The artist who made a career out of destruction
Gustav Metzger 1926–2017
Gustav Metzger didn’t create art for the ages. Using acids, decomposing liquid crystals, and fading newspapers, the founder of “auto-destructive art” made his creations crumble or disappear entirely— reflecting, Metzger believed, the decaying world around him. For one 1961 work, executed in central London, Metzger framed a sheet of nylon and sprayed hydrochloric acid over the surface. The nylon dissolved in tatters, offering an intriguing view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. “Destroy a canvas,” Metzger explained, “and you create shapes.” His influence was felt beyond the art world. In 1962, a young art school student named Pete Townshend attended one of Metzger’s lectures. Townshend co-founded the Who a few years later and put Metzger’s philosophy into practice by smashing guitars on stage. “I really believed it was my responsibility to start a rock band that would only last three months,” he said, “an auto-destructive rock group.”
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, to Polish-Jewish parents, Metzger and his brother fled to Britain in 1939 as refugees in the Kindertransport program, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). “His parents were killed in Germany in 1943.” The brutal power of the Nazi regime “colored my life as an artist,” he said. “Autodestructive art is to do with rejecting power.” After studying art in England and Belgium, Metzger launched his auto-destructive movement in 1959 to protest capitalism and nuclear weapons. He took an active role in street protests, and was arrested in 1961 for leading an anti-nuclear sitin outside Britain’s Defense Ministry, said The Washington Post. Five years later, he attracted the authorities’ attention again with his Destruction in Art Symposium in London. Attending artist Yoko Ono, not yet married to John Lennon, sat on stage while audience members cut away her clothes “until she was almost nude.” After another artist dismembered animal carcasses and bathed in their blood, Metzger was arrested for obscenity.
“Metzger kept on working into his old age,” said The Guardian (U.K.). One 2004 work at London’s Tate gallery included a garbage bag—which a custodian mistook for trash and accidentally tossed. Another exhibition featured photographs of the Holocaust, arranged in ways that forced viewers to crawl on the floor. “The world and its fears and its dangers,” Metzger said in 2013, “it is every day within me, at the core of my being.”