Art and bananas have kept strange company lately. In December 2019, artist Maurizio Cattelan made headlines with a $120,000 banana taped to a wall at Art Basel Miami, titled Comedian. This same banana, whose merit as an art object was hotly debated by art critics and lay audiences alike, appeared in the news once again after performance artist David Datuna pulled it off the wall and ate it, in a performance art action he called Hungry Artist.
Can an ordinary banana be art? Can food be art? Or does food’s quotidian role in people’s lives, along with its rapidly-decaying nature of food, mean that it isn’t worthy of being considered art? Is it the various reactions to, and interactions with, Cattelan’s Comedian that constitute it as a work of art? The actual physical banana in Comedian was quickly replaced by the gallery, indicating, perhaps, that it is not the banana itself that is of utmost importance, but rather the spectacle of the audacity of treating a banana as art at a prestigious art fair.
The David Winton Bell Gallery has its own work of art in which a banana is a key component: Dieter Roth’s Banana, a mixed-media work dating from 1966. Unlike Cattelan’s fresh yellow sample, Banana’s central element likely lost its fruit decades ago. Now a husk of brown cellulose peel, it lies smeared within a glass frame marked off with masking tape. While the work is technically a sculpture due to its three-dimensional nature, it doesn’t seem off the mark to also classify it as time-based. But then again, works of art in more traditional materials—wood, oil, marble—face the danger of decay as well, albeit not in as dramatic a fashion as a banana rotting. So aside from its use of a seemingly ordinary banana that is now partially lost to time, Roth’s work also incorporates this plain masking tape—often used in packing and preparation but less often in a work of art itself. Banana seems to welcome our confusion, our inevitable, dumbfounded response: “why is this art?”
Further examples of Roth’s use of food as an artistic medium, including sausage, chocolate, and various “foodstuffs,” can be found in museum and gallery collections around the world. Indeed, Roth is known for his use of incredibly varied—and often non-traditional—media in his artistic practice. Born in 1930 in Switzerland, Roth began his formal training as an apprentice to a commercial artist and graphic designer, Friedrich Wüthrich, later studying engraving, drypoint, and lithography with Eugen Jordi at the Gewerbeschule in Bern. After completing his education, he worked as a graphic designer and sculptor in Bern before moving to Reykjavik in 1957, where he began creating artists’ books, jewelry, and furniture.
In 1961, Roth developed his first collaboration between art and food: the Literaturwurst, or “literature sausage,” choosing only “books that he did not like or that were written by authors whose success he envied.” In 1963, Roth created a portrait of Carl Laszlo, an art dealer and collector, in which he used chocolate and cheese, along with the more expected elements of pigment and canvas. In 1964 Roth came to the United States, originally working in Philadelphia before moving to Providence to teach at the Rhode Island School of Design between 1965-1967. It was during this time that Roth created Banana; his incorporation of food in art was in full bloom. Banana, and other works created during Roth’s time in Providence were later described by Roth as “decay objects and pictures.” Roth returned to Reykjavik in 1967, and would spend the rest of his life in Europe, experimenting with an increasing array of media until his death in 1998.
Banana likely arrived at the Bell Gallery in the 1970s as a gift from the artist Italo Scanga (1939-2001). Scanga taught at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1960s, and became friends with Roth. According to Scanga’s daughter Katherine, Roth likely gave Scanga the work as a gift; Scanga then donated the work to the Bell Gallery.
-Deborah Krieger, Public Humanities MA ’21
 See Roth Time, 100-101 and 109-111 in particular.
 Roth Time, 74
 Interview with Roth from 1972, quoted in Roth Time, 95
Cascone, Sarah. “How the Unhinged Reaction to Maurizio Cattelan’s Banana Revealed the Thin Line Between the Art World and Total Anarchy.” Artnet. December 9, 2019. https://news.artnet.com/market/art-basel-maurizio-cattelan-banana-memes-1726233
Farago, Jason. “A (Grudging) Defense of the $120,000 Banana.” The New York Times. December 8, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/arts/design/a-critics-defense-of-cattelan-banana-.html
“Dieter Roth: Chocolate Lion (Self-Portrait) as a Lion.” Harvard Art Museums. https://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/174434
“Dieter Roth: Literature Sausage (Literaturwurst.” Museum of Modern Art. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/141853
Roth Time: A Dieter Roth Retrospective. Museum of Modern Art. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2003. Catalogue accompanying the exhibition of the same name, which ran from March 12–June 7, 2004.