Gustav Metzger’s Auto-Destructive Art haunts us to the edge of taste. By Neal Von Flue
Gustav Metzger was 13 years old when he was taken from his family in Nuremberg and sent to England as part of the “Kindertransport” program, which sought to remove as many children as possible from the inevitable path of Nazi destruction. But thirteen is old enough to remember the propaganda, and the fear. Old enough to remember the marching, the endless blanket of planes in the sky and rows of tanks- the grotesque uniformity of it all; the precision and industry of modern destruction. It was brutal and it was new and it left a mark. It also took his family and friends into the camps, and they would never come out again.
So, although Gustav Metzger was safe from direct harm, he carried the shape of rows of bombs with him across the water. And meditating on humanity’s affinity for destruction in relation to our industrial capabilities, would become his life’s work.
In 1949 Metzger went to art school on a grant and for the better part of a decade, he meditated on this relationship between art and destruction. He began to think of a whole new area of study in the post-war world. He published his first art manifesto “Auto Destructive Art” in 1959. It accompanied a new piece in a gallery- the discarded packaging for a television, opened up and hung on the wall. In his 2008 essay on Metzger, Andrew Wilson writes about the description statement that begins this first manifesto:
Four clear sentences describe “Cardboards” as having been “selected and arranged” by the artist from cardboard that had been “discarded” – its quality being that of something found, rather than something fashioned or even represented. It had a form that was “unadulterated by commercial considerations or the demands of the contemporary drawing room”. This stressed that the work could have no connection with the art market whatsoever while still making “reference to the greatest qualities in modern painting, sculpture and architecture”. Finally, the cardboards that make up the work “were made automatically for a strict purpose and for a temporary usage”. It is also significant that the “strict purpose” that the packaging was intended for was the temporary protection of luxury consumer goods, defined by entertainment and leisure rather than work.
By 1961 Metzger had boiled down his ideas, and written two more manifestos- each one building on his theories. And a theme had developed; focused on postwar consumerism and modern production. Metzger’s Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto grew to include rules like:
Auto-destructive art is primarily a form of public art for industrial societies.
The artist may collaborate with scientists, engineers.
Self-destructive art can be machine produced and factory assembled.
To snippets of poetry that shape his intent:
Man In Regent Street is auto-destructive.
Rockets, nuclear weapons, are auto-destructive.
The drop drop dropping of HH bombs.
Until he can put his finger on it:
Auto-destructive art demonstrates man’s power to accelerate disintegrative processes of nature and to order them.
Auto-destructive art mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture – polishing to destruction point.
Auto-destructive art is an attack on capitalist values and the drive to nuclear annihilation.
He began to make performances in public spaces. Wearing an army field jacket, a gas mask and a white hard-hat, he would paint, spray and sling hydrochloric acid on large nylon sheets. Slowly over minutes holes and rips would appear in the cloth, the acid eating away the smooth surface and revealing a record of where he had attacked it. The rips and scratches would slowly move towards each other as the nylon melted and sagged, the blank sheet of synthetic material would gain a composition– what was a nylon wall obscuring the public’s view, became a new frame to look through. He began to realize that his auto-destructive art was also a form of auto-creative art. Something was being made in the process of destroying. He said of his first nylon piece, performed on a bridge over the Thames river:
The important thing about burning a hole in that sheet was that it opened up a new view across the Thames of St Paul’s cathedral. Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes.
He also lectured on his ideas, showing photos of his public antics and bringing to light important work from artists that dealt with similar themes; like Jean Tinguely, who’s incredible 27 foot tall self-destructive art machine “Homage to New York” tore itself apart at MOMA in 1960, and Saburo Murakami, a strange little man who jumped through paper walls.
In 1962, Metzger presented at Ealing Art College and there was a young artist in the crowd who was deeply affected by the ideas- and likely also affected by the dynamism of Murakami’s frozen pose tearing through paper.
These ideas never let go of Pete Townshend.
But Townshend’s first experiment in bringing Auto-Destruction’s themes to music was an accident. In a fit of playing at a West London club, he slammed the neck of his guitar against the low ceiling, breaking it. Townsend flashed back to Metzger’s lessons and in the moment, proceeded to demolish the rest of his guitar. The crowd went wild that night, so he added this ending to shows and this unique performance art helped to promote the band. He later said in an interview:
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.
And they upped the ante by making Auto-Destruction their signature- moving to explosives and other antics. Backstage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix loses a coin toss and has to follow The Who that night, so he decides to pull out all the stops- upstaging them at their own game with a can of lighter fluid. And from then on, gear-smashing becomes a staple of all serious rock musicians. Metzger’s ideas of rebellion against consumerism and violent greed will burn through culture like a wildfire- taking its own course and moving according to the winds.
It spreads to film through The Yardbirds, who are featured briefly as a night club band in Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal movie “Blow up.” Without much attachment to the film’s storyline, Jeff Beck destroys his guitar on stage and throws the neck into the crowd, sparking a riot. The main character picks it up and runs away with it. Antonioni’s next film “Zabriskie Point” ends with a 5-minute visual meditation on an exploding house in the desert. Set to a special version of Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”, Antonioni zeroes in with incredible clarity on slo-mo burning airborne boxes of cereal, wonderbread, patio furniture, books and clothing.
And a decade later, Paul Simonon of The Clash will carry the torch for a while, swinging his bass like a battle axe at the stage, inspiring admiration and emulation, which further covers Metzger’s original intent behind the acts.
And on it will go.
But Townshend’s contribution feels different from his mentor, his colleagues- or any of his thousands of protégés- because he’s the first to turn this new art idea in on itself. By smashing a guitar, he focuses away from industrial nylon sheets and cardboard boxes to an object that we reserve in our thoughts as crafted to facilitate creativity and individuality- We believe that a guitar is somehow unique- a singular object of beauty. We forget that they are also mass-produced- that they roll off an assembly line like machine guns. Townshend reminds us that we sometimes confuse the paint brush with an artist. He said in 2006:
I think the guitar is a tool of the bourgeoisie production-line of pop art. I will not break another guitar on purpose, but those I did break were broken as part of an artistic manifesto to make my role as an artist harder, and more honest. I feel sorry for the humble luthier sometimes, but there it is.
And he’ll put into perspective true destruction.
The bombs of the last war probably destroyed many more precious instruments than I can even conceive of.
Slowly, Metzger’s ideas of rebellion against consumerism, mass manufacture and our tendency towards sanitizing violence and greed will spread, and unfortunately be eroded over time.
Climaxing in 2017- the same year that Gustav Metzger died- when a bunch of rich guys in suits and white hard hats will break ground on the construction of a deluxe luxury good on a Florida Indian reservation- a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino shaped like a giant guitar- by smashing guitars in to other flaming guitars:
All of them were likely ignorant of the incredibly deft post-post modern art performance that they were participating in- 100 times more grotesque than anything Gustav Metzger was ever capable of executing in his gas mask, with his nylon and his acid.
Metzger had seen the rolling tanks on the horizon and the corrosive nature of human greed. He was plucked from it’s jaws and set onto a career path. And, as a thank you, he spent his life fighting in the best way he could. It’s a shame now to see his ideas perverted by another monster worthy of rebellion no matter how futile; the march of time and the haziness of our fleeting memory.
Thanks for reading. Gustav Metzger’s contributions to our world were much, much more than just his manifesto. He was a great painter. He created liquid crystal art displays- the lava lamp type projections that were played above psychedelic rock bands in the 60’s. He was a staunch critic of capitalism and the high-art market, pressing his colleagues to go on an Art Strike in 1977. He was an environmentalist, making a large upside-down forest, and he created the RAF (Reduce Art Flights) foundation, urging pro artists to shake the convention circuit and to stop flying during convention season, and the Remember Nature initiative. He is one of those guys that has had a root effect on our culture and our aspirations, and is well worth a closer look than what I’ve provided here.
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