Thursday, 2 March 2017

GUSTAV METZGER (10 April 1926 - 1 March 2017) - Auto Destructive Art*

Gustav Metzger at Trafalgar Square, 1967.
R. Keshvani archive
Gustav Metzger died peacefully at his home in Hackney yesterday at the age of 90. He is an artist of overwhelming stature and certainly among the most important of this past century. His practice, teachings, insights and approach are critical for all students of art everywhere. We have only begun to uncover and experience the impact of this artist.  His oeuvre is vast, comprising work, writings, lecture-demonstrations and unrealised projects. His immovable resolve to resist the art market and his deep and unyielding belief that art is and must be politically and socially engaged are commitments from which he never wavered. His life work combined with his gentle yet tenacious personality will no doubt ensure that he becomes one of the most profound influences and models for future generations.

I first met Gustav  in May 2011 at the opening of Roy Ascott's exhibition at SPACE Gallery on Mare Street just a few blocks from the artist's home. It was an overwhelming moment, serendipitous yet seemingly preordained. I had only two years before become an avid student of Gustav's output, poring through what I could find of his closely guarded writings, searching for any opportunity to experience what even then seemed rare and often privileged manifestations of his work. Gustav was tireless and unyielding in every aspect of his life, always seeking perfection, never looking backward, yet filled with a unique imperative toward action. He was also an intimate and gentle man, possessed of a sly wit, yet always capable of penetrating into deepest regions of the human condition, unafraid of its manifestations, however beautiful, however awful.

To understand his work, one must look to the man, his life and the experiences that drove him to become an artist. He felt these were critical to his life and he shared them so we would see his work in its true context and meaning. For if he sought to uncover the transcendent, it was in the hardcore stuff of existence that he would look.

Auto Destructive Art

Gustav Metzger, First Manifesto on Auto Destructive Art, London, 
4th November 1959, (detail). 
 Archiv Sohm, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart

Metzger was of German-Polish origin and lost both his parents in the Auschwitz death camps. Orphaned and alone, he escaped the terrors of Nazi Germany with his brother and was brought to London as a child in 1939 under the Kindertransport refugee scheme. His life has been profoundly shaped by his experiences of war and human conflict. In his twenties, he had toyed with the idea of becoming an activist and revolutionary. He was studying theories of anarchy and involved in vociferous debates, even temporarily residing with an anarchist commune in the early 1950s. Metzger came to realise that he could not follow the path of revolutionary anarchism. However these early conversations were nevertheless formative and would inform his first manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art, first conceived in 1959, and supplemented by further manifestos until producing his final iteration in 1961

These influences and explorations finally came together in his November 1959 manifesto on Auto-Destructive Art which he exhibited together with his first realisation of ‘machine-made’ auto-destructive art -- Cardboards, a work consisting of six flattened cardboard television packing cases at Brian Robin’s Coffee House at 14 Monmouth Street’, London.[i] 

John Rydon, “It’s Pictures from Packing Cases” in the Daily Express 12 November 1959
In a splendid account of his eureka moment, Metzger recalls an exhibition earlier that same year at Robin’s café of some small paintings he had etched in metal in his studio in Kings Lynn, Three Paintings by G. Metzger (30 July 19 August 1959). The show also featured a junk sculpture created by two young neo-Dadaists. Sitting in the cafe, Metzger overhead the artists discussing ideas for their next exhibition in which they proposed to show paintings and then burn the entire exhibition.[ii] The idea inflamed Metzger’s imagination, summoning his developing theories about black holes and igniting a new vision -- to create a sculpture which would itself disintegrate (and which he would eventually realise at London's South Bank) using acid and nylon. 

Auto Destructive Art is structured through three principles. 


Principle one concerns the duration of time in the work. The work must have a life span not exceeding twenty years; at some point the work must return into itself. This idea of returning to its origins, although essential, is often misunderstood in relation to Auto Destructive Art and distinguishes Metzger’s theories from other forms of destruction in art. In a sense, that which originates from idea must return to idea. In this way, auto-destructive works are quite literally auto-destructive and resist commodification and aestheticisation. Metzger is not concerned to leave beautiful ruins. Instead Auto Destructive Art reflects man’s power to accelerate the disintegrative process.

An art of technology. Auto-destructive art is an art of the self-executing technocratic process: 

The process must be self-executing and self-completing. Once the artist has initiated the process or effected a set of rules to initiate the process, the auto-destruct process requires no further guidance and is freed of the artist’s hand. Authorship is truly cast into doubt. Auto Destructive Art is a work that disintegrates or falls apart under the effect of a physical-chemical process. Its inherent logic must be self-fulfilling and unfold free of the artist’s hand. 

The final form of an auto-destructive work is always subject to chance and cannot be predetermined. Most significantly, inasmuch as the auto-destructive process is subject to the logic of chemical and machine processes, it emphasises the degree to which humanity has forsaken control of its destiny to the machine and the technocratic processes which become entirely independent of the human being.  Like Cassandra, Auto-Destructive Art warns of potential catastrophe says David Toop. iii  And as Justin Hoffmann concludes, “Auto-Destructive Art has a foretelling character; it demonstrates the suicide of the world of machines.”iv 

Participatory art: 

Auto-destructive art is public participatory art. Though initiated by the artist, it transpires in and through the public forum. Its design is anathema to private consumption and to the art market. 

It is created to be freely and fully available and accessible to the public at large, freed from the canvas, removed from its frame and operating without the intervention of the gallery. The auto-destructive process is, as Metzger has repeatedly stressed, anti-capitalist.It belies a logic, which is anti-object and anti-market. it may be seen as preeminent of conceptualist theories on the dissolution of the object of art, but is more essentially involved in a process that reveals an inherent destructive tendency within human civilisation.

Metzger’s manifestos on auto-destructive art articulate the artist’s polemical intentions, particularly the aim to incite the viewer to respond and to act. They aim to bring about the possibility of an art in which the practice of the artist and political action become one, allowing the artist to emerge from the studio into the world.

ADA Manifestos, South Bank demonstration, Courtesy Gustav Metzger archive at Tate.

* The above discussion is drawn from my research of Metzger's archives, from conversations with Gustav Metzger and previously published materials cited below.

Metzger's Liquid Crystal environment is currently on exhibit in the Materials and Objects Room at Tate Modern.

i See handbill accompanying exhibition, copy contained in Wilson’s Third Text article, in which Metzger explains that the discarded cardboard probably came from television packaging.
ii Metzger recounts this story in a delightfully forthcoming discussion with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 1997 at the Cosmo Cafe. See Obrist, ‘Gustav Metzger / Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Videotape cassette; shortened version of interview is published in Conversation series (Köln: Walther König, 2008).
iii See Blow Up: Exploding Sound and Noise (London to Brighton, 1959- 1969), Flat Time House, 24 June-25 July 2010, curated by David Toop and Tony Herrington (Exhibition Catalogue), (at 4).
iv Hoffmann, ‘The Invention of Auto Destructive Art’, (at 27).

Further reading:
Adrian Glew, ‘The Mad Messiah’, Don’t Tell It, October 1995.
Andrew Wilson, ‘Gustav Metzger’s Auto-Destructive/ AutoCreative Art: An Art of Manifesto, 1959-1969’, Third Text, 22, Issue 2 (March 2008), 177-194.
Justin Hoffmann, ‘The Invention of Auto-Destructive Art’, in Gustav Metzger: History, History, ed. Sabine Breitwieser (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2005), 19-39.
Gustav Metzger, ‘Earth to Galaxies: On Destruction and Destructivity’, in Earth to Galaxies (Glasgow: TRAM lines, 1996), 7- 12.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Gustav Metzger / Hans Ulrich Obrist’, Videotape cassette; shortened version of interview is published in Conversation series (Köln: Walther König, 2008).
John A. Walker, 'Message from the Margin.John A. Walker tracks down Gustav Metzger', Art Monthly, no.190.

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