Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger (1926–2017)

Gustav Metzger, a pioneer of “auto-destructive art,” as he called it, has died at age ninety in London. In addition to his various works, which range from abstract paintings to disintegrating sculptures to The Years Without Art 1977–80, Metzger’s three-year break from art production, he was recognized and celebrated for organizing symposia, lectures, and discussions on the political—action, as Hannah Arendt would define it, was a vital goal of his practice.

He was born to Polish-Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1926 and 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.”

He 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.

In her review of Metzger’s survey show at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Melanie Gilligan wrote in the February 2010 issue of Artforum: “Through object lessons placed in the gallery context, Metzger’s purpose was thus shown to be twofold: While focusing on the destruction wrought by society, he also sought to relentlessly engender debate, hoping to cultivate and address a public sphere where the contradictions he saw attending modernity could be discussed and its perils and cruelties fought.”