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Remembering Gustav Metzger, Pioneer Of Auto Destructive Art

Artist and political activist Gustav Metzger died on March 1st the age of 90 at his London home, according to publicist Erica Bolton. Outside of the art world, Metzger’s name might be a little obscure, but if you’ve ever seen a video of The Who destroying their guitars, then you’ve seen the impact of Metzger’s influence, specifically his “Auto Destructive Art” manifestos.

Metzger was born in 1927 in Nuremburg, Germany to Polish Jewish parents but was raised in England as one of the children saved from mainland Europe by the “Kindertransport” in 1939 (his parents would be murdered by the Nazis in 1943). His experience as an adolescent in Nazi Germany sparked his “fears about men and machines” and would inform his artistic and political output throughout his life. Metzger’s most important and well-known development was his idea of “Auto Destructive Art,” which can loosely be defined as art that destroys itself, either via natural or artificial means.

Remember Nature (2015) - Gustav Metzger Image by Tristan Fewings / Getty Images

While many artists took destruction as the topic of their work, especially in the wake of Holocaust, Metzger made the critical advancement of making the work itself an act of destruction. Auto Destructive Art did not simply look backwards, it also looked ahead as “an attack on capitalist values and the drive to nuclear annihilation” as Metzger wrote in his 1961 manifesto (why art that destroys itself is inherently resistant to commodification, and therefore critical of capitalism, is plain enough to see). For Metzger, this drive to self destruct was manifest in western society – it “re-enacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.” Turning destruction into art reflects the everyday condition, both actualized and latent, of the Western world (it also, reflexively, acts as a commentary on the artist – a relinquishing of control).

One of Metzger’s more famous works, and a paradigmatic example of Auto Destructive Art, was his 1961 performance painting on London’s South Bank, in which he sprayed three nylon sheets with hydrochloric acid while wearing a gas mask. In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, Metzger noted that, “The important thing about burning a hole in that sheet was that it opened up a new view across the Thames of St Paul’s cathedral. Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes.”

Flailing Trees (2009) - Gustav Metzger Image by wikimedia

Metzger’s political work focused largely on environmental concerns, and the role of the artist in society (which was always a part of his Auto Destructive Art). On the former, in 2009, the artist debuted a sculpture piece called “Flailing Trees” which consisted of 21 trees cast upside down into concrete. Speaking about the piece, Metzger said that “Artists have a special part to play in opposing extinction, if only on a theoretical, intellectual basis.” On the latter, Metzger called for a three year artist’s strike in 1977 “aimed at the destruction of existing commercial and public marketing and patronage systems.” (It is interesting to note, in light of President Trump’s prospective plans to defund the NEA, that Metzger wrote in his call for a strike that “Art in the service of revolution is unsatisfactory and mistrusted because of the numerous links of art with the state and capitalism.”)

Metzger continued his work until his death. His more recent works include his Auto Creative work “Liquid Crystal Environment event, and the aforementioned “Flailing Trees.” He was a pioneer, an iconoclast, and an influential force in the art world and beyond. His lessons on engagement, process, and the role of the artist in society, are today felt deeper than ever. He will be sorely missed.

Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at [email protected]

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