Family Affair

Dieter Roth. Björn Roth
Hauser & Wirth
Through April 13, 2013

Bruno Alfieri, one of the most outspoken writers on Jackson Pollock’s work, was not so impressed by an exhibition of Pollock's poured paintings. To Alfieri, the artwork seemed to be thrown together randomly, with little thought. In 1950, Time magazine's article "Chaos, Damn It!" quoted Alfieri on Pollock's work: There is "nothing but uncontrolled impulse. ... It is easy to detect the following things in all of his paintings: chaos; absolute lack of harmony; complete lack of structural organization; total absence of technique, however rudimentary; once again, chaos."” A cursory appraisal of the work of Dieter Roth, and his son Björn Roth, might initially elicit the same response. 

This three-decade-long meditation on what Robert Rauschenberg called the "gap between art and life" is a collection of candy, clothes, and old workbenches (Grosse Tischruine [Large Table Ruin] [1978-1998]), as well as paintings, videos of the artist at work and on the can (Solo Scenes [1997-1998]), and lastly, and most impressively, a towering monolithic sculpture, which is, in fact, a studio floor cut in half and upended (The Floor I: Studio-floor from Mosfellsbaer, Iceland [1973–1992] and The Floor II: Studio-floor from Mosfellsbaer, Iceland [1977–1998]).

The centerpiece of the show, however, is a performance/installation by Roth’s son, Björn -- a rebuilding of the original Dieter Roth sugar kitchen located at the Dieter Roth Foundation's Schimmelmuseum in Germany. A makeshift galley has been fashioned, complete with a stove, upon which sugar and E. Guittard chocolate are melted and poured into rough, foot-tall molds that resemble a dog, a lion, or a portrait of Père Roth (depending on whom you ask -- in Roth’s work, specificity is not a long suit), which are then stacked into two ceiling-high towers of shelves. Björn Roth describes them as an homage to the New York skyline--the oblique reference to the World Trade Center, remaining Roth-esquely oblique; they might just as well evoke Tolkien’s The Two Towers, with their rainbow-colored candy animal figures and wizened, wizard-like visage of Roth.

The real art at the heart of this piece is Dieter Roth’s 20-year-long collaboration with his son Björn. Here, Björn rebuilds the installation with the help of his own sons, Oddur and Einar, working each day to fashion a chocolate tower, Selbstturm (Self Tower) (1994-2013), and a Zuckerturm (Sugar Tower) (1994–2013 [above]), a piece that collapsed under its own weight in 1994 -- masterpieces ceaselessly in the making. What at first glance might seem to be chaos and caprice (Roth’s first American exhibition consisted of thirty-six suitcases filled with rotting cheese, after all), might, with the proper amount of time and distance, be viewed as one great meta-work. Here is an artist who was not content to merely paint and sculpt, but, rather, used everything, including his progeny, in a total work of art. Whether this vision was ad hoc or not is probably irrelevant; the result of the experiment is the same. While Joseph Beuys proposed that "every man is an artist," Roth posits some next-level shit -- that, indeed, artists are born. - Bradley Rubenstein


Hauser & Wirth is at 511 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.