Gustav Metzger, 1926 to 2017

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Gustav Metzger

The artist, refugee, political activist and influential creator of “auto-destructive” art, Gustav Metzger, died last month. Noel Halifax recalls his radical contribution to the culture of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

Art and artists come in and out of fashion, as does their influence and people’s interpretation of it. In recent years Gustav Metzger, who died in March, has been out of fashion. His heyday was the 1960s and 70s when he was central to the shape and direction of the British art world and ironically created one of the foundations on which the current bloated art scene is based. Ironically, because he was politically opposed to the current art world, hated the art market and all that it stands for.

The reasons people become artists vary hugely; in the case of Gustav Metzger it was to pursue his revolutionary politics. He was born in Germany of Jewish Polish parents in 1926, fleeing to Britain in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport programme. His parents and the rest of his family all perished in the Holocaust. He was, and remained, stateless.

From his early teenage years in East Anglia Metzger was politically active. He campaigned against local American air bases and was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). He was a named member of the Committee of 100 activist group and as such was imprisoned for refusing to obey a court order to stay away from CND demonstrations.

He had started out as a furniture maker, but he came to see art as a way of changing society — but a new type of art. He was influenced by the writings of English artist Eric Gill and through him the earlier works and political actions of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

In 1960 he launched a manifesto on auto-destructive art with its aims of opposition to capitalism and its destructive nature. He argued that events, lectures and happenings — and not just paintings and artefacts — were valid art. He created pieces that destroyed themselves, such as objects made of silk that then had acid poured on them, and he gave lectures and organised happenings — all to comment on the destruction of the environment, the threat of nuclear war, and the dead and deadening hand of the art market.

His “auto-destructive” art denied the art market objects to sell. He later launched an art strike to stop making commercial art objects and argued for art happenings in public spaces and not for private consumption.

In 1964 he gave a lecture at the Architecture Association that was to set the tone for the next decade. It became the launch of the art happening movement. The Architecture Association became one of the centres of a thorough critique of the architecture then practised. “Anti-architecture” was launched as a critique of the systems that produced beautiful buildings for the rich and slums and shanty towns for the poor.

It is another great irony that the students of that movement who learned to unlearn and look anew often became the next generation of designers of glass and aluminium palaces for the rich — Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and David Chipperfield, among others.

In 1962 Metzger was part of the Fluxus groups show in London. Fluxus was an art movement that saw itself as neo-dada, an art that sought to challenge all establishments, to make art in new ways, and to dissolve the barrier between art and life. Metzger took the spirit of the Fluxus movement, politicised it and then ran with it. He was hugely influential on the art world of the 1960s and 1970s, especially but not only in Britain. His work had an influence far beyond what was then the small world of contemporary art.

One of Metzger’s students was Pete Townshend of The Who, who smashed up his guitar on stage, turning The Who’s stage act into an auto-destructive art happening. Metzger worked with art based on the shadows and patterns from coloured oils, wax and crystals when light is shone through them — art objects that could be seen but not be made into commercial objects. The group Cream developed this idea to produce the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s, again turning stage performances into art happenings.

But with Metzger politics was always central to his art and life. Art’s purpose was to question, undermine and change society. Unlike many who took up some of his ideas but not his politics, he did not become rich and famous.

Of the current group of megastars of the British art scene, all in some way have used his ideas in their work. Damian Hirst is said to be a fan but in spirit is the total antithesis of Metzger’s work. Jeremy Deller, with work based on events such as the Battle of Orgreave during the Miners’ Strike, or his hatred of the Chelsea rich, shows a continuation of Metzger’s ideals if in a muted form.

He is now seen as one of the earliest ecology and environmental activists, his art often showing the wastefulness of capitalism. Having disappeared from view in the 1980s and 90s, he had recently reappeared with events in the 21st century concentrating on the destruction of the environment by a globalised and rampant capitalism.

Video recordings of talks and interviews Metzger gave at the Tate Modern in 2008 can be found on their website: tate.org.uk/context-comment/audio/talking-art-gustav-metzger