The Daddy of Destruction; A New Documentary about Gustav Metzger Paints a Surprising Picture of the Artist Who Inspired Pete Townshend to Smash His Guitars
Byline: ANDREW RENTON
GUSTAV Metzger is one of Britain's most influential artists, but you will not find his work in any museum or major collection. That is because the essence of it is its own destruction. Yet, for more than 40 years, he has proved to be a quietly persistent figure.
By definition, nothing remains of the work but its telling. But Metzger is a great witness of the cruelties of the 20th century, and a new documentary film by Ken McMullen, funded and distributed by Arts Council England, to be released on DVD in September, may prove to be the lasting legacy of an art that prefigured conceptualism, and of an artist who stands as a political conscience of recent history.
Metzger, born in Nuremberg in 1926, reached London as a refugee on the Kindertransport in 1939, and his "auto-destructive art" seems rooted in the shadows cast by the Holocaust, and the rise of Nazism he witnessed firsthand as a child.
The current Tate exhibition, Art and the 60s: This Was Tomorrow, and the recent BBC4 series on the Sixties, position him - through scant photographic and film documentation - as an oppositional figure to the Pop excesses of the time.
The project for which he is best known, which survives only in some grainy footage, consists of the artist swaddled in protective clothing and gas mask, as he painted, and then in later performances, sprayed, hydrochloric acid onto canvas.
Metzger's work might have appeared nihilistic, but it was shot through with political assertion: art, it said, is not a commodity, but occupies a troubling place in a troubled world.
Metzger would draw little distinction between his artwork and his political activities, such as the founding of the Committee of 100 with Bertrand Russell, an extremist breakaway from CND with radical plans for civil disobedience.
His antinuclear campaigning over 20 years can be seen in relation to his manifestos on auto-destructive art from 1959 onwards and to his "art strike", proposed in 1974, when he called for artists to abandon their practice for three years in order to collapse the gallery system. But such a plan required a solidarity among artists that would be impossible to achieve.
Metzger was an outsider, even at the height of his activities in the Sixties - his work was a far cry from the groovy Mayfair swank of the galleriesof Robert Fraser and Kasmin, where the likes of David Hockney and Bridget Riley were exhibiting.
But while we associate psychedelia with one acid tab too many, it's almost a surprise to learn that it was Metzger's attempt to marry the aesthetics of art and the progress of science that produced the "lava lamp" lighting effects of the early gigs of Cream and The Who, or that he inspired Pete Townshend to smash up his guitar on stage, after the guitarist had seen Metzger's early " performances" while a student at Ealing College of Art.
In the art world, Metzger's influence is more obvious. This year's Museum of Modern Art New York retrospective revealed the huge debt owed by Dieter Roth (1930-1998), an artist who tested materials (books, wood, even bananas and chocolate) to the limits of recognition, transforming-them utterly. And one needs only think of Cornelia Parker's exploded shed, Cold Dark Matter, to understand that Metzger's influence spans several decades. …