Roth’s experimentation with language was intense and varied, from youthful verse to the ideograms he developed in the 1950s to his Dichtungsmaschine (poetry machine) of 1961. His efforts also included poetry in English and German and wordplay in the form of homonyms, puns, abbreviations, and acronyms, often laced with sexually charged or scatological references. In Roth’s hands, language was an inherently unstable system that could be subverted and transformed.
In his ideograms (and in the “stupidograms” on view in this section), image and language are merged into one. As early as 1964, Roth began to develop a codified alphabet of icons—a motorcycle rider, a heart, a hat, a lightbulb—to which he assigned linguistic equivalents. These symbols had enduring value for the artist, who continued to use them well into the future, and also multiple meanings. He described the evolution and transformation of one of these symbols, the motorcycle: “I continued doing variations of this image until I saw that I was actually drawing a scrotum… it’s the same basic form, d’you see?” This form also became a rabbit and, inverted, a heart. Thus, a single icon continuously evolved to represent freedom, sexuality, fertility, and love, and in its multiple simultaneous meanings resists attempts at definitive transliteration.