Avant-garde mas­ter of ‘auto-de­struc­tive’ art

GUS­TAV METZGER, 90

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Gus­tav Metzger, the founder of the “auto-de­struc­tive” art move­ment, whose po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated cre­ations were de­signed to mock mod­ern so­ci­ety by dis­in­te­grat­ing over time and whose ideas in­spired gui­tar-smash­ing rock mu­si­cian Pete Town­shend, died March 1 in Lon­don. He was 90.

His death was first re­ported in the Guardian news­pa­per. Other de­tails were not im­me­di­ately avail­able.

Mr. Metzger de­vel­oped his con­cept of auto-de­struc­tive art in 1959, defin­ing it as “art which trig­gers its own de­struc­tion.” He saw it as an out­growth of the ab­sur­dist dada move­ment of the 1920s, but it was also a re­sponse to the painful cir­cum­stances of his own life.

He left his na­tive Ger­many as a boy and grew up in Eng­land, but his par­ents stayed be­hind and died in the Holo­caust. He later de­scribed his na­tion­al­ity as “state­less” or as “es­caped Jew.”

For Mr. Metzger, art be­came an in­stru­ment to strike back at au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, nu­clear weapons, com­mer­cial­ism and mod­ern me­dia.

“When I saw the Nazis march, I saw ma­chine-like peo­ple and the power of the Nazi state,” he told the Guardian in 2012. “Au­tode­struc­tive art is to do with re­ject­ing power.”

Mr. Metzger dis­cov­ered his ideal medium for auto-de­struc­tive art with a form of ac­tion paint­ing. Wear­ing a gas mask and pro­tec­tive gog­gles, he gave a dra­matic demon­stra­tion of his work in the 1960s, spray­ing hy­drochlo­ric acid on ny­lon, which melted, curled and shred­ded into tat­ters. He ex­e­cuted the work at an out­door site in Lon­don, re­veal­ing St. Paul’s Cathe­dral in the dis­tance through acid-burned holes.

“Auto-de­struc­tive art was never merely de­struc­tive,” he said in 2012. “De­stroy a can­vas, and you cre­ate shapes.”

Some­times reclu­sive and some­times a pub­lic provo­ca­teur, Mr. Metzger wrote artis­tic man­i­festos and ex­pounded on his no­tions at art schools. In 1962, Town­shend — who later be­came the cre­ative force be­hind the rock band the Who — was a young art stu­dent who at­tended one of Mr. Metzger’s lec­tures.

“He had a pro­found ef­fect on me,” Town­shend told the Guardian in 1998. “I took it as an ex­cuse to smash my new Rick­en­backer [gui­tar] that I had just [hocked] my­self to the eye­brows to buy. I re­ally be­lieved it was my re­spon­si­bil­ity to start a rock band that would only last three months, an auto-de­struc­tive rock group. The Who would have been the first punk band ex­cept that we had a hit.”

Mr. Metzger made an­other con­tri­bu­tion to rock his­tory when he was cred­ited with in­vent­ing the psy­che­delic light show. In 1964, he be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with plac­ing liq­uid crys­tals be­tween glass slides. By heat­ing and cool­ing the crys­tals, he could pro­duce vivid, ran­domly chang­ing col­ors, which he then pro­jected onto walls. The Who and an­other in­flu­en­tial 1960s Bri­tish rock band, Cream, soon asked Mr. Metzger to pro­vide light­ing ef­fects at their per­for­mances.

Never one to set­tle on a sin­gle form of ex­pres­sion for long, Mr. Metzger or­ga­nized a month-long Lon­don sym­po­sium in 1966 called “De­struc­tion in Art.” The idea was to show au­di­ences the de­struc­tive forces at work in so­ci­ety.

One of the artists at the sym­po­sium was Yoko Ono, be­fore she was mar­ried to Bea­tle John Len­non. She pre­sented a work of con­cep­tual art known as “Cut Piece,” in which she sat on a stage while au­di­ence mem­bers used scissors to snip off pieces of her cloth­ing un­til she was al­most nude.

An­other artist burned a stack of books in front of the Bri­tish Mu­seum. Af­ter a third artist dis­mem­bered an­i­mal car­casses and bathed in their blood, Mr. Metzger and other or­ga­niz­ers of the fo­rum were ar­rested for ob­scen­ity.

“Metzger wasn’t in­ter­ested in the ru­ins or the beau­ti­ful af­ter­math,” Wash­ing­ton Post art critic Philip Ken­ni­cott wrote in 2013. “Rather, he was seek­ing ways to en­act or rep­re­sent de­struc­tion, driven by the age-old idea that art should some­how re­flect so­ci­ety.”

One artist strongly in­flu­enced by Mr. Metzger’s no­tion that art should be con­fronta­tional and emo­tion­ally dif­fi­cult was Damien Hirst. Among other works, the Bri­tish artist has shocked view­ers by seal­ing dead sheep in large tanks of formalde­hyde.

Mr. Metzger was an ad­mirer of Hirst’s work.

“Very in­ter­est­ing, those lit­tle sheep,” he said.

Gus­tav Metzger was born April 10, 1926, in Nurem­berg, Ger­many. In 1939, he and a brother were sent to Bri­tain as part of a pro­gram to res­cue Jewish chil­dren in Nazi-con­trolled coun­tries.

He stud­ied art in Eng­land and Bel­gium and worked as a fur­ni­ture maker, car­pen­ter and junk dealer be­fore em­bark­ing on a ca­reer as an artist. His early ab­stract paint­ings were sel­dom shown in pub­lic un­til he was in his 80s.

In 1960, Mr. Metzger helped or­ga­nize the Com­mit­tee of 100, a Bri­tish an­ti­nu­clear group. He was ar­rested, along with philoso­pher Ber­trand Rus­sell, for lead­ing a sit-in of thou­sands of peo­ple out­side Bri­tain’s De­fense Min­istry.

An avowed Marx­ist, Mr. Metzger of­ten spoke out against the com­mer­cial art world and, as a form of protest, re­fused to make, sell or ex­hibit any art be­tween 1977 and 1980.

“The need to cre­ate is in­her­ent in hu­man be­ings,” he said. “We need not fear that art will fade away if the cur­rent com­mer­cial sys­tem was phased out.”

He spent much of the 1980s liv­ing on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent, study­ing the works of 17 th-cen­tury Dutch painter Jan Ver­meer and largely dis­ap­pear­ing from pub­lic view. Lit­tle is known of his per­sonal life, but he ap­pears to have had no im­me­di­ate sur­vivors.

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Eng­land in the 1990s, he had a more vis­i­ble pres­ence in the art world and had a wide-rang­ing se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tions in re­cent years. View­ers re­dis­cov­ered his liq­uid-crys­tal light­ing ex­per­i­ments of the 1960s. He at­tached elec­trodes to his skull, us­ing biofeed­back to di­rect a drill sculpt­ing a stone. He cre­ated in­stal­la­tions with stacks of news­pa­pers, then in­vited mu­seum-go­ers to clip ar­ti­cles and pin them to a bul­letin board.

Later ex­hi­bi­tions in­cluded archival pho­to­graphs of the Holo­caust and other hor­rors, dis­played in ways that forced view­ers to crawl on the floor or that con­fined them in small spa­ces.

“The world and its fears and its dan­gers,” Mr. Metzger told the New York Times in 2013, “it is ev­ery day within me, at the core of my be­ing.”

Many young artists con­sid­ered Mr. Metzger a vi­sion­ary, but not ev­ery­one was im­pressed with his work. In 2004, one of his art in­stal­la­tions at a Tate mu­seum in Lon­don con­sisted, in part, of a bag of garbage.

One evening, a jan­i­tor tossed it out with the trash.

KEY­STONE/HULTON AR­CHIVE/GETTY IM­AGES

TRIS­TAN FEWINGS/GETTY IM­AGES FOR SER­PEN­TINE GAL­LERIES

TOP: Gus­tav Metzger works on one of his pieces in Lon­don in 1961. ABOVE: Mr. Metzger in 2015. He used his art to strike back at au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and com­mer­cial­ism.

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