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Gustav Metzger

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Gustav Metzger
Gustav Metzger in 2009.
Born(1926-04-10)10 April 1926
Died1 March 2017(2017-03-01) (aged 90)
London, England, UK
EducationRoyal Academy of Fine Arts
Known forAuto-Destructive Art
MovementFluxus, Art Strike

Gustav Metzger (10 April 1926, Nuremberg – 1 March 2017, London) was a German artist and political activist who developed the concept of Auto-Destructive Art and the Art Strike. Together with John Sharkey, he initiated the Destruction in Art Symposium in 1966.

Metzger was recognised for his protests in the political and artistic realms.

Early life and education[edit]

Metzger was born to Polish Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1926 and came to Britain in 1939[1] as a refugee under the auspices of the Refugee Children Movement.[2] He lost his Polish citizenship and was stateless since the late 1940s.[3][4] He received a grant from the UK Jewish community to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp between 1948 and 1949.[5] It is with an experience of twentieth century society's destructive capabilities that led Metzger to a concentrated 'formulation of what destruction is and what it might be in relation to art.'[6]

Metzger became a vegetarian in 1944 and remained a strong advocate of vegetarianism throughout his life.[7][8] He was among the first to take a stand against environmental pollution and nuclear proliferation.[8]


His experience of twentieth century society's destructive capabilities led Metzger to a concentrated 'formulation of what destruction is and what it might be in relation to art.'[6] He was known as a leading exponent of the Auto-Destructive Art[9] and the Art Strike movements. He was also active in the Committee of 100 - a 'named' member[10][11]

In 1959, Metzger published the first auto-destructive manifesto Auto-Destructive Art.[12] This was given as a lecture to the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in 1964, which was taken over by students as an artistic 'Happening'. The Architectural Association published, in 2015, a facsimile edition of Metzger's lecture transcript.[13] In 1962 he participated in the Festival of Misfits organised by members of the Fluxus group, at Gallery One, London.[5] Guitarist Pete Townshend from The Who studied with Metzger, and during the 1960s, Metzger's work was projected on screens at The Who concerts.[14] Metzger also worked with Cream, providing them with light shows in the 1960s.[15]

In 2005, he selected EASTinternational which he proclaimed to be "The art exhibition without the art."[16]

Throughout the 60 years that Metzger produced politically engaged works, he incorporated materials ranging from trash to old newspapers, liquid crystals to industrial materials, and even acid."[17]

From 29 September to 8 November 2009, the Serpentine Gallery featured the most extensive exhibition in the UK of his work.[5] Exhibits included the installation Flailing Trees, 15 upturned willow trees embedded in a block of concrete, symbolising a world turned upside down by global warming. He felt that artists are especially threatened, because so many rely on nature as a big inspiration. Metzger stated that "artists have a special part to play in opposing extinction, if only on a theoretical, intellectual basis."[17]

Metzger was a non-smoker and teetotaller who did not drink coffee or English tea. He carried around his own supply of green tea and was described as a vegan in his later years.[18] He lived and worked in East London.[19]


Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art[edit]

This was originally made in 1960 and remade as Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art in 2004.[20]

Demonstration at the South Bank, London, 1961[edit]

Acid action painting[edit]

Acid action painting. Height 7 ft, Length 12' 6". Depth 6 ft. Materials: nylon, hydrochloric acid, metal. Technique. 3 nylon canvases coloured white black red are arranged behind each other, in this order. Acid is painted, flung and sprayed onto the nylon which corrodes at point of contact within 15 seconds.

— Gustav Metzger[21]

Construction with glass[edit]

Construction with glass. Height 13 ft. Width 9' 6". Materials. Glass, metal, adhesive tape. Technique. The glass sheets suspended by adhesive tape fall onto the concrete ground in a pre-arranged sequence.

— Gustav Metzger[21]

Liquid Crystal Environment[edit]

Liquid Crystal Environment was originally made in 1965 and remade in 2005.[22]

Historic Photographs[edit]

This ongoing series of work consists of enlarged press photographs of catastrophic events of the 20th century presented to the viewer using confrontational and experiential methods.[23]

Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art[edit]

This was a recreation of the original demonstration made in 1960.[20] An integral piece of the installation at the Tate Britain, a bag containing rubbish, was erroneously disposed by a cleaner on 30 June 2004.[24] Metzger declared the piece ruined and created a new bag as a replacement.[19]

Flailing Trees[edit]

Originally conceived for Manchester Peace Garden and commissioned by Manchester International Festival in 2009, this work consists of uprooted trees inverted into a concrete block in a powerful environmental memorandum of man's destructive capabilities and violation of Nature.[25]

Grave of Gustav Metzger in Highgate Cemetery


The painter David Bomberg, the leading light of the Borough Group, taught Metzger and was influential in his development.[23] Metzger was also influenced by the artwork of Johannes Vermeer and the naturopathy of Edmond Szekely.[26]


Metzger died at the age of 90 at his home in London on 1 March 2017.[1] He is buried on the east side of Highgate Cemetery.


When Metzger was lecturing at Ealing Art College, one of his students was rock musician Pete Townshend, who later cited Metzger's concepts as an influence for his famous guitar-smashing during performances of The Who. He has also influenced the self-eating computer virus works by the digital artist Joseph Nechvatal.[27]

Further reading[edit]

  • Metzger, Gustav, Writings (1953–2016), edited by Mathieu Copeland, JRP Editions, 2019, ISBN 978-3-03764-535-2.
  • Metzger, Gustav Act or Perish! – A Retrospective. Nero, 2016, ISBN 978-88-97503-87-3.[28]
  • Metzger, Gustav Auto-Destructive Art: Metzger at AA, Architectural Association, 2015, ISBN 9781907414503.[13]
  • Metzger, Gustav, Auto-creative Art, edited by Mathieu Copeland, 2013, [1] ISBN 978-2-84066-601-1
  • Voids A Retrospective, Edited by Mathieu Copeland with John Armleder, Laurent Le Bon, Gustav Metzger, Mai-Thu Perret, Clive Phillpot, Philippe Pirotte. JRP Editions, 2009, [2] ISBN 978-3-03764-017-3
  • Stiles, Kristine, Synopsis of the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) and Its Theoretical Significance. The Act 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 22–31.
  • Stiles, Kristine, Thresholds of Control: Destruction Art and Terminal Culture. Out of Control. Edited by Gottfried Hattinger and Karl Gerbel, Linz, Austria: Ars Electronica & Landesverlag, 1991, pp. 29–50.
  • Stiles, Kristine, Survival Ethos and Destruction Art. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 14:2 (Spring 1992), pp. 74–102; reprinted in Kristine Stiles, Concerning Consequences: Studies in Art, Destruction, and Trauma. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Stiles, Kristine, Uncorrupted Joy: International Art Actions. In Out of Actions: Between Performance and The Object 1949-1979. Edited by Russell Ferguson and Paul Schimmel, pp. 226–328.
  • Stiles, Kristine, The Story of the Destruction in Art Symposium and the ‘DIAS Affect’. Gustav Metzger. Geschichte Geschichte (History History). Edited by Sabina Breitwieser, 41-65. Vienna and Ostfildern-Ruit: Generali Foundation and Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005, pp. 41–65.
  • Stiles, Kristine, Metzger’s Fierce, Poignant, and Prescient Manifestos. Rett Kopi Documents the Future. Edited by Rett Kopi. (Oslo, Norway: Rett Kopi), pp. 157–166.
  • Stiles, Kristine, Introduction to the Destruction in Art Symposium: DIAS and Discussion with Ivor Davies. Link 52 (September 1987), pp. 4–10.
  • Anna-Verena Nosthoff, "Art After Auschwitz: Responding to an Infinite Demand: Gustav Metzger’s Works as Responses to Theodor W. Adorno’s “New Categorical Imperative”." Cultural Politics 10 (3): 300–319. (Duke University Press)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Brown, Mark (2 March 2017). "Gustav Metzger, pioneer of auto-destructive art, dies aged 90". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  2. ^ Jones, Jonathan (28 September 2009). "Gustav Metzger: the liquid crystal revolutionary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  3. ^ "Gustav Metzger". Printed Matter.
  4. ^ Gunhild Borggreen; Rune Gade, eds. (2013). Performing Archives/Archives of Performance (illustrated ed.). Museum Tusculanum Press. p. 87. ISBN 9788763537506.
  5. ^ a b c "Gustav Metzger". Anglia Ruskin University.
  6. ^ a b Pioneers in Art and Science: Metzger (film), Ken McMullen (film director) 2004
  7. ^ "Gustav Metzger obituary". theguardian.com. Retrieved 18 January 2023.
  8. ^ a b Breitwieser, Sabine. (2017)."Gustav Metzger (1926–2017) In the Words of Sabine Breitwieser. textezurkunst.de. Retrieved 18 January 2023.
  9. ^ Alan Liu, (2004) The Laws of Cool, University of Chicago Press, pp. 330–331.
  10. ^ Peace News, 15 September 1961, p 9
  11. ^ "'Auto-destructive art' pioneer Gustav Metzger dies at 90". Washington Times. 2 March 2017. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  12. ^ Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings (Second Edition, Revised and Expanded by Kristine Stiles) University of California Press 2012, pp. 470–471
  13. ^ a b "Auto-Destructive Art: Metzger at AA | AA Bookshop". aabookshop.net. Retrieved 7 March 2018.
  14. ^ "The man who inspired Pete Townshend to smash his guitars – Gustav Metzger, pioneer of auto-destructive art, has died aged 90". The Telegraph. Retrieved 5 March 2017.
  15. ^ "Music: Auto-destruction - anyway, anyhow, anywhere". Independent.co.uk. 22 October 2011.
  16. ^ "BBC - Norfolk - Entertainment - EAST International '05". BBC Norfolk.
  17. ^ a b Hanamirian, Jocelyn. "Gustav Metzger at the Serpentine Gallery London." Modern Painters, September 2009.
  18. ^ Feinstein, Elaine. It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet. Alma Books. p. 57. ISBN 9780714545424
  19. ^ a b "Cleaner bins rubbish bag artwork". BBC News. 27 August 2004. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  20. ^ a b Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art, Tate Online, retrieved 30 August 2006.
  21. ^ a b Aesthetic Ideology in the Information Age Archived 1 September 2006 at the Wayback Machine, USCB, retrieved 31 August 2006
  22. ^ Liquid Crystal Environment, Tate Online, retrieved 30 August 2006.
  23. ^ a b Jones, A. Introduction to the Historic Photographs of Gustav Metzger, Forum for Holocaust Studies, University College London, retrieved 30 August 2006.
  24. ^ Jones, S. 2004. How auto-destructive art work got destroyed too soon , The Guardian, retrieved 31 August 2006.
  25. ^ Thomond, Christopher (30 June 2009). "Art and design,Art (visual arts only),Manchester international festival,Exhibitions,Environment,Culture,Sculpture (Art and design),Installation (Art and design)". London: Guardian. Retrieved 8 November 2011.
  26. ^ "Gustav Metzger: Influences". frieze.com. Retrieved 18 January 2023.
  27. ^ Alan Liu, (2004) The Laws of Cool, University of Chicago Press, pp. 331–336 & 485–486.
  28. ^ Gustav Metzger, Act or Perish! – A Retrospective, 2016.

External links[edit]

Media related to Gustav Metzger at Wikimedia Commons