I left Hauser & Wirth’s new space on 18th and 11th in late January feeling ecstatic. The gallery now occupies The Roxy’s old space, and the energy of the former dance club and roller-rink lingers. The press preview hummed with activity, and the art felt as though it were alive. That must have been by design; Dieter Roth. Bjorn Roth (through April 18) celebrates and reflects on 20 years of collaboration between Dieter Roth and his son Bjorn. Judging from this exhibition, a lot of that work was very large; the gallery is filled with enormous messy sculptures and expressionistic paintings. Every work in the show has a relationship to another and nothing feels complete. Like life, art perpetually changes and evolves.
That might sound a little more poignant than it should. While our lives may be driven by desire, the purpose and meaning behind those desires is often mysterious. For better and sometimes worse, that’s often the case in Dieter Roth. Bjorn Roth. The cavernous space is defined by two of Roth’s studio floors, uprooted from their original home and displayed vertically at the front end of the gallery. During a tour, Bjorn told us that one floor had a door on it because it’d been displayed at another gallery but would’ve blocked the entrance without the pathway. On the opposing vertical floor, we saw splatters from the making of a painting that was hanging on a nearby wall. Knowing this history adds to the narrative of the artist’s practice, which is defined by the performative impulse, but these aren’t necessarily connections a viewer would make on their own.
Unlike Roth, I don’t care so much for the idea that everything is connected—any illustration of that will seem obvious—but I do think simply knowing an experience is shared often resonates. And there’s a lot of that in the show. Even with the floors, which are positioned against each other so a viewer can walk through them as if in a tunnel, I had the feeling not just that the work would be lifeless without me, but also that many others had that feeling as well. It was uncanny. A large installation, “Grosse Tischruine (Large Table Ruin),” functioned similarly. It looks like a recreation of an incredibly messy studio, and while I was there, four art handlers sat around a table, drinking beer and waiting to be called upon. Once they turned on the projectors, they left and the piece felt empty.
Aside from the new permanent installation—a New York bar—the piece with the most life, “New York Kitchen,” lives in the center of the show. It was surrounded by Roth’s paintings. Assistants dumped chocolate into pots to make a tower of cast heads, and in other pots, sugar, to make towers of colored sugar heads. Right now, the exhibition looks a little sparse, but by the time it’s done the gallery should be transformed into a forest of candy.
I’m not convinced there’s any great meaning to that, but I like that the exhibition feels alive for it. That’s true of all of the art in the show, with one exception. On a far wall, an inert, untitled painting made of tubes, tape, wood, metal, and various bits of garbage seemed to suffocate behind its plexi. Roth had originally sent orange juice, milk, and a variety of other drinks down the tubes, as a means of ensuring that the piece would constantly change, but it was clear that hadn’t been done in ages. When I ask Bjorn about whether he’d let me throw some of the press champagne down the tubes he refused. “A collector sealed the holes the tubes came out of several years ago,” he said. Like any good salesman he neglected to add that in doing so, the interaction Roth intended for the piece was neutered, thereby destroying the work.
Art that Needs Me: Dieter Roth. Bjorn Roth.