Richard Roth 

Creation Story

Birthplace: New York
Education: B.F.A. from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, N.Y., 1969; M.F.A. Tyler School of Art of Temple University, PA, 1977
Artistic medium: Collecting objects from contemporary culture.
Where you can see his work: At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the exhibition "Grief: A Collection" through April 7

What you will see: A collection of 237 framed photographs clipped from the pages of newspapers, mostly the New York Times, since 1993. Each photo depicts an image of extreme grief. This collection is just one of many curated by Roth, who is chairman of the painting and printmaking department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

How he started collecting: "For over 20 years, I was an abstract painter, a diehard modernist," Roth explains. Then, he began doing site-specific installations that incorporated objects that he found. In one installation he used fire equipment which he arranged on the walls. As he got more involved with these installations, Roth realized that he was spending more time out in the world collecting objects and less time in his studio painting. "I came to realize that objects in the material culture are really fascinating to me," he says. "Collecting just won out."

What he collects: In addition to the grief images, Roth has put together many other collections, among them: artists' palettes; store-bought picture frames and the generic photographs that fill them for display; forms — business forms, application forms, government forms and ledger sheets; house-paint color charts; and eye-shadow compacts.

"I try not to collect things that are really collectible," he says. " … I collect much more personal things from daily life. … I see the whole world as a collection. … Like any other art or passion, once you are into it, it changes the way you see things."

How and why these collections are "art": When Roth first abandoned painting for collecting, people told him he would never show his work again. Even Roth — who has since exhibited his collections extensively — initially questioned his impulses. "Artists are supposed to transform things and make stuff," he says. "The ideas about what you should be doing as an artist are competing with what you are doing."

He started reading about art theory, and writing about his work to try to understand why he was drawn to collecting, and he realized that "the work is very much about painting in so many ways.

"I think about painting now more than I ever did when I painted. When I got involved in art as a young man, it was because I was interested in the world … and as an abstract painter I really fell out of that involvement. … I'm not drawing or painting the world, but I am looking at it and bringing different aspects of it together. … I don't have to literally apply paint to a surface to feel like a painter. Painting today is not only applying paint, but is a machine that spins off new forms. Painters have always tapped into other people's disciplines.

"Making art is not just something that takes place in the studio. As an artist, every minute of your life you're looking at things for inspiration or source material. I always tell my students that they should have a way of looking at the world that is different from other people, and that's what makes the art."

About the grief collection: Roth says his collection of grief images is his darkest collection, and his most sentimental. He considers it to be a documentary and anthropological collection.

Roth says he had talked to Virginia Museum curator John Ravenal about possibly curating an exhibition of art from the museum's collection, but when Ravenal saw an exhibition of Roth's grief collection at the TransHudson Gallery in New York last year, he became interested in this project. Originally scheduled to be displayed later this year, it was moved up on the museum's schedule in the wake of Sept. 11.

"Grief: A Collection" contains a few images from the Sept. 11 attacks, but not as many as one might think. "There really weren't that many pictures of people grieving in the newspapers," he says. "People didn't acknowledge that there were deaths at first — remember all those missing-persons signs? … There were pictures of people watching the buildings coming down, but I wasn't sure they were appropriate — it was more shock than grief at that moment."

Besides, says Roth, Sept. 11 is just too big and horrendous an event to approach as an artist. "I don't want to go near Sept. 11 as a collector or as an artist," he says. "But I am pleased this piece started seven years ago and that it somehow responds to that."


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