Dieter Roth at The Museum of Modern Art

Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst Halbzeit (Literature Sausage) (1961-1974), book of cut-up novel, water, gelatin and spices in sausage casing, 20-11/16 x 16-3/4″ x 4-3/4″; courtesy Hauser & Wirth

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Would the curators at the Museum of Modern Art recognize a good contemporary artist if he smacked them upside the head? The question nagged at me during a recent visit to the museum’s temporary digs in Long Island City. Walking through To Be Looked At, an adumbrated overview of the permanent collection, I counted one contemporary artist–the sculptor Martin Puryear–worthy of consideration. Make that two: Richard Artschwager’s Splatter Chair I (1992), a “chair” that’s been flattened into a corner of a gallery, has the saving grace of at least being funny.

Otherwise, it’s slim pickings. Overscaled Twombly, super-refined Marden, undercooked Richter and Jasper Johns …. ho-hum. I know it’s unfair to criticize the museum on a fraction of the collection. No one, least of all the curators, pretends that it’s the whole story. There’s got to be good contemporary stuff in the collection, right? Maybe we’ll get to see it once the museum’s 53rd Street home reopens later this year. Or maybe we’ll be subjected to more misguided ventures like Roth Time, a retrospective of the German artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998), now at MoMA QNS.

The introductory wall label at the MoMA show describes Roth as an “iconoclastic individualist” who “obliterated categories and hierarchies” and “subvert[ed] the principle of authorship.” These claims, as laid out by the objects on view, are initially diverting, subsequently bewildering and ultimately tedious. The early work reflects an interest in Cézanne, Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters; later Roth came under the influence of Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, Zurich-based artists espousing a purist brand of geometric abstraction. The constructivist spell didn’t take. Roth’s vision became increasingly impure– Dadaist, to be exact–as did the materials he employed: sausage, ground lamb, rabbit dung and chocolate, to name just a few. Think of Roth as Robert Rauschenberg minus the good will, or a whimsical but only marginally less pretentious Joseph Beuys.

Art, for Roth, was emblematic of the artist’s will, not an object with its own independent vitality. If we’re to believe the MoMA installation, there wasn’t anything Roth touched that didn’t turn to gold–detritus in all of its multiplicity fills the galleries. By the time viewers reach the slapdash assemblages near the end of Roth Time, it’s clear that the diversity of materials was a cover for a poverty of artistic imagination. Roth experimented with everything because he was capable of nothing. If that’s something MoMA deems consequential, we’re in for some difficult times in our already confused culture.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 7, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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