Björn Roth: Nervettis 2009–2018 is BERG Contemporary’s first exhibition devoted to the work of Björn Roth, whose artistic trajectory spans four decades. It can be traced from experimental group performances in the late 70s to his current solo practice, through his longstanding, synergetic collaborative work with his late father, Dieter Roth, long established as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
The exhibition presents oil paintings and watercolours that draw a particular thread in Björn’s solo practice, a quiet respite from the scope of the immersive generational works pursued with his father and beyond Dieter’s death. The exhibition’s title Nervettis succinctly evokes the Northern Italian dish made of tendons and cartilage of beef, in a nod to Björn’s own description of these works as “nerve salads”. Intensely personal, they are direct and fluid expressions of his state of mind at the time of execution. His fluency with drawing and mastery of the paint medium is here unveiled in both delicate, immediate watercolours and intensively reworked oil paintings.
At times linear, at times painterly, these abundantly colourful, torrential works lay bare a side of his solo practice which has, until now, not often been on view.
“Melancholic and nervous, fearful and tormented, in love and tender, scheming and on the edge; aquarellist and painter, colour-mad aesthetist, smug and swanky, scared of everything and everyone except colours, paper and canvas; a kind of nerve salad like so many others.” Björn Roth
As a young art student and artist in Iceland in the late 70s and early 80s, Björn’s practice was largely committed to music-related performances in groups such as Freddy and the Fighters (1975–1978) and Bruni BB (1979–1982) whose members included visual artists Finnbogi Pétursson and Ómar Stefánsson. The group became notorious for graphic and highly energetic concert performances that involved body art acts, experimental sound and music making and at times the participation of live animals, often challenging social mores and attitudes to art making. Their performances were deeply influenced by the taboo-breaking, radical actions of the Viennese Actionists, with whom Dieter collaborated on a series of concerts and recordings in the 70s, under the heading Selten Gehörte Musik (Seldom Heard Music). The Actionists’ performances expressed their intense discontent with Austrian society in the postwar period, in particular its refusal or inability to openly confront the traumas of war. In 1979, Björn himself participated in the Munich performance Abschöpfsymphonie (Siphoning Symphony), one of the performances under the Selten Gehörte Musik heading, with Dieter Roth, Oswald Wiener, Gerhard Ruhm, Hermann Nitsch, Christian Ludwig Attersee, and guest performers. Günter Brus, who was one of the main participants in the group, was absent.
These early beginnings led to Björn’s full-time involvement in his father’s work by the early eighties, as his main collaborator in the making of drawings, paintings, material paintings, and increasingly large-scale sculptures, installations, and exhibition making. During that intense period of studio work and exhibition making, new processes were born and unique work methods developed, resulting in many works co-authored by Dieter and Björn. Some were built on Dieter’s works and concepts from the 60s and early 70s, such as the Schimmelmuseum (the Mould Museum), and Gartenskulptur (Garden Sculpture), while others were new works and concepts based in the Roths’ distinctive flux of art and life, including Die Grosse Tischruine (the Large Table Ruin), and the Roth bars. Throughout this time, Dieter continued his constant, absorbing collaboration with other artists, often involving Björn’s participation, such as in drawings and performances with Arnulf Rainer and Hermann Nitsch.
Since Dieter’s death in 1998, Björn has headed the Dieter Roth Estate, continuing to expand the works co-authored by him and his father for each exhibition, which in recent years has increasingly entailed contributions by Björn’s sons, as well as curating and advising on major exhibitions devoted to Dieter’s work and their work together. Some of Dieter’s and Björn’s early collaborations had led to long-term, continually evolving and expanding works such as Die Grosse Tischruine, which started as a work table in their Stuttgart studio in the late seventies. First brought into an exhibition context in 1989 at the Palais Kinsky in Vienna as a workspace and meeting place for the team during installation, it became a piece in its own right, expanding (still) with every exhibition, as the tools used and wine bottles consumed during its construction become natural extensions of it. The same applies to Gartenskulptur, another continually growing, generational work. Originally a work by Dieter begun in 1970 under the title Gartengerät (Garden Tool), it was a large “art juicer” habitually installed in gardens. The work’s transformation and expansion began during the installation of the exhibition Dieter Roth at the Galerie Claudine Papillon in Paris in 1989. Gartengerät became Gartenskulptur, a vessel for everything: found and recycled materials, garden plants, preparatory sketches, paints and glues, art juices extracted during the working process, videos documenting it, and all the waste generated every time the work was constructed.
This method of creation and collaboration was echoed in many other small- and large-scale works of the Roths, notably the bars whose origin can be traced to the Material Bilder (Material Pictures), which the father-son team started developing in the early 1980s. Some of the works incorporated shelves for beverage containers. Effectively bars for home use, they were precursors of the Roth bars. As Die Grosse Tischruine developed as an ongoing record of the team’s meals and meetings during exhibition installations, and the exhibitions grew in scale, so grew the need to set up real temporary eateries within the exhibition space. The first such eatery was set up during the weeks-long installation of Stretch and Squeeze at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Marseille (1997). The team’s eatery was then transformed into a functioning bar for guests for the duration of the exhibition. Days before Dieter’s death, that first bar opened as a hang-out and satellite show alongside the 1998 exhibition in the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Zurich.
In recent years, works such as A Relatively New Sculpture (Björn and Oddur Roth with Einar Roth and Davíð Þór Jónsson, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2013) have emerged in similarly communal installation processes, drawing on the Roth heritage of an unbroken flow of productivity, of collecting, reusing, recycling, and of creative experimentation in mutual partnership.
It is in this environment of committed periodic intensity throughout his career that Björn’s solo practice has matured, in the calm and relative isolation of his homes in the east of Iceland and his studio on the outskirts of Reykjavík. Describing himself as a painter at heart, he creates his watercolours and paintings in an intimate, meditative process, in contrast to the more strategic planning required for the large-scale, collective, and ultimately very social, constructions.