Tate Britain

Nestled between 1950s self-contained formalism and monumental Henry Moores, is a succinct homage to the visionary artist-activist, Gustav Metzger. Metzger’s approach to art as process, expressed both in paint and the ‘real world’, continues to influence generations of artists and theorists exploring the expanded discourse of relational aesthetics. Working beyond the spectacular, Metzger gave form to the action of destruction; a dynamic aesthetic charged with possibility.

Early paintings, previously unseen, show the influence of his mentor David Bomberg: stroked statements merge ochres, creams and grey against blue-black, with titles such as ‘Homage to the Starving Poet’ (1951) and ‘Prophet’ (c1950). Bomberg used painting to communicate ‘the representation of form, not the representation of the appearance of form, but more the representation of all our feelings about form’. Beyond a cosy formalist exercise, Metzger’s work reveals a lived understanding of suffering and the oppressed, his personal trauma. Metzger (b. 1926) arrived in Britain as a refugee from Germany in 1939 via the Kindertransport scheme; his family were victims of the holocaust.

In a series of paintings inspired by a small antique table (Table, 1957) flickering disorientated brushstrokes collect and swarm upwards, an entropic mushrooming of inner forces – imploding – nuclear perhaps or spiritual? Metzger cites William Blake as a life-long influence. This organic sense of cyclic ephemerality is in bold contrast to the violence of later paintings: palette-knifed scratches of pared-down colour, bare traces on a galvanised steel support – the colours struggling to be seen.

The selected works on display illustrate his maverick relationship with found materials, what he called ‘machine art’; anonymous, industrially fabricated, discarded materials found on the street. Titles include: Painting on Cardboard 1958, Painting on Galvinised Steel 1958, Painting on Plastic 1958, Painting on Wood 1958. Metzger’s training as a furniture-maker and interest in arts and crafts clearly influenced his approach to The Everyday. Also, Arte Povera artists in late 1960s Turin (eg Alighero Boetti, Guiseppe Penone, Mario & Marisa Merz) used a ‘poverty’ of gestures and materials to explore the relationship between art and life; bridging the gap between natural and artificial, urban and rural, local tradition and global modernity.

Newspaper reviews of his ‘Cardboards’ show in a Monmouth Street coffee bar exemplify Metzger’s commitment to communicating beyond the elite art world and his opposition to the commodification and commercialisation of art via the art market. Even today, he refuses to show in commercial art galleries. A Daily Express (1959) headline states: ‘Bearded man trips over a box and finds a new form of art’; referring to the TV packaging Metzger tripped over in a Soho doorway; the source for ‘Cardboards’.

With erudite clarity in audio-interviews, Metzger reflects on his contentious experience of inviting the press to live ‘auto-destructive’ events, where he distributed manifestos to openly articulate his intentions in accessible language: he’s a strong believer in public art. The four manifestos presented here (modelled on revolutionary poetics in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto of 1848) illustrate his evolving vision for a radical art practice with political action, embodied in the concept of ‘auto-destructive art’: art that would change and disintegrate over time. It would stand as witness to society’s capacity to engineer its own destruction through the development of weapons of mass destruction, the action of the Capitalist system and through damage to natural ecologies.

Unlike Jean Tinguely’s self-destructive machines in 1960s New York or The Who’s on-stage performances, auto-destructive art is not nihilistic. Bakunin, Russian Revolutionary founder of collectivist anarchism, stressed the reciprocal relationship between creation and destruction and Thomas Hirschhorn’s current show at South London Gallery, In-between, reflects on Antonio Gramsci’s quote: ‘Destruction is difficult. It is as difficult as creation’. But for Hirschhorn, it’s not about separating or opposing ‘creation’ and ‘destruction’ but about the difficulty of positioning oneself in the midst of the moving world. For Hirschhorn the challenge of confronting the world’s reality stands between ‘creation’ and ‘destruction.’

A reconstruction of the First Public Demonstration of Auto-destructive Art (1960, Temple Gallery; remade 2004/2015) resembles Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases (although passive, by comparison), which come to life when you hear the charged fervour expressed in Metzger’s voice in the accompanying audio interviews. Metzger passionately describes how he violently applied hydrochloric acid onto framed nylon sheets on the South Bank: ‘pumping it out with a machine-gun-action and feeling genuine aggression’. Harold Liversidge’s film (1963) on Youtube, poetically focuses on the slowly disintegrating nylon – the final shot gradually revealing and framing St Pauls. Beyond self, auto-destructive art entails a loss of the artist’s ego, as you can’t control the acid: the process is carried through the materials over time and embodied in the final ‘painting’. So the work is the process – this is art as event.

Metzger considers himself a painter and auto-destructive art as a creative process that symbolically has the power to challenge and transform society. Beyond aesthetics, Metzger’s practice, politics, pluralism and sustained strength of vision is an inspiration to us all.


Thomas Hirschhorn: In-between

26 June-13 September, South London Gallery.


Harold Liversidge film (1963):