Interview with Dr. Dirk Dobke, Director, The Dieter Roth Foundation

How do you remember Dieter at the Rhode Island School of Design?

Dieter was at RISD when I was teaching etching. So we used the back of the zinc plates and they were all pitted and he was very enamored by how they looked like Paul Klee. I really felt like I was a parent to Dieter, and we had this lovely relationship and it was really about practicing art. There was just no other vibration there. One day he came in with those (baggy) pants and he always had stuff in his pockets because he was doing all those food paintings, and he was turning the wheel of the etching press. He had eggs in his pockets and the eggs were running all down his legs.

And he just stood there, frozen, like fish you know, and I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t going to help. So eventually he left and came back, but it’s just I wish I had a camera to capture, you know, the baggy pants, the T-shirt and this expression like “how could it break?”

Did he carry this food for his paintings? Did he really make people buy things for the pieces or did he just use what was left over from lunch?

I think he had a plan with those eggs to use them for art, because he was working with sour milk etcetera, but my feeling is that it was mostly left around stuff. And this one piece that he gave me, I treasured it for a long time, and then I thought why should one person have this? And it was one of the milk paintings where there were the “Three Tombstones” and he kept putting milk in the straws. I had it, I guess, from ’67 on – the collector Ira Wool would have to tell you – I’m very bad about remembering dates, but maybe in the early eighties, I decided I would send it to him because I kept seeing his name and I trusted him as a collector. So I wrote to him and said I would send it to him and I had it framed, packaged, and it was all glass. There’s no wood, nothing to contain it. So it arrives to Ira totally broken. And was just devastated. So to my embarrassment, without him telling me, he writes to Dieter. Dieter says “that’s fine. Don’t let Helen know. I’ll come and repair it.” So he makes it all new, then Ira writes to me saying, “It’s okay. He restored the piece”.

I have a lot of catching up to do. But you know, as I think about it while your talking- when I think about those tombstones – I think Dieter knew he was going to meet his end by abuse of his body. When he talked about the “Three Tombstones” he talked a lot about decay. But he thought it was personalized. that it really was his own person that he was building those tombstones for, and I’m talking about that piece. And when I think about it, why did he give me that piece? It was a very important piece and I was very honored to receive it. And I knew it was important. And now when I think about it, you know, I think it was very much his fate. He was trying to do a piece, that was almost, like an alchemy about his fate, and maybe to secure it. And why was it three? I don’t know. There were three tombstones? All those are questions left unanswered.

The version I heard was that these three tombstones would stand for the three children in a way?

Definitely that! No - that’s for sure! That was one level, because that’s why he talked about the kids so much, but at another level, I think he was also in everyone of those tombstones himself. He saw that he was destroying himself, even then and that was, you know, many years before he really got bad at taking care of himself.

After the restoration it changed, but it changed in a strange way because it was made in a laboratory.

Oh my god, in a medical lab!

Yes, so Dieter Roth used there a lot of tubes and stuff for...


Yes, so it was a bit like a reanimation for the tombstone piece...

Great. That’s great!
So when I really needed money I decided to sell all these things to Ira, and then I went out and saw them all there and I’m thinking “why did I do this?” – you know, but the prints are all there. “ Hi Helen” on them, but Ira loves them so much. It’s in the right hands I’m sure the prints are elsewhere too because - it was an edition - the “When god dog into the toys he struck terrible shit”, and “My eye is my mouth”. All of those. So those are all we did on this press that if Dadi Wirz hadn’t met this French lace maker – they would never have designed this press and Dieter would have never made those prints. I’m sure, because Dadi convinced him. I don’t think it would have come naturally. I mean it was always relationships with Dieter. It was always collaboration, correspondence relationship.

What was your function there? You were the assistant of Dadi Wirz?

I was a student there (RISD), an undergraduate student and I was not very happy with the painting department and so I came up to printmaking and Dadi Wirz was scrubbing all the tables. Everyone in the school was talking about this crazy Swiss and telling me not to go near there. The painters disliked him and no one went. But for all of us who found our way there it was fantastic and then to work with Dieter was, you know, such a treat.

So it was just the beginning of the printmaking class?

Yes, I was the first major – to make printmaking a major. Although I have a degree in painting, – I did all my work in prints. I went right to the dean and said I want a degree in printmaking and they gave it to me. So – Dieter helped create that possibility, because he made any media authentic.
He was painting and grinding up things and using the milk. He hadn’t yet done all the sausage stuff. You know that came later. That came much later. And it’s so interesting to me. I want to know now about the chocolate stuff, because I didn’t see that go through this press ever. So it must have been completely another day that I wasn’t there.

Was Dadi Wirz also experimenting a lot l at this time?

They were two outcasts. They were misunderstood completely, and so they hung out together. I was from a small town. I was a very naïve girl and Dieter was so respectful of that. He was so loving and fatherly, and I felt I was kind of sisterly to him. We had this fabulous relationship. All we did was work, and then we’d go to bars and I’d never had drunk much, and he would be very careful and say, “don’t drink too much”. He would take care of me. He was very loving as I’m sure you’ve heard from many people. He was a natural teacher. Once he had a good relationship, he kept it and he was very caring.

So the lab printing by Dadi, was also influenced by Dieter Roth in Providence?

No, I learned all my printing by Dadi. I learned everything about the soul from Dieter. I mean from Dadi I didn’t learn anything about life’s lessons. Dieter Roth was just real. You know – Dadi makes art, but Dieter was an artist in our midst. He was a real artist. We really didn’t want him to go. We wanted him to be there. Students really didn’t want him to leave.

But was he more an artist, or more a graphic designer?

He was a living force and we really felt we met a real artist. He had access to materials. He showed us that materials could be used for anything. He taught us about collaboration. He taught us things about publishing and about books. None of these things were discussed in any of the classes at RISD. The idea was to work around the clock and to be at the print studio, which was a sacred space. It was a space where you could make the conditions work for you. Printmaking was not very well received at that point, too.

And when did he start this printing with chocolate and other organic materials?

We only did the linear drawings like Klee, the “Shit” and the “Female Christ” figures. We didn’t do any of the chocolate or food in printing together.

Do you remember the first prints he made, where he put some pralines, and, chocolates, cookies, and other things through the press?

To the ground? Yes those were with Dadi, but not with me, I was doing these straight images onto the plate. Through Dadi’s training, I became a really good master printer, and so Dieter wanted me to do his prints.

Like the “Birdplates” he did there, an etching which first he printed normal in the traditional way and then in the second step he put some pralines and chocolate cookies on it and pulled them through the press.

Wow! Things I missed! He actually put chocolate through the press?


He probably put tons of things through the press eventually! So you have all of this in Hamburg?

We have three or four versions of the “Birdplate”.

You the Dieter Roth Foundation must have the biggest collection of his print work?

Yes, the collector Philip Buse put works together over 25 years. They started around 70 and the collection grew bigger and bigger. At the end of the eighties they decided to complete it as a private museum.

I’d love to see this. I must come to Hamburg!

It is interesting, if you look at the line drawings Dadi did in this time, because if you see “My eye is my mouth”, for example, it’s really close to them, isn’t it?

I mean, they were really moving together, they were dancing together and then the idea came up– let’s make etchings, and then he did these etchings on the back of the plates (mainly by accident) and then we printed them. But, I think it’s because they met each other that it happened. He (Dadi) seduced him into etching. No I think they were two Europeans connecting in a world where they didn’t feel at home. And then there were very few students who really were devoted to etching and I was one of them, and I was there, and so they retained this great work spirit to do this work for Dieter Roth. I don’t think Dadi would have been comfortable maybe printing them for Dieter. You know, I never even thought about it that way.

But he was around when he was printing or when both of you were printing?

Not always.

Do you think, he was influenced by other artists at this time?

Yeah, you know also the influence of Hamilton – Dieter always talked to me about Hamilton and these kind of clear spreads and bleeds – the idea of using silkscreen. He was so familiar and capable of handling that. But he took the realm of graphic design into art.

Did you only meet Dieter Roth only in the printing shop or did you ever see him teaching students?

Oh Yes I did, but he was not my teacher and I was not an ordinary student of his. I was a friend of his. I knew it that I had found a real friendship. You see, I was very dissatisfied with art school. I had three jobs, and, I didn’t know if I’d survive. He showed me, as I said, the most important thing. You can face any difficulty and get through. He told me, “you’ll get through all this stuff” and then he would take me to his studio and he’d rant and rave and cry and I felt so much compassion for him. And I think he returned it by saying “Come on. Let’s go print”.

What kind of art did he make at this time besides the printing?

I remember that Dieter was working on journals and also on the beginning of the “246 little clouds”. He was doing all those collages and he was showing those things to me a lot. He talked about going to press and publishing a lot, but I didn’t understand all that at that time. I was just into printmaking. Now I wish I could go back to those days. I mean he would be 73 now. I would love to have more time with him.

The other time that, was very important was in France when Dadi opened his school (La Garrigue) and we all went over there and Dieter came. There, he was back in Europe and he was really crazy, and we had so much fun. We didn’t print together. We just went around, and I remember one night, we were all getting ready for dinner, and he came over to this group. We had our food and our print shop and everything – and he was slaughtering this rooster. And Dadi whispered to me “he’s not really Swiss (Wirz is Swiss). He’s German. He’s killing that rooster. “ These two were close friends, they would just get crazy together like this and he would come back with the rooster and then he’d cook for us. So he was always lovely and wanted to support the printers, take care of the printers, be sure they were okay.

Have you ever been to his studio?

Yes, I think the thing about Dieter was in his disorder, he was very organized. So everything was to the edges of the rooms and then the big pieces were thrown around on a big worktable. But when he took me there, it was to show something very specific, like those food pieces and that was highly charged in his mind what he was doing. There was poetry everywhere. I think I had just began to understand that Duchamp effected my young life, because I went to the Philadelphia Museum and I saw all his works, and Dieter was sort of the hidden thinking in my work for a very long time. So it was like he was, I would say, not a mainstream – he was a hidden stream – an unconventional, in so many artists’ life. And the way we felt him was his presence and his ability to meet the difficulties of life. You know, that he grew out of this difficulty and he led us to believe that there was no difficulty you can’t turn around. So when you went to his house he would just talk about everything. And he would cry about his kids, and how he missed his Iceland, and how he made mistakes with his wife and all that. It was always all around the edges and in the center you got the feeling you shouldn’t go too near because it was still burning with this energy. Like a nerve - Like compost and you shouldn’t go to near that. So you sort of walked around the edge. That’s what I recall. That’s why the room at the Documenta (“Tischruine”) didn’t make entire sense to me. But then of course it was a room much later, but somehow, I walked in, and I thought this doesn’t seem like Dieter’s order when I knew him. It must have been later.

The problem is that if people are seeing this room they might think that it has been his last studio. And that’s wrong, it’s an installation, a piece of art, growing over years. It would need more explanation to get understood.

I agree with you, because his mind was so filled with balance. I think he was way before white noise, in his mind he always had a very clear concept in his mind. And to be able to collaborate you have to understand yourself very clearly. He never came from a desperate place – he would always shout out and it was intense, humorous, whatever it was, but it was clear, it seemed to me. That seems to be misread very often.

Let’s go back to Providence, please. Why do you think he started the decaying works here in the United States, after he stopped his geometric art?

I think it was more his own state of being. The whole “Scheisse” thing I think came from internalization. That’s how I would read it, cause he used that shit word so much and I think it really came from an internal state. Then in Providence, it’s a city that is so industrial; there are so many capabilities. There was the foundry at RISD and there were all these other capabilities. So I think it was a lively enough industrial city that he could find crafts that he could really use, and the streets are pretty interesting there, you know. He was given a very good spot to be. You know, the studio was good. I think that’s his ability to collect, and – he didn’t tell us but I had the feeling that he never thought he would be there a long time. So he did a lot in a short period of time.

Why did he leave already after two years?

I think the administration was just too tight for him. It wasn’t open-ended except for the print shop. He just didn’t fit in. No, I have heard that he went back and gave a talk at RISD many years later. So you know that he carried on, on stage and he didn’t do the lecture - he took a bottle of wine and he said, “Fuck you” and walked off the stage. He was so mad at RISD that he wouldn’t give his speech – And they had paid his way and lots of money and he just left. So all those years he built up a tremendous resentment that he wasn’t taken more seriously. This is what I heard. I could be wrong. It could be a story.

Maybe he was giving back to them what they had given to him. The students loved him, and I think the designers and printmakers loved him, too. He out did himself then. He was over the top with alcohol and he was in tremendous remorse about isolating his kids. I think it just undid him. He came undone a little bit, and the school said, “okay enough”. You know, you’re too unbalanced to be here as our faculty, which he resented. He asked himself, why couldn’t he be who he was?

Do you think about the other teachers liked and accepted him?

Malcolm Greer and Dadi Wirz were totally loyal, and the students were totally loyal. There was a lot of other faculty. I never saw him engage with painters or a lot of other people.

Did you stay in contact, when he had left Providence?

He went back to Iceland and sent pictures to me. He was trying to show me what Iceland was, because all he did was talk to me about Iceland and he would cry. He was in such conflict. The kids were so little. And he was in such pain. So he goes back and sends me these beautiful images that had nothing to do with pain. They’re extremely beautiful and well designed.

What did he say about his kids, about the situation when he left back to Iceland?

That he deserted them. That, you know, he was a bad father, and I kept saying “It couldn’t be true. Look how kind you are”. We all, we supported him, but I think when you say – why did he leave Providence?, it’s because of this. He had to go back. He felt he was killing himself and his family, and literally felt he was stabbing himself with a knife. He went back. He was in a lot of pain that year, and he met a young woman there that he fell very much in love with too – so you know, I don’t know how much is known about that.

It was in Providence, well, because it’s never known, I don’t think I should, but I know that it was very difficult for her. She was a very quiet, hidden designer. Very special girl and she really took care of him. I mean a lot of us took care of him Dieter. He was falling apart in the worst way, so the printmaking held him together.

He often made variations of variations of variations, but also modified and changed them every time. He also often worked over the poems again and again, added drawings, added etchings to them and at the end the first “Scheisse”-book went into a series of a dozen books. What do you think about his understanding of art as a work-in-progress?

He repeated the topic. I think his work is such a canon. There’s no beginning or end. So it’s like, you know - There are artists like Edward Munch, the Norwegian who always repeated and worked over, but with Dieter it never stopped – that he had to reconsider it. He just wanted to tie it all together. So going back to Providence was going back to a psychic state, I’m sure, and then using that in the work again. I think there is just this continual psychic bridging in his work. It wasn’t obsessive-compulsive. It wasn’t neurosis. The stream of the unconsciousness. To me, I just see it as coming right out of the solar plexus. He had to do these works, uncontrollably and then they gathered for the next work and the next work. I didn’t understand German, and I did not completely understand what he was saying, but when he’d speak it, or when we would go out to bars and he’d talk – he was always a poet. Dieter was never, I think, thinking about making art. He never talked to me about making art, never.

Now I remember at Ira Wool’s I saw the picture of his last dinner. He looks just like I remember him. He didn’t look older. He was wearing the same, white shirt and he was just sitting there and Ira was there and there were a bunch of other people he knew. I know he wasn’t well. That night he died. But to see that picture of him sitting at the table, looking not a day older than I remembered him, just completely undid me. I mean he was so timeless – the way he cast himself, the way he walked around. You knew he would always be wearing the same thing and in his head be the same – timeless.

This is maybe, how a woman sees it too because I always felt he was very comforting – even in his pain, he was a very comforting figure – and he was drawing at the table like always. You know he was just a time traveler I felt. No time has ended – there he is doing the exact same thing in Basel that he did with me in Providence in 1966. It was very strange, and very dear that Ira had that picture. He has it hung up, you know, like a little altar. Cause we all loved him.

He had a really magnetic look as you know. Those blue eyes and you know, he was always in such a condition, but attentive at the same time. He was never, ever non-responsive. No matter how drunk he was, he was always present, and I think that was another great thing that he gave to those of us who were with him. You know, he’d be dallying off, but he was always present.