Dieter Roth

Biography of Dieter Roth

The provocative German artist Dieter Roth was prolific and highly successful in a plethora of art mediums. Turning his hand to poetry, performing, graphic design, publishing and art making, he always pushed at the limits of what was possible in any given medium. Hating routine and classification, transience and nomadism played an important role in his work.


Born to a Swiss father and German mother in Hannover, Germany, in 1930, he was sent out of Nazi Germany to live in Switzerland with foster parents. It was here that he first began to etch on tin cans, writing poetry and began his first experiments with oil painting.


When he first started out as an artist, he supported himself by doing decoration and occasional commissions. After a brief spell in New York, Dieter Roth came to Reykjavik and began experimenting with chocolate and other organic materials.


The artist discovered the beauty of decaying food while attempting to destroy “dirty pictures” he had made by dousing them in milk, only to realize they in fact became more beautiful. These radical works let time itself be made visible by allowing organic objects to decompose, which rather than being controlled by the artist or viewer, were determined by factors dependent on the conditions. Temperature, humidity, light, and the presence of insects and bacteria would continue to alter the objects after the artist declared them finished. 


With his reputation rising, Dieter Roth began teaching at prestigious institutions in Britain, Germany and the U.S.. In each place he would create new identities, using variations of his birth name, Karl-Dietrich Roth, such as Dieter Roth and Dieterrot. Once, when speaking about experience, he declared “I experience my person as a nebulous persona.” More than anything he explored deconstruction and irony in his work—aesthetics were never a great concern to him.


Because of the stench of his decomposing works, his studio at the Düsseldorf Academy had to be cleared out and all the works destroyed. A regular participant at documenta, he showed his work at documenta 4 in 1969 and at documenta 7 in 1977; by then closely associated with Richard Hamilton and Arnulf Rainer. In 1982 he designed the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. He died in Basel in 1998. 

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