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Gustav Metzger

(b. 1926)


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(1926– )

German-born artist who settled in England in 1939 as a refugee from Nazism (his parents were Polish Jews) and now calls himself stateless. From 1941 to 1944 he worked at joinery and farming, then studied art in Cambridge, Oxford, Antwerp, and London (under Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic, 1950–53). In 1959 he published his first manifesto of ‘Auto-destructive art’. Metzger credited the invention of the term itself to the Kinetic artist Brian Robins, who thought it more striking than ‘self-destructive’. His first exhibition, in 1959, was of reliefs made from cardboard packaging placed against the wall. In 1960 he gave the first public demonstration of a process in which he ‘painted’ with acid, spraying it on nylon cloth, creating rapidly changing patterns until the nylon was destroyed. Another form of auto-destructive art was liquid slide projection crystals. The heating and cooling of these crystals created ever-changing and ephemeral effects. There was process but no final object. For Metzger, an active supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, ‘Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture—polishing to destruction point’. In 1966 he organized a Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in London. By that time there was an identifiable international trend which could embrace among others Jean Tingueley, Niki de Saint Phalle, Yoko Ono, and the Vienna Actionists. Metzger was one of the ‘Seven German Artists’ represented at the ‘Art into Society/Society into Art’ exhibition staged at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1974. In the accompanying catalogue he advocated a three-year strike by artists, claiming that if they ceased all artistic activities from 1977 to 1980, this would cripple the mechanisms for the production, distribution, and consumption of art. From 1980 he has lived mainly in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Among his admirers is the rock musician Pete Townshend, whose act with his group The Who used to include smashing guitars. He used Metzger's projections in the group's concerts and helped fund the artist's 1998 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford.

Further Reading

Art and Artists (August 1966; special ‘auto-destructive’ issue)Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, Gustav Metzger (1998)

Subjects: Art.


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