Born in Hanover (Germany) in 1930, Roth left his native city in 1943, when he was sent by his parents to Switzerland to get away from the war. Following studies in graphic design, he took part in the rise of the young arts scene in Bern, alongside Bernhard Luginbühl and Daniel Spoerri. In 1954 he opened Galerie 33 in Bern with Rolf Iseli and other artist friends, then moved to Copenhagen to work as a textile designer there, before discovering Iceland in 1957. On that distant, isolated island, where he decided to marry and settle, he produced jewellery, built furniture and did advertising design while publishing his first book.
For Roth, the book medium embodied the expression of the ideal work of art. He went on to produce over two hundred during his career and is, in that respect, a pioneer of the artist’s book.
Stylistically influenced by Swiss geometrical painting as incarnated by Zurich artists like Max Bill and Richard Paul Lohse, Roth’s early works borrow from Concrete Art first and foremost, before shifting towards optical and kinetic constructions. He quickly allowed himself greater and greater freedom, something that is evident, for example, in his choice of materials, techniques and subjects, in a spirit inherited from Dada and akin to Fluxus.
Throughout his career Roth attempted to break down the barriers separating artistic genres and shake up academic conceptions of art. He introduced perishable organic materials into his work such as cheese, chocolate and bananas, which he would mix with earth, paint or plaster to create scented pieces that were meant to gradually decompose. Mould became an art material and constituent of an output that highlights process, metamorphosis and chance as primordial elements in the work of art.
A tireless traveller who was constantly on the go, Roth generated a multitudinous, multifaceted, unclassifiable oeuvre. Always in search of new challenges and areas to explore, he often joined creative forces with other artists, like Arnulf Rainer and Richard Hamilton, to produce joint pieces of art.
Roth exhibited in prestigious museums around the world and in 1990 created the Dieter Roth Foundation in Hamburg. The foundation eventually gave rise to the museum devoted to his work, which opened to the public in the year of his death, 1998. In 2003 and 2004 an immense travelling exhibition presented his work at Basel’s Schaulager, the Ludwig Museum of Cologne and MoMA in New York.