasn't actually in conveying news or information, but rather in selling copies. He understood that the power of the media came from circulation numbers, from quantity: how many copies went out, how many people bought them, and how many people saw the paid advertisements. That idea of power equaling quantity is something again that plays into the idea of all of his multiples and editions. The more people who saw them, the better.

"Literature Sausage (Literaturwurst)" (1969), artist’s book of ground copy of Halbzeit by Martin Walser, gelatin, lard, and spices in natural casingLiterature Sausage (Literaturwurst) (1969), artist’s book of ground copy of Halbzeit by Martin Walser, gelatin, lard, and spices in natural casing

When most people hear "editions" they think of collectibles, but the irony of Roth's work is that he specifically designed many of his works to decay over time and have a lifespan just as he, as a human being, did. He achieved this either by using non-archival materials, or, famously and far more aggressively, by incorporating foodstuffs—particularly chocolate and cheese—into his work with the expectation that they would molder and rot. How hard is it to work with his art?

Well, it's a challenge, I have to say. In a way it teaches you brave lessons about conservation. I worked very closely with our conservators on this exhibition, and it was a reminder of why we go to such lengths to maintain environmental control in our collection storage and exhibition galleries, because while visiting private and public collections to prepare for the show I could really see just how different the condition of works with organic materials were depending on where they were kept over the course of their lifespan. 

I have to say, at MoMA we've seen a lot of nontraditional art-making materials become incorporated as traditional materials over time, so if you think of what we've shown in the galleries—like Lee Bul's 1997 show incorporating rotting fish or Wolfgang Laib's Milkstone, which is in the collection—dealing with Roth's food pieces from the '60s is another link in the chain. But it's interesting because they're an especially early link in the chain. 

A colleague once said to me that, in a way, Dieter Roth is the father of modern conservation—the issues he raised in the '60s are the same kind of issues we're dealing with today, about materials that are intangible or ephemeral in some way. We just have to make sure that the work doesn't adversely affect any of its neighbors—that other artworks don't become actively infested—but otherwise it's not that complicated to deal with because we've worked with so many kinds of unusual, nontraditional materials in the past.

"P.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the artist as a Vogelfutterbüste [birdseed bust])," (1968), multiple of chocolate and birdseedP.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the artist as a Vogelfutterbüste [birdseed bust]), (1968), multiple of chocolate and birdseed

Many of the works in the show are owned by MoMA, and in your show catalogue there is a discussion of how conservators at the museum have rigid ethical guidelines that disallow them from preserving work if that goes counter to the artist's intent, which is the case here. Miraculously, though, the works are in great condition and—contrary to what a visitor might expect from works containing mouldering pieces of cheese and sausage—they don't smell. How did this happen? You would expect these pieces to emit gases that over time would break apart the vitrines. 

With the chocolate pieces, when they're out from under the Plexiglas they're still so redolent of chocolate that it's really amazing. The little Duck Hunt, for instance, which is the tray of chocolate with the little plastic knights in it, is incredibly aromatic even now. But there are certain pieces that aren't in this show. There's a work in the collection of Cologne's Ludwig Museum—a bathtub filled with heads made with chocolate and lard [The Bathtub for "Ludwig van" (1969)]—and even though the whole thing is under a big Plexiglas cabinet, I've been there on a summer day when the guard had to stand outside the doorway as much as possible because the thing reeks unbelievably. 

Also, in 2006, we borrowed a copy of a poetry journal that Roth made for a show at the museum called "Eye on Europe." The pages of the journal were clear plastic envelopes on which text was printed, and these pages were filled with a combination of vanilla pudding and minced mutton, and the smell of the thing was so terrible that we essentially had to isolate it in its vitrine. So there are certainly things that do have tremendously stinky afterlives—there's just no way around it—though once you get them under Plexiglas you can't really smell it.

"Basel on the Rhine" (1969), multiple of chocolate and steelBasel on the Rhine (1969), multiple of chocolate and steel

I would guess that many collectors and institutions that own Roths are more inclined to keep their works on artificial life support rather than see them rot away and disappear as the artist intended. What measures have you seen people take to preserve the works? 

Actually, a number of the private collectors who have works by Roth were friends with the artist in his lifetime, so they have a very healthy respect and understanding for what he was trying to do. In the case of an institutional collection, what I would say is that our mission is not and never has been to try and roll back time, but rather to create a kind of stasis so the work can remain in the condition it was in when it first arrived. That has meant looking far and wide for examples of works that are in good condition, which are somewhat outnumbered by those in not-good condition.

So most people aren't trying to turn back time but rather to keep the works in as good condition as possible. But it's interesting because sometimes when I go to collectors' homes, they've got his chocolate objects sitting on the windowsill in their living room and they'll ask, "Why is this turning yellow?" or "Why is the chocolate all melty?" And I say, "Well, you've got it near a sunny window. You wouldn't keep your box of Godiva chocolates there so you probably shouldn't keep this chocolate art object there either." 


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