Richard Roth (Brooklyn, New York, 1946) knows painting very well. He studied art at Cooper Union and Tyler School of Art and in 1969 began to exhibit at Leo Castelli’s legendary uptown outpost, Castelli Warehouse, among other venues.
In the early nineties, Roth felt painting couldn’t live up to his expectations. He decided to steer around painting. His practice transitioned to the creation of collections of contemporary material culture. After a period in which he designed furniture of minimal simplicity, he realized he wanted to make paintings again. An encounter with a small Japanese candy box was the trigger for the creation of the works we can admire today in this exhibition.
Roth returned to painting in 2005 with a renewed and revitalized interest, fueled by conceptualism and informed by postmodern attitudes. He felt he had returned home.
His pictorial practice is based on the discovery of a surface that is unalterable in its form, space and arrangement. On the basis of a series of self-imposed limitations, he tackles a wide range of motifs. His works consist of small box-like birch plywood panels, always with the same size – 12 x 8 x 4 inches (approx. 30 x 20 x 10 cm) – on which Roth explores colour and two-dimensional geometric configurations in relationship to three-dimensional structure.
Roth is a post-modern artist. Far from being purely formalist, he takes his inspiration from many references, from elements of nature, such as mollusk shells, butterfly wings, and landscapes, but also Navajo blankets, early American quilts, Day of the Dead masks, bird decoys, and Shaker furniture, or simply the spiral shapes of liquorice… Any element can unleash his imagination. Roth recalls that when he was a child, his father (originally a sign painter, later a construction manager with a love of art) would take him to construction sites to point out the formal qualities of the concrete structures being built.
Focusing on elements from visual culture, Roth’s own collections began with the quotidian forms created by graphic designers (hospital forms, school forms, birth certificates) and relates his geometric research to an early interest in form in its broadest sense. It is not a form devoid of content but a way of encapsulating the world! In a complementary sense, the well-known neurologist and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks explains in his book Hallucinations how certain formal patterns based on geometric structures that can appear before us as the result of deformations of visual experience, resemble patterns developed in practically every culture for thousands of years: from Islamic art to Zapotec architecture or the aboriginal artists of Australia. Sacks links it to a need to externalise and convert into art the internal experience of the very structure of the brain’s neural connections. “Those arabesques and hexagons in our minds, incorporated into the organisation of our brains, are they our first intuitions of formal beauty?”
From the infinity of possibilities, we return again to the small, colourful box-like panels that constitute Roth’s work. He himself confesses that at the beginning of his decision to commit his practice to a single language and surface, he feared he would soon exhaust the possibilities. On the contrary, 15 years after that initial decision, he has found an inexhaustible source of exploration. Roth speaks passionately about the enthusiasm he feels for each of his new creations, how it absorbs him and takes him to another place far removed from the everyday. His practice is much more intuitive than it might seem. All this reminds me of Johan Huizinga’s original definition of play in his essay Homo Ludens as a free action performed and felt as situated outside ordinary life and performed in a certain space, subject to rules that give rise to associations that tend to surround themselves with mystery or to disguise themselves in order to stand out from the usual world.
And this is how we should also see Roth’s work, as an invitation to let ourselves be carried away by his visual athleticism and the optical effects and conundrums produced by his forms, to discover readings and relations between the different works exhibited and to attempt to decipher hidden meanings behind his enigmatic titles. For Roth, the play of the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional is the horse that pulls the cart. The interplay’s the thing!