Dieter Roth

German-Swiss Artist

Born: April 21, 1930
Hanover, Germany
Died: June 5, 1998
Basel, Switzerland
There’s not a cardboard box that someone hasn’t designed. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a piece of material that someone hasn’t first drawn up.
Dieter Roth

Summary of Dieter Roth

Briefcases of rotting cheese, minced literature in a sausage case, and chocolate busts of his own face have all featured in the innovative, radical, and occasionally challenging artistic practice of Dieter Roth. Best known for pioneering the artists’ book as an artwork in its own right, the experiments with perishable goods, strange contraptions, and decay that characterized his gallery practice were always pursued alongside an enduring fascination with publishing and the written word.

Reflecting his early experiences of dislocation and migration in World War II, Roth was a devoted traveler and nomad throughout his adult life, bringing in images, experiences, and collaborations generated through his roaming across the globe. The written documentation and diaries of this travelling also fed into Roth’s art and interest in paper as a material, emphasizing the indivisible relationship between his personal life and artistic practice. He is now recognized as one of the most significant European post-war artists.


The Life of Dieter Roth

The product of a childhood upset and unsettled by war, Dieter Roth embraced a similar level of mutability and chance in his artworks. His practice borrowed from his background in commercial art and graphic design, but embraced the changeability of objects, the potential of a nomadic lifestyle as inspiration, and a healthy dose of mischief and subversion.

Progression of Art



These sausage works consist of minced or pulped literature, encased in a sausage skin with fat and gelatin and flavoured with herbs and spices. The minced pages inside each sausage are taken from publications that Roth disliked or envied, such as To Seek a New World by Robert F. Kennedy and issues of the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror. Each iteration of these sausages range in dimensions, but they are generally of a size that could be held in the hand, echoing the original form of the books and newspapers it is made from. A pungent smell emanates from the sausages as the fat attempts to preserve the destroyed words within, developing over time due according to its age and the conditions of display. The colour also changes over time, reminding the viewer of its biological nature and instability as an object. The use of fat in the sausage is one of the first instances of Roth’s use of perishable materials in an object for gallery display.

The visual metaphor of Literaturwurst connects the routine of eating to the consumption of knowledge and words through books. Roth’s allegory pokes fun at the seriousness of bookmaking and reverence for the published word, as well as gesturing to the phrase “not mincing your words” - to speak directly and clearly about an important topic (unlike those texts he destroys). Equally, the sausage is a reflection of his German upbringing, as a staple food in the national cuisine. The series of Literaturwursts grew in the 1970s to include fillings made from magazines as well as books and newspapers, as well as by using a plastic casing to allow the size of the sausage to be increased beyond normal parameters.

As a skilled writer and publisher himself, Roth undoes this craft in this series, destroying the written word as if he is committing some kind of blasphemy. This work invites free interaction - suggesting that the reader or consumer of texts should be equal in agency to the creator, a concept that corresponds to the now influential notion of ‘The Death of the Author’ put forward by French critic Roland Barthes. In this way the Literaturwurst pieces are representative of how Roth’s work attempts to occupy dual registers as playful and rebellious but also critically robust and challenging by referencing (then) cutting-edge concepts in literary theory in an amusing manner.

Ground printed text on paper, gelatin, lard and spices in sausage casing


Copley Book

The Copley Book is a self-reflexive project that both reveals the processes of book making and expresses the life and experience of Roth at the time of its completion. A compendium of sketches, notes, doodles, poems, photos, paintings, letters and cuttings, the book is not bound but is instead presented inside a box wrapped in a paper cover. The assortment of mediums and printing techniques within reveals Roth’s preoccupation with books and publishing. But the disarray of the documents and the lack of page numbers invite its readers to interact with the pages creatively. The audience are given the possibility to construct or deconstruct a story by reconfiguring both the order of chronology of the book and their own method of display. Although Roth had been investigating books as art since the 1950s, the Copley Book has been regularly cited as his most successfully realised and consciously self-referential ‘book on books’.

The book was the result of the William and Norma Copley award that Roth was awarded in 1960. In the early 1960s, Roth was working at the Rhode Island School of Design but would regularly send correspondences, pictures, and ideas to London for the construction of the book. He worked throughout the development process with British artist Richard Hamilton, who shared a mutual affection for the art of publishing. Hamilton worked as the liaison between America and England, coming to be a kind of collaborator in the project, as he fulfilled tasks like receiving and executing the files that Roth was sending from the US.

Pages with notes to the printers themselves are included, revealing the publishing process to the reader. This was an idea Roth continued to feature in later book projects. The Copley Book works as an inventory of everything that lead to the production of the book itself. It is this book-making framework that is being exposed to the reader, as most are likely to be unfamiliar with the process of writing, printing, and distributing a book. Roth has been cited as the originator of the medium of the artist’s book, and the merging of fine art practice and book making on display in the Copley Book supersedes earlier examples in the work of William Blake or the Dada poets in scale and engagement with the potential of the publishing medium.

Printed Art Book, including 112 loose papers


P.O.TH.A.A.VFB (Portrait of the Artist as Vogelfutterbuste [birdseed bust])

This work is a self-portrait of a middle-aged Roth. The bust is haphazardly modelled, presented as if it were a work-in-progress clay head a few steps away from being fired in the kiln. The detail of facial rendering is vague as the medium Roth chose to sculpt in is chocolate and birdseed. The chocolate oxidises as it decays and melts over the period of display, with the mutation of the head alluding to the passing of time, mortality, and the instability and porousness of our bodies. The unconventional usage of chocolate is juxtaposed by the very traditional portrait genre of a sculpted bust. The bust is also placed on its own flimsy plinth of fibreboard, complete with a titled plaque. Roth intended for the plinth to be placed outside and high up, in order for the head to be consumed almost entirely by birds and other creatures. As a preserved object in the contemporary museum, it is now covered in the holes that evidence its genuine bird-feeding purpose.

This piece represents a shift in Roth’s career to a more confident and idiosyncratic use of the materials he chose to work in and established a pattern of engagement with transitory or fragile sculpture that he would continue to explore in his later work. The incomplete or ‘work-in-progress’ appearance of the work is also reflection of life in process, embodying Roth’s criticism of the notion of finish or artistic perfection. The title of this piece refers to James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and is part of Roth’s long-standing practice of appropriating grand symbols of literature and incorporating them into his art.

P.O.TH.A.A.VFB is one of many chocolate bust self-portraits that Roth completed, and reflects a larger interest in the bust as an object of artistic expression. In 1969, for example, he filled a zinc bathtub with busts of Beethoven made from chocolate and hard fat (The Bathtub for Ludwig Van). In other instances he displayed busts of his own face in a large stack until they buckled under their own weight. This (sometimes literal) deconstruction of the bust sits alongside Roth’s subversion of symbols of ‘high culture’, whether in the fields of visual art or literature.

Birdseed and Chocolate - Museum of Modern Art, New York


Staple Cheese (A Race)

This work consisted of a series of suitcases, left in the middle of the floor of the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles, filled with large blocks of cheese. Art historian Camille Paulhan reports that this amounted to nearly two tons of cheese, revealed as the suitcases were opened, displayed and closed one by one over the course of the exhibition. Also displayed in the gallery was a ‘cheese race’- consisting of a selection of cheeses thrown at the walls and left dribbling down the white plaster at various speeds and distances over time. The odor of the piece would have been a significant part of the viewing experience, with the cheese spoiling in the hot Californian weather, and changing the experience of attending the exhibition over the course of its display. Roth’s choice of cheap and artificial American cheese contrasts with the visual symbol of the suitcase, a metaphor for his cosmopolitan and peripatetic lifestyle and critique of superficial consumer culture.

The suitcases suggest a question of belonging and ownership as both a symbol of travel and freedom and a product for consumption and aspiration. The nature of the exhibition also reveals a fundamental questioning of the economic operations of the art world, particularly the notion of institutionalisation and the transaction between artist and collector. How would a collector purchase or display this piece beyond its original showing? What afterlives can it have beyond documentation? This question of preservation came to be rather significant for collector and gallery owner Eugenia Butler. A few weeks into the exhibition the spoiling cheese had become a breeding ground for maggots and flies, so much so that the health authorities had to intervene and threatened to penalize Butler. Roth revelled in this outcome and claimed that the insects were his ‘true audience’. Butler’s husband eventually had to dispose of the cheese cases in the desert due to their stench and toxicity, despite Roth having built special conservation containers for the cases.

Staple Cheese was Roth’s first solo show in America, having originally made a name for himself in Europe, and the public outcry and scandal of the health authority did much to cement his rebellious image. Writer Matt Stromberg claims that the work remained in the minds of all the artists on the L.A. scene of the period, and was one of the most impactful of its time.

Assorted Cheese Stuffed into Suitcases and Cheese ‘Pictures’ on Wall


Interfaces Series

In this collaborative series of over fifty groupings of portrait images, Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth share the frame as though in conversation or opposition. The entire series consists of sixty or so sketchbook pages that have been mounted into wooden frames. Each portrait was paired with a counterpart and have since been grouped into different formulations as the work has migrated across the world, as well as in relation to the developing careers and significance of each artists’ practice.

The portraits play with posing and interaction to create an implied back and forth between the two artists, reflecting their longstanding friendship and collaboration. This communication is expressed non-verbally across the series by recurring gestures and colours and realized in different mediums, from gouache to drawing pencil and oil pastel. Each artist often paints their portraits over a photographic print of their own faces, as if the two artists are poking fun at themselves (and, by extension, each other). The individual portraits are notebook sized and have been mounted into wooden frames to create an approximation of a quadriptych (as in the image here), a diptych or a triptych.

At the time of their creation, Roth was regularly visiting Richard Hamilton at his studio in Cadaqués, Spain, and the two artists, who had already worked on several projects together, began to create these images as a kind of visual document of their creative relationship. As an homage to their relationship, this light-hearted series also reminds its viewer of the joyful potentials of art-making and the pleasure of collaboration. Collaboration would go on to become an even more significant element of his practice, which Interfaces prefigures and establishes as a fundamental interest for Roth.

Drawings, Paintings, Photographs on Paper in Constructed Wooden Frames



This collaborative installation between Roth and his son Bjorn consists of wooden platforms and rickety structures that dominate the room, spreading its ill-defined platforms and wooden limbs throughout the space. On several shelf-like sections are jars filled with liquid and labelled with captioned photos of the dates and cities that Dieter Roth and his son Björn Roth worked on the piece. Chairs are strung up together and hang suspended on the wooden framing, which is taped to a multitude of television monitors. All the separate pieces are interspersed with plants, alluding to a kind of life cycle within the installation, which corresponds to Roth’s lifelong interaction with rot and decomposition. The installation was displayed multiple times, changing in each iteration and including different objects and elements.

The appearance of the work overall resembles that of atelier mess, and it is this element of recycled materials that gives this sculpture its driving force. Included in the mess is even a collection of books and a coat hook with a jacket hung up on it, implying the sculpture itself has been used as a kind of studio space. It is a space for the artists to inhabit, where objects are repurposed and changed by their relation to each other and the viewer. This work was a collaboration with Björn over more than thirty years, and the piece meditates on notions of metamorphosis and recycling, altering and evolving at each new location it was displayed.

Roth had said of his art that there was an unconscious connection with the bombings of his youth, ‘with this gloom and doom hysteria of mine.’ Perhaps by creating a unique environment of personal objects Roth sought to negotiate and accommodate the unfathomable experiences that he had lived through. The plants, which grow out of the other objects and materials suggest a world where nature has reclaimed the earth, or a future where no objects are thrown away. The plants reign triumphant in this world, in a return to nature that undermines the mechanical. The shifting identity and makeup of the installation becomes a kind of self-sufficient art machine, needing only itself to keep moving and mutating. Art historians Dirk Dobke and Bernadette Walter note that in one instance of display, there was a live rabbit involved in the structure, further emphasising this connection to unrestrained nature. Nearing the end of his successful career, this piece was a culmination of years of working with organic materials and bringing the biological into the gallery’s white cube. Gartenskulptor does this on a scale previously unrealised by Roth, and crystallizes several of his obsessions in the later stages of his career, most notably an interest in collaboration and the deliberate blurring of art and life.

Installation consisting of re-appropriated furniture, wooden structures, plants, drawings, glue and paint in jars, videos, windows and cut-up wood - MoMA PS1, Queens, New York

Biography of Dieter Roth


Dieter Roth was born Karl-Dietrich Roth in Hanover, Germany, to German mother Vera Roth and Swiss father Karl-Ulrich Roth, a merchant and businessman. Dieter was the eldest of three Roth brothers. He attended school in Hanover up until the age of thirteen, spending his summers in his father’s country as part of a scheme set up by the charity Pro Juventute, which aimed to preserve Swiss-German children from the calamitous violence and terror of World War II. This emigration became permanent when Roth was separated from his family in 1943 and sent to Zurich in Switzerland. He later remembered that living in Germany under the Nazi government was “horrifying”, saying that “There’s nothing to laugh about then”. Roth, like almost all young German boys at that time, had been conscripted into the Hitler Youth at a young age, being taught thuggish models of behavior and indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda. Whilst his Swiss heritage meant that he was able to seek refuge with family and escape Nazi Germany, Roth struggled to shake this experience, so much so that he remembered punching peers in the face for teasing him about being German. As he reflected “it was a long time before I learnt to stop doing that”.

During his time in Switzerland Roth resided in the house of the family of Fritz Wyss, where he found himself boarding with a number of others, including several Jewish and Communist artists and actors similarly seeking refuge. Spending three years in this creative environment, he started writing poems, copying art from books, and learning Greek, Latin, and French at the local school. He studied hard until reuniting with his family in 1946 when they all moved to the picturesque Swiss town of St Gallen. This same year he also made his first self-portrait and series of prints, which led him to become an apprentice to prominent graphic designer, Friedrich Wüthrich, in 1947. He then dropped out of school in favour of making commercial art in Bern. During his time in Bern Roth was heavily influenced by the artists whose work he came into contact with at museums and galleries in the city, particularly Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters and Paul Cézanne. Perhaps most influential though was fellow Swiss-German artists Paul Klee, whose retrospective Roth visited at the Bern Kunstmuseum in 1947. Roth said Klee’s work was at first shocking but would later “grow into an obsession” for him.

In 1949, Roth suffered a nervous breakdown and even attempted suicide. He later said in an interview with mathematicians Peter P. Schnieder and Simon Maurer that he had tried to kill himself twice in his life, with both attempts ‘on account of various women.’ In 1950 he received tuition in lithography and typography that would come to inform much of his later print and text- based work. He finished his apprenticeship in 1951 and started working as a graphic artist and carpenter before deciding to seriously pursue a career as a visual artist. His clients as a commercial artist included cheese and milk producers, foodstuffs that he would later incorporate into his perishable sculptures.

Early Training and Work

After leaving home in 1953 and abandoning commercial art, Roth began creating work that was first exhibited in 1954. Roth embraced a diversity of creative projects during this time, including exhibiting in local galleries, performing jazz trumpet in local music sessions and conducting some retrospectively important creative experiments, such as his first baked artwork (a spiral of dough). He also founded Galerie 33 and published the first edition of the magazine Spirale, which would go on to be published for over a decade and recognized as one of the most significant documents of Swiss art in the 1950s and 60s. The magazine was produced in collaboration with fellow artist Marcel Wyss and poet Eugene Gomringer and embraced “poetry, the plastic arts, graphics, architecture and industrial design”. Spirale prompted Roth’s interest in self-publishing, which would go on to be a significant part of his later practice.

He remained in Bern until 1955, experimenting with Op Art, Kinetic Art, his organic sculptures, and getting involved with the Concrete Art movement that was popular in Zurich at the time. The movement involved members like Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, with a focus on pure geometric forms that referenced Constructivism as a strong influence. Art critic and curator Stephanie Buhmann claims that it was with the concrete artists that Roth found his first stylistic home. He also met Daniel Spoerri during this time- a lifelong friend, collaborator and influence. Roth was also very strongly influenced by the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters and his concept of Merz, which translated two-dimensional collage into three-dimensional assemblages. Schwitters was also from Hanover and Roth felt a kinship between their creative projects as a result.

Roth met his future wife Sigri∂ur Björnsdóttir in Copenhagen in 1956 where he briefly took up a position as a textile designer, before moving with her to Reykjavik. Their wedding took place a year later and their first son, Karl was born a year later in 1957. As a student of language, Roth revelled in the novelties of Icelandic speech and culture.

Reflecting his growing interest in self-publishing, 1957 was also the year that he published his first ‘artist’s book’, a type of artwork that he is now often cited as the inventor of. Roth created the publishing house forlag ed with Einar Bragi, and at the end of the decade Roth and Bragi had published this first book, simply titled Book, as well as a few other publications of Roth’s and Björnsdóttir’s. Book experimented with geometry and colour, inviting not only kinetic interaction with the shapes on the pages, but also a rearrangement of the pages themselves. The book was on a ring binder so that the viewer had to be an active part in the work, playfully shifting each page and rearranging them as they went. Roth would go on to produce another 250 artist books before the end of his life.

Mature Period

Until the 1960s, Roth had very much been working in Constructivist mode, something which changed completely when he came across Jean Tinguely’s work Homage à New York in Basel. Tinguely was making sculptures associated with the ‘Auto-Destructive art’ movement, in which the artworks would perform and then destroy themselves, liberating themselves from any worry of mess in the aftermath. Inspired, Roth utterly abandoned Constructivism, now favoring a more organic and dynamic approach to art.

Roth also looked to contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg who were producing work that was in a state of becoming, as well as instances where artists ascribed their work shifting meaning. One of Roth’s first and most well-known forays into this new method of art was his Literaturwurst. In this piece he would shred the works of authors he disliked and proceed to stuff the paper mince inside a real edible sausage casing, going so far as to season the filling of each sausage. He made several of these sausages, and even offered one to George Maciunas as a Fluxus publication. Roth was regularly socializing with some members of the Fluxus movement then taking off in New York, where their work exploring chance happenings and presenting the transience of life as art in process was beginning to be recognized. In congruence with these ideas, Roth began to expand on his earlier experiments with food in his work. Roth made his first mould photo, for example, in which he created a portrait for the Swiss art collector Carl Laszlo by covering a solarized photo of him in a thick and viscous layer of processed cheese. The decomposition of the image as it was displayed earned Roth his pseudonym Diter Rot.

Roth was now firmly ensconced in the idea of ‘process art’, and his projects were becoming more focused and ambitious, which corresponded with greater interest from galleries and exhibitions. Alongside his expanding career, his family too was getting larger; Björnsdóttir and Roth’s second son Björn was born in 1961, with their daughter Vera following two years later. However, in 1964 Roth separated from his wife, leaving his family in Iceland while he took up roles in the US, first at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and then in a teaching role at the Rhode Island School of Design. During his time in the faculty, Roth embraced what he called ‘non-teaching teaching’, which largely involved sitting at the front of a class and working without providing instruction to the students.

Roth also used his students to type-set and print his books and publications, most notably his first book of poetry, Scheisse. Neue Gedichte von Dieter Rot (1966). This title translates as ‘Shit. New Poems from Dieter Rot’. These ‘shit poems’ were writing which basked in its own frankness about bodily function, revelling in the nature of human processes and their descent towards decay. During this time he also published the Copley Book in collaboration with acclaimed Pop artist Richard Hamilton in 1965. In 1966 his studio in Providence was repossessed as a result of non-payment of rent, resulting in the destruction of several artworks. This encouraged Roth to make more destructible and temporary pieces, including pieces made from cakes, moulded chocolate, brown sugar, birdseed, banana, and rabbit excrement. These new works and the increasing level of publications and books being released amplified his public profile and notoriety as an artist.

Throughout the late sixties and into the early seventies, Roth travelled inexhaustibly, moving from London to Dusseldorf to Berlin to Los Angeles, also travelling back home for family time in Reykjavik regularly. During this period he began to produce a series of self-portraits, reflecting the one constant in his peripatetic life - himself. Many of these were sculpted from chocolate or other perishable materials, however, suggesting that even this gesture of self-reliance was transitory.

During his tireless travelling, Roth would set up temporary workshops, never ceasing to record, produce, write, and interact with what he was seeing and discovering. As artist Malcolm Green remembers, he created “to the point of neurosis”. He collected postcards from his journeys, for example, and would paint over the top of them to create mini-series of work, such as Picadillies, composed from scenes of Piccadilly Circus in London. In these small paintings he experimented with varying techniques of light and shadow blocking, color, and scale. This was the start of a more conventional stint of art making for Roth, as he abandoned the perishables in favour of painting, printing, and drawing. He also holidayed with Richard Hamilton in 1976 in Cadaqués, Spain, producing a series of work for humans and dogs, in ode to the recently passed artist Marcel Broodthaers. Working with dogs also sparked a collaboration between Roth and his Sons Björn and Karl, whom together took hundreds of photographs of the abundance of stray dogs in Barcelona, which later inspired a series of ‘speedy drawings’ by Roth. He worked with more animals in 1979, performing with two apes in attempt “to show that apes do not want to paint”. The noises and conversations of this interaction with the apes were presented in the Vienna Biennale that year.

Late Period

Into the 1980s the obsessively productive Roth began to relax his pace of production. As Klaus Beisenbach has noted, his son Björn became a very important collaborator after the two of them worked on a series of flower paintings together. Roth was, by this point, critically acclaimed and recognised as a major post-war artist. As a result, he featured in a series of exhibitions across Europe and the US throughout the eighties and nineties. In 1982 he was invited to represent Switzerland in the Venice Biennale, presenting a biographical video installation alongside projections of writings and photographs, which Green associates with Roth’s obsession with collecting and accumulating. He was becoming interested in making biographical work, which he facilitated by keeping a diary and working with his children. These diaries also helped him in the periodic states of panic and depression that he was beginning to experience in his later years. He was still travelling during the 1990s, but remained largely in Germany, Iceland, and Switzerland. The Dieter Roth Foundation, also known as the Schimmelmuseum (which translates to ‘mould museum’) was set up by Roth in 1990. Showing in exhibitions as well as continuing to write into the nineties, he also continued to exhibit with his son Björn, including at the Vienna Secession in 1995. The last significant work of Roth’s was his Solo Scenes, a continuation of his interest in auto-biographical videos. Roth died of heart failure in 1998 in Basel, Switzerland. He was survived by his three children, with his middle child Björn Roth continuing to work as an artist and build on their previous collaborations.

The Legacy of Dieter Roth

Having appointed the German art historian Dirk Dobke the head curator at the Dieter Roth Foundation earlier in 1998, Roth was able to begin the process of collating and organizing his life’s work in the Schimmelmuseum in Hamburg before he died. The breadth and geographical spread of his practice has consistently posed a difficulty for archivists and curators however, and new works are continually emerging and being discovered. Undoubtedly Roth would appreciate the shifting levels of meaning and significance attached to his quick sketches, small objects and photographs accrued after his death.

The Dieter Roth Academy was later started in 2000 by fifteen close friends, which was a project that reflected Roth’s desire for an ‘unfixed’ programme of artistic training and development. After an artistic life filled with travelling, he wanted to emphasize new surroundings and faces as the most fulfilling possible element of a life, particularly the life of an artist. The Academy aimed to promote independence and nomadic travel in order for the next generation of artists to forge new experiences of their own.

Now widely recognised as the inventor of the Art Book, this aspect of Roth’s practice has proven to be one of the most enduring. Ed Ruscha, for example (a near contemporary of Roth’s) has explored the possibilities of books about books, continuing to experiment with conceptual and playful publications. The influence on the development of this form can also be seen in the work of several Fluxus-related artists, such as Yoko Ono (whose Grapefruit is now one the most famous artist’s books of the 1960s). Artists as diverse as Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, Cy Twombly, Suze Rotolo and Raymond Pettibon have produced artist books, continuing the experimentation with form and history that Roth led in the post-war period. As of the 1970s the genre of art books has been taken seriously as a medium in itself and is now its own field of study within art history.

Roth’s use of perishable materials reflects both his playfulness and commitment to concepts of mutable meaning and connotation. This commitment to concept is not easily reproduced or incorporated into an archive. Echoes of this wilfulness can be seen in the work of Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the other YBA artists, as well as Performance and Installation artists that question the way that the contemporary museum contains and preserves unique experiences, such as Cassils, Pope.L, and Ulay.

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