The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gustav Metzger, provocative artist who developed ‘auto-destructive’ art, dies at 90

Artist Gustav Metzger sprays acid on nylon sheets in a demonstration of his auto-destructive art. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Gustav Metzger, the founder of the “auto-destructive” art movement, whose politically motivated creations were designed to mock modern society by disintegrating over time and whose ideas inspired guitar-smashing rock musician Pete Townshend, died March 1 in London. He was 90.

His death was first reported in the Guardian newspaper. Other details were not immediately available.

Mr. Metzger developed his concept of auto-destructive art in 1959, defining it as “art which triggers its own destruction.” He saw it as an outgrowth of the absurdist dada movement of the 1920s, but it was also a response to the painful circumstances of his own life.

He left his native Germany as a boy and grew up in England, but his parents stayed behind and died in the Holocaust. He later described his nationality as “stateless” or as “escaped Jew.”

For Mr. Metzger, art became an instrument to strike back at authoritarianism, nuclear weapons, commercialism and modern media.

"When I saw the Nazis march, I saw machine-like people and the power of the Nazi state," he told the Guardian in 2012. "Auto-
destructive art is to do with rejecting power."

Mr. Metzger discovered his ideal medium for auto-destructive art with a form of action painting. Wearing a gas mask and protective goggles, he gave a dramatic demonstration of his work in the 1960s, spraying hydrochloric acid on nylon, which melted, curled and shredded into tatters. He executed the work at an outdoor site in London, revealing St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance through acid-burned holes.

“Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive,” he said in 2012. “Destroy a canvas, and you create shapes.”

Sometimes reclusive and sometimes a public provocateur, Mr. Metzger wrote artistic manifestos and expounded on his notions at art schools. In 1962, Townshend — who later became the creative force behind the rock band the Who — was a young art student who attended one of Mr. Metzger's lectures.

“He had a profound effect on me,” Townshend told the Guardian in 1998. “I took it as an excuse to smash my new Rickenbacker [guitar] that I had just [hocked] myself to the eyebrows to buy. I really believed it was my responsibility to start a rock band that would only last three months, an auto-destructive rock group. The Who would have been the first punk band except that we had a hit.”

Mr. Metzger made another contribution to rock history when he was credited with inventing the psychedelic light show. In 1964, he began to experiment with placing liquid crystals between glass slides. By heating and cooling the crystals, he could produce vivid, randomly changing colors, which he then projected onto walls. The Who and another influential 1960s British rock band, Cream, soon asked Mr. Metzger to provide lighting effects at their performances.

Never one to settle on a single form of expression for long, Mr. Metzger organized a month-long London symposium in 1966 called “Destruction in Art.” The idea was to show audiences the destructive forces at work in society.

One of the artists at the symposium was Yoko Ono, before she was married to Beatle John Lennon. She presented a work of conceptual art known as "Cut Piece," in which she sat on a stage while audience members used scissors to snip off pieces of her clothing until she was almost nude.

Another artist burned a stack of books in front of the British Museum. After a third artist dismembered animal carcasses and bathed in their blood, Mr. Metzger and other organizers of the forum were arrested for obscenity.

“Metzger wasn’t interested in the ruins or the beautiful aftermath,” Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote in 2013. “Rather, he was seeking ways to enact or represent destruction, driven by the age-old idea that art should somehow reflect society.”

One artist strongly influenced by Mr. Metzger’s notion that art should be confrontational and emotionally difficult was Damien Hirst. Among other works, the British artist has shocked viewers by sealing dead sheep in large tanks of formaldehyde.

Mr. Metzger was an admirer of Hirst’s work.

“Very interesting, those little sheep,” he said.

Gustav Metzger was born April 10, 1926, in Nuremberg, Germany. In 1939, he and a brother were sent to Britain as part of a program to rescue Jewish children in Nazi-controlled countries.

He studied art in England and Belgium and worked as a furniture maker, carpenter and junk dealer before embarking on a career as an artist. His early abstract paintings were seldom shown in public until he was in his 80s.

In 1960, Mr. Metzger helped organize the Committee of 100, a British antinuclear group. He was arrested, along with philosopher Bertrand Russell, for leading a sit-in of thousands of people outside Britain’s Defense Ministry.

An avowed Marxist, Mr. Metzger often spoke out against the commercial art world and, as a form of protest, refused to make, sell or exhibit any art between 1977 and 1980.

“The need to create is inherent in human beings,” he said. “We need not fear that art will fade away if the current commercial system was phased out.”

He spent much of the 1980s living on the European continent, studying the works of 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer and largely disappearing from public view. Little is known of his personal life, but he appears to have had no immediate survivors.

After returning to England in the 1990s, he had a more visible presence in the art world and had a wide-ranging series of exhibitions in recent years. Viewers rediscovered his liquid-crystal lighting experiments of the 1960s. He attached electrodes to his skull, using biofeedback to direct a drill sculpting a stone. He created installations with stacks of newspapers, then invited ­museum-goers to clip articles and pin them to a bulletin board.

Later exhibitions included archival photographs of the Holocaust and other horrors, displayed in ways that forced viewers to crawl on the floor or that confined them in small spaces.

“The world and its fears and its dangers,” Mr. Metzger told the New York Times in 2013, “it is every day within me, at the core of my being.”

Many young artists considered Mr. Metzger a visionary, but not everyone was impressed with his work. In 2004, one of his art installations at a Tate museum in London consisted, in part, of a bag of garbage.

One evening, a janitor tossed it out with the trash.

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