Three years ago I saw a work by the late Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth that so captivated me that I am determined to write a book just to be able to reproduce it on the jacket. It consists of twenty sausages in assorted sizes, hanging, as in a German butcher shop, in two rows, and is titled Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: Works in Twenty Volumes. Roth had removed the labels from the individual volumes in a matched set of Hegel’s Werke, and pasted them onto corresponding Würste. Much as I admire Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, it was delicious to see its two volumes chopped into bits, stuffed into casings and displayed as what Roth called “literature wurst.” It was a witty critique of metaphysics that might have caused even those of my professors who were logical positivists to break into thin, sarcastic smiles.
The only piece by Roth I recall having previously encountered was a cheese book–part of a Fluxus collection that had been acquired by the Getty Foundation from the estate of Jean Brown, an avid enthusiast. A Getty official ushered me into a roomful of largely unclassifiable objects, randomly placed on steel shelving. It is a tribute to Roth that his is the only piece I remember. He had flattened a lump of blue cheese in a plastic folder, clasped in a simple cheap binder. I regret never having seen Roth’s legendary 1970 exhibition at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles, which consisted of thirty-seven suitcases in assorted shapes, stuffed with various cheeses, and called Staple Cheese–a play on “steeple chase” to which Roth added “(A Race)” in case someone missed the point. In the nature of things, the art was attacked by flies and maggots, and the stench is reported to have been unendurable. I only read about it in Artforum, after Roth’s death in 1998.
None of these avant-garde creations prepared me for the impressiveness of Roth’s oeuvre as a whole, on view at MoMA-Queens and PS 1 through June 7. If I’d been asked to imagine what an exhibition of Roth’s work would look like, I would have supposed something like that room at the Getty–a jumble of eccentric odds and ends, very few of which would have been seen as works of art before 1960. To my surprise and delight, the author of the cheese book turns out to have been one of the masters of twentieth-century art.
Specialists have employed a German term–entgrenzen–to describe Roth’s procedure as an artist. It means, roughly, to overcome boundaries. Roth’s personality was such that if he encountered a boundary, he would find ways of eliminating it. Fortunately, he came of age in the 1960s, when the spirit of Entgrenzung flourished as never before. Later in the decade Entgrenzung would spread from art to politics, with the rise of movements challenging boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. But its initial impulses were artistic, and can be traced to Marcel Duchamp, whose “ready-mades” blurred the boundary between works of art and commonplace objects like snow shovels, bottle racks, metal grooming combs and urinals. The next important figure in the history of Entgrenzung was John Cage, whose project was erasing the boundary between music, as traditionally defined, and the racket of ordinary life: sirens, coughs, static, whispers, farts. Cage’s composition students at the New School–the cadre of the Fluxus movement, led by Cage’s visionary protégé George Maciunas–went a step further, seeking to erase the boundary between life and art. By the end of that revolutionary decade, there were few if any boundaries left to overcome in art, or for that matter in life.
I have tended to regard boundary erasure in art as largely a Manhattan contribution–downtown through Cage and uptown through Dr. Suzuki’s seminar in Zen at Columbia–but I now see that it was part of the spirit of the times. Roth was a gifted designer with advanced tastes, dedicated at first to Constructivist graphics and concrete poetry, but he had a need for something even more radical, which he found in the work of Jean Tinguely, a fellow Swiss. It has been said that the decade was dramatically inaugurated when, at the opening of Tinguely’s exhibition at MoMA in 1960, his construction, Hommage à New York, self-destructed in the museum’s garden with a lot of smoke and clatter. Roth met Tinguely later that year in Basel. “Everything was so rusty and broken and made so much noise,” he said of Tinguely’s work, likening it to “a paradise that I’d lost.”