You will first meet Dieter Roth—who is posthumously inaugurating Hauser & Wirth’s massive new gallery on 18th Street with the help and through the agency of his son and collaborator Björn (and Björn’s sons Oddur and Einar)—as a pottering old man, reading, drawing, shitting, showering, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee in the 128 video screens of his 1997-1998 Solo Scenes. Recorded in Mr. Roth’s studios in Germany, Switzerland and Iceland in the year before he died, running in overlapping loops divided by blue screens or black-and-white static, and accompanied by a murmur of clattering dishes and crumpled paper such as you might hear from the kitchen of a large, well-run restaurant, the scenes create a powerfully charismatic illusion of self-revelation. But notice the way that Mr. Roth, when he’s done reading, pulls off a precise length of toilet paper and carefully folds it double, and double again: what makes the work so compelling is the artist’s control, the tremendous sense of process that doesn’t so much imbue the seedy detritus of an incarnate and sensual life with significance as it simply sweeps it all forward, like a mass of glistening turf on a heavy steel cowcatcher.
With the grave panache of a magician turning out his pockets and rolling up his sleeves, Mr. Roth skipped over the middle term of transformation or simplification that ordinarily links a sensual to an intellectual experience to make the concrete abstract directly, by sheer force of will. The Floor I (1973-1992) and The Floor II (1977-1998) are two 19-by-40-foot sections of wooden floor—pulled out of Mr. Roth’s studio in Mosfellsbaer, Iceland—tipped up on their sides and braced together to form a tall, narrow tunnel; the 1965/66 No Title (Bananas), a long brown smear, was made by running bananas through an etching press on white linen; and Mr. Roth’s four profoundly heartbreaking 1980s “Clothes Pictures” are glue-covered assemblages of the artist’s own clothing on plywood, with shoes frozen as if in mid-stride. Surrounded by these still-humming paintings, prints and installations, the younger Roths continue their forebear’s work with two large installations of their own: New York Kitchen, an area just beyond The Floor where, for the length of the show, they will cast busts of Dieter in chocolate and glinting colored-sugar lions to add to his 1994 Selbstturm (Self Tower) and Zuckerturm (Sugar Tower), filling the gallery with the heavy smell of chocolate; and New York Bar, the latest iteration of an ongoing Roth practice, which eighty-sixed all service shortly after the opening but will remain on permanent display. The audience never really participates, but you have to make them think that they do. (Through April 13)