Gustav Metzger, the German-born British artist whose work exposes modern society’s will to destroy people and things, has died, according to Andrew Wilson, a Tate curator, who announced the news on Twitter. He was 90.
Metzger’s greatest contribution to art history was the Auto-Destructive Art movement, for which artists were to dismantle and wreck objects as a form of protest. “Self-destructive painting, sculpture, and construction is a total unity of idea, site, form, colour, method, and timing of the disintegrative process,” Metzger wrote in a 1959 manifesto, the first of three essays that would help define the movement.
Though artists like Jean Tinguely were among the first to create works that could truly qualify as Auto-Destructive Art, Metzger, in 1961, joined the movement with his acid paintings. Working in response to the building of nuclear weapons, Metzger threw acid on nylon, causing it to disintegrate.
In 1966, Metzger held the first Destruction in Art Symposium in London. There, artist John Latham’s contribution was a “Skoob Towers Ceremony,” for which he set fire to stacks of books (“skoob” is “books” spelled backward) outside the British Museum. Metzger continued to explore the impulse to destroy throughout his career—even in 2009 when he co-curated “Voids,” a show at the Centre Pompidou that explored works that summoned emptiness or nothingness.
Metzger was born in 1926 in Nuremberg, Germany, where he was raised by Polish parents. Over the course of his childhood, he witnessed firsthand the rise of Nazism. Along with his brother, Metzger left Germany as a refugee in 1939 as part of what has become known as Kindertransport, the mass movement of some 10,000 children to England to flee the Nazis. His parents remained in Germany and were killed by Nazis in 1943.
After studying at the Cambridge School of Art, Metzger radicalized. He was arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the use and creation of nuclear weapons, and he would later attend a number of demonstrations.
The drive to create political work remained with him for the majority of his career. Between 1977 and 1980, Metzger went on an art strike, refusing to create any artworks. Then, in 2007, in response to the spreading influence of art fairs around the world, he founded the Reduce Art Flights initiative, in which art workers of all kinds were encouraged not to travel by air. For Metzger, both actions were a way of fighting the stranglehold of capitalism and rampant commerce.
Metzger also continued to create art about the Holocaust, Nazism, and oppression. Among his most famous works is To Crawl Into—Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 (1996), in which a yellow blanket is laid over a blown-up photograph of Austrian Jewish children scrubbing a sidewalk. Viewers are expected to crawl under the blanket, debasing them and forcing them to reenact the traumatic scene. The work was on view in a 2011 New Museum survey of Metzger that also included a car that had been beaten with a sledgehammer.
And yet, not all of Metzger’s pieces were so explicitly dark. In the ’60s, he created colorful projections that appeared at concerts for bands like Cream and The Who. (Pete Townshend, The Who’s lead guitarist, was a particularly outspoken fan of Metzger’s.) One such work, Liquid Crystal Environment (1965/2005), is currently on view at Tate Modern in London.
In some of Metzger’s final works, a sense of hopefulness shines through. For the Serpentine Galleries in 2015, Metzger debuted Remember Nature, a project that asked art professionals to create a work that would somehow befit the piece’s title. “We live in societies suffocating in waste,” Metzger wrote that year. “Our task is to remind people of the richness and complexity in nature; to protect nature as far as we can and by doing so art will enter new territories that are inherently creative.”