Painting with hydrochloric acid on nylon, 1961
There are lots of ways to paint, as a quick wander through any major art museum will amply demonstrate. But there are those who change out understanding of art through their work, and Gustav Metzger is one such. Metzger’s notion of auto-destructive art, which he initially defined in 1959, was an interesting and highly-influential on which was rooted in the belief that Western society was failing (Metzger has been a Marxist all his adult life). The idea is that the work has the capacity to destroy itself or that it is destroyed by the actions of its creator.
Gustav Metzger: Auto-Destructive Art (1959)
Auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.
Self-destructive painting, sculpture and construction is a total unity of idea, site, form, colour, method, and timing of the disintegrative process.
Auto-destructive art can be created with natural forces, traditional art techniques and technological techniques.
The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception.
The artist may collaborate with scientists, engineers.
Self-destructive art can be machine produced and factory assembled.
Auto-destructive paintings, sculptures and constructions have a life time varying from a few moments to twenty years. When the disintegrative process is complete the work is to be removed from the site and scrapped.
Recreation of painting with hydrochloric acid, 2006
Metzger’s most challenging expression of his ideas at that time was through auto-destructive painting – that is, painting which could destry itself before being removed and discarded – which he achieved by spraying hydrochloric acid onto nylon. As the work progressed – and such paintings were made in public places, effectively as poerfformance works – the nylon would be eaten away by the acid.
Metzger’s adult life and his work as an artist has been dominated by his background and childhood experiences. Born in Nuremberg in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents his childhood was lived in the shadow of the rise to power of the Nazis. Metzger came to Britain in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport. His parents died in Poland during the holocaust though he is uncertain whether they were killed in the concentration camps.
In his Historic Photographs work, Metzger confronts his audience with owerful images which in some cases are partially obscured or only visible by very deliberate engagement with the work. A photograph of Viennese Jews, forced to scrub the pavements, can only be viewed by crawling under a blanket on the floor; other images are visible only in very close proximity by moving past the image behind a curtain. The dynamic this sets up is an interesting one. The photographs are never seen as whole images but this compromised view requires us to work harder to fill in the details, meaning that we pay attention to them in a very different way, mentally making each image whole though we would rather the photographs had never existed.
As Metzger’s ideas evolved the notion that auto-destructive art was also auto-creative, with each new phase of a work being a renewal of sorts, took hold. The Liquid cyrstal environment is auto-creative, but as the projection changes each new state is a destruction of the previous one. Though Metzger had been experimenting with light projection for a couple of years at this point, it took a collaboration with a scientist – in response to an image of liquid crystals on the cover of Scientific American – to bring this work to fruition.
Now in his eighties, Metzger remains active as an artist and an influential figure amongst younger artists. But his influence also extended beyond the art world. The liquid crystal projections were used during performances by the Who, The Move and Cream at the Roundhouse in London and Pete Townsend cited Metzger and auto-destructive art as the inspiration for smashing his guitars on stage.