Born in Germany, Roth gained asylum in Switzerland during World War II, at age thirteen. In Bern he found an active literary and artistic scene in line with his own interests, heavily influenced by the systematic and geometric principles of Concrete art. These concerns are evident in some of Roth’s earliest works, made in the 1950s, rigorous design exercises concerned with color, shape, form, and typography.
Among these are Roth’s first radical book experiments, in which he gave rise to an entirely new art form: the artist’s book, which does not describe or reproduce artwork, but rather is artwork, itself. Containing no text, images, or binding, and with no set orientation or sequence, Roth’s books (1958–64) are activated by the reader’s actions and imagination.
At this time Roth also began to experiment with language through Concrete poetry, a form in which the poem’s presentation on the page is given the same attention as language, sound, and syncopation. Inspired by his colleague Eugen Gomringer’s linguistic “constellations,” Roth began to divorce language from meaning, using its parts as abstract compositional elements selected for visual aesthetic value rather than meaning or sound and arranged in what he called ideograms.