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Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger, Norfolk, England, 1960. Photo: Ida Kar. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

IN THE LATE 1950S, I was an assistant at Drian Galleries in London, and that job brought me into close contact with Denis Bowen, who had a small exhibition space nearby called the New Vision Centre. On weekends I would earn extra money by working there. It was a pioneering avant-garde gallery, open-minded enough to exhibit radical artists whom no one else would look at. One day a small figure came in with a pile of paintings and set them up for Bowen to look at. They were figurative works in the David Bomberg style of Vorticism. Bowen, who was kind but didn’t mince words, told the artist that he wouldn’t get anywhere with those canvases—they represented the past, and he should go away and invent something that no one else had done. This was my first encounter with Gustav Metzger.

At that time, things were moving fast in the underground culture of London. The short-lived Peace Café on Fulham Road was an instrumental vehicle in all of this, a meeting point for anarchists, poets, pacificists, and members of the Ban the Bomb movement. I hung out there often, and it was the kind of place where you heard what was going on through the grapevine; it was there that I first learned more about Metzger and his action events. Here was the same man who had carried his paintings into the New Vision Centre, now in a gas mask and boilersuit throwing acid onto nylon sheets, and who would soon issue the first manifesto of auto-destructive art in 1959, the most radical and influential document of the city’s art scene of the era.

By 1963, I had met Metzger on many occasions, and he had become a fairly regular visitor to my studio in London Mews, Paddington. We had lots of critical discussions, especially about his suspicions of cybernetics, which he regarded as a means of social control, in part because of its military origins. At one point, he reacted to my piece Visual Field Automatic No. 1, 1964, which consisted of five light sources switching on and off at random in a dark environment, by yelling, “You’re trying to control my brain!” He then ran down the mews shouting to other residents, “Willats is trying to control you!”

There was a kind of informal underground network among London’s radical artists, with figures such as Mark Boyle, John Latham, John Sharkey, Roy Ascott, Metzger, and others creating the parameters of a new counterculture that would shape the world in the following decade.Through this network, I found myself involved in various collaborations. At the invitation of Boyle, I participated in an event, “O What a Lovely Whore,” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1965 that involved one of Metzger’s early film projections. The ICA was divided up into squares, and in each was placed some means of artistic expression: various musical instruments, painting materials, a metronome, etc. I had created a cybernetic flowchart that was given to visitors at the gallery entrance, which helped them decide which activity they wanted to pursue and where they should go in the grid, and invited them to record their responses to the experience. Metzger selected a square that contained a film projector. A whistle was blown and the entire gallery erupted into chaos, as everyone simultaneously started to create something with the material in their square. While all this crazy activity was taking place, the projector that Metzger was operating caught fire—it turned out he was using a blowtorch to modify the film as it passed through. The ensuing pandemonium helped to cement his reputation as a charismatic but potentially dangerous character.

The initiation of the Destruction in Art Symposium in London at several venues during September 1966 required considerable organization, as it involved artists coming from all over the world and a coordinated program over several days, and the event brought me into contact with Metzger again. In addition to having a paper—“The Mechanistic Crisis”—accepted, I helped with the graphics and the production of posters, leaflets, and other materials. This was a very exciting moment, a dissemination of Metzger’s ideas and actions into a broader cultural sphere.

Later, in 1969, I invited Metzger to make an action in Nottingham, where I was lecturing at the time. He made a work that consisted of a polyethylene box on top of a small car, which he linked to the vehicle’s exhaust. He hung raw meat inside the box, and then sat in the passenger’s seat as the car was driven around Nottingham, shouting out a manifesto he had written against eating meat. All the while, the meat inside the box was getting more and more polluted. This event had a powerful effect on the students.

No one seemed to know where Metzger lived—all my communication with him, except for the occasional phone call, was via a post-office box. And how did he survive, with no income beyond the fees for his sporadic visiting lectures at art schools? This latter mystery was partially solved for me when I observed him visiting a couple, the Kemps, who lived opposite me on the mews, and who were dealers in children’s books, with a great pile of items for sale. He never called on me when he visited the Kemps, and obviously this was his other world. When I asked them about their visitor, the Kemps said they knew him as a connoisseur of antiquarian children’s books and were completely ignorant of his activities as an artist.

The lasting importance of Metzger’s actions and manifestos in the ’60s is by now well documented by historians, but I feel that it is impossible to represent the genuine excitement and the radical atmosphere of the actual experience of being with him at that time. In reality, there were relatively few of those events, but they had enormous reverberations throughout the underground scene of counterconsciousness, and eventually far beyond.

Born in 1943, Stephen Willats is an artist living and working in London, Europe, and New York.

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