Gustav Metzger, (1926–2017) creator of “auto-destructive art,” has died in London aged ninety. Metzger made a number of works, ranging from abstract paintings to disintegrating sculptures. During ‘The Years Without Art’ 1977–80, Metzger’s three-year hiatus from art-making, he organised a number of symposia, lectures, and discussions on the political action, a vital goal of his practice.
Auto-destructive art is “primarily a form of public art for industrial societies
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents he came to Britain in 1939 as a refugee through the Kindertransport. He had been stateless since then. Of Metzger’s childhood he once said: “When I saw the Nazis march, I saw machine-like people and the power of the Nazi state. Auto-destructive art is to do with rejecting power.
Metzger studied art in Cambridge, London, Antwerp, and Oxford, and by the late 1950s, he was also deeply involved in anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist movements, as well as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His political activism was the stimulus for his “Auto-Destructive art manifesto” of 1959 in which he described auto-destructive art as “primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.” In 1969 he became the first editor of the London-based Computer Art Society’s journal Page.
The term auto-destructive art was created by Gustav Metzger during an era of political unrest known as The Cold War, shortly after the end of WWII. The invention of nuclear weapons and their use by the U.S against Japan in 1945, left a deep impression on the whole world. In reaction against this, the anti-war group The Committee of 100 (supposedly named by Metzger himself) was formed in 1960 and Metzger began making paintings using acid as a form of creative protest.
Auto-destructive art was inherently political; also carrying anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist messages. It addressed society’s unhealthy fascination with destruction, as well as the negative impact of machinery on our existence.
In 1966 Metzger and others organised the Destruction in Art Symposium in London. This was followed by another in New York in 1968. The symposium was accompanied by a public demonstration of auto-destructive art including the burning of Skoob Towers by John Latham. These were towers of books (skoob is books in reverse) and Latham’s intention was to demonstrate directly his view that Western culture was burned out.
Photo: Marina Abramović and Gustav Metzger 2009 Photo Andy Miah Creative Commons
In 1960 the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely made the first of his self-destructive machine sculptures, Hommage à New York, which battered itself to pieces in the Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.