Interview with Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger

Gustav Metzger

By guest blogger, India Windsor-Clive

Interview with Gustav Metzger on 9th April 2011, third floor of the National Theatre, overlooking the Thames South Bank, London.

It is nearing 1pm; I am waiting in the ground floor cafe of the National Theatre. With no way of contacting the artist, I begin to worry whether Gustav Metzger is already here and waiting elsewhere. Suddenly my attention is drawn towards a small figure with a retiring expression shuffling through the espresso bar, with a wheeled shopping trolley containing what looks to be the essential elements of his few worldly possessions in tow. He is wearing a noticeably large number of threadbare layers under a long, dark coat, topped by a green hat; he stands out from the rest of the towering crowd, all otherwise dressed for the 21 degree temperatures in an early April heat wave.

On the terrace, Gustav points out the location where his first demonstration of Acid on Nylon painting took place on the South Bank in 1961, and then the exact spot below us where the second acid on nylon painting filmed by Harold Liversidge took place in 1963, and finally where the demonstration was re-created in 2006 by The Hayward Gallery on a concrete platform in front of its entrance. We discuss the Acid on Nylon paintings as well as the ‘Art into Society/Society into Art’ exhibition organised by Norman Rosenthal, before re-entering the building to begin the interview with the muffled sound of a matinee performance of ‘Frankenstein’ in the background.

Imprisonment, extinction, hydrochloric acid and upside-down trees. An artist who is at once challenging, fiercely anti-capitalist and bent on destruction. Now aged eighty-five, Gustav Metzger has gained high accolade as one of contemporary art’s key figures and one of Britain’s most influential artists.

Gustav Metzger - Acid on Nylon Painting

Gustav Metzger – Acid on Nylon Painting

India Windsor-Clive: Throughout your work it seems that the Dada movement and its anti-art strategising has profoundly influenced your artistic outlook. Is this correct?

Gustav Metzger: Yes, very much so. From very early on all the ‘isms’, all over, different aspects of them all interested me. My chief interest was Berlin Dada, particularly Heartfield.

IWC: Did you ever meet John Heartfield here in London?

GM: No, I never met him. In the 1970s and 80s we had two meetings with the widow of Heartfield, there were two of us, and we interviewed her; but she was not very forthcoming.

IWC: Were your ‘Years Without Art’ in the late 1970s at all inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s years without art from 1926-1934, in which he ceased to produce work and instead took up the game of chess?

GM: I don’t know about Duchamp’s ‘years without art’, did he use these words? When I was a student there was not that much reference material available on Duchamp. In the post-war period there was not much information at all on these artists, not compared to now. This is an important point to remember.

IWC: How has the work of Wilhelm Reich informed your outlook in art and society?

GM: Wilhem Reich was a key part of my youth. I was 18 at the time I came across his work, and to this day the interest in Reich continues. He is just a very powerful figure.

IWC: Wilhelm Reich talks about the responsibility for non-mechanistic science to counter the destructivity of mechanist science and mechanistic civilization, do you believe in this responsibility, as a possibility?

Gustav Metzger

GM: Reich discusses a variety of background developments in society. He was concerned with fundamental social change, this was part of his appeal to me. Yes, my work is testament to his social theories. The most important aspect is anti-capitalist. The situation has changed, but in fundamentals I am opposed to the commercialisation of art. It is wrong to make these inhuman elements to get excitement into the art world. I am very much as I used to be. In the last year I have quite firmly rejected an invitation to enter a gallery system. This is a fact and there are only about ten or twenty people who know what I am talking about, who know about my rejection.

IWC: And what about Micheal Bakunin’s ‘collective anarchism’?

GM: Not at all. Although I had sympathy for anarchism, I did not read much of his work. To this day I still do not read anarchist material.

IWC: Do you still believe in the therapeutic potential for destruction in art? As therapeutic for art and society?

GM: In principle it can be. You have to look at each principle and each attempt.

IWC: In art, what does it mean to erase? Or rather, what does it mean to negate and destroy the object?

GM: Well, I don’t think I have ever used this word ‘erase’. There are associations with destruction, and Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing in the early 1950s, this was erasing, yes, but more an example of an event turning into something else. Erase has a rather nasty feel to it. For me it has echoes of the Nazis, they used this kind of terminology and that’s why I haven’t used it. To erase an entire population, which is what they tried to do, is too destructive, it’s just about the most horrible thing to happen in the world, in my opinion.

IWC: Often your Auto-destructive work is referred to in the context of Iconoclasm. How would you differentiate your work from Iconoclastic tendencies in art?

GM: The complete absence of religion from my texts and work. The non-existence of context between my work and iconoclasm. Religion never entering my discourse and certainly not my practice.

IWC: There appears to be interesting parallels between your use of an aesthetic of revulsion and Julia Kristeva’s notion of the ‘abject’. Are you familiar with her work?

GM: I am familiar with Kristeva’s work in the most general sense. In others words, I am interested. She presents a range of challenges and especially for women, to women and for women’s future.

Gustav Metzger

IWC: I went along to the opening of ‘Studies For An Exhibition’ at The David Roberts Art Foundation in Great Titchfield Street where your posters for ‘This Is Tomorrow’ were displayed in the window; another work included in the exhibit was one of John Latham’s book works on the ground floor. Was Latham involved in the ‘Art Into Society/Society Into Art’ exhibition and ancillary discussions at the ICA?

GM: Oh yes, you did; I couldn’t make it in the end. No, Latham was not involved. Although maybe he had something…[hesitation] no, I don’t think so, not to my knowledge. Have you read John Walker’s book on Latham? You should, it’s very good.

IWC: Could you tell me a little bit about your involvement in the Artists Placement Group?

GM: This is a big story and a very difficult one to deal with. As we were talking about on the balcony earlier, I strongly criticized Latham’s work following an exhibition held here at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 [Gustav gestures towards the Hayward Gallery in view out of the window]. I made a strong critique against him and the Artists Placement Group in an article in Studio International.

IWC: In the early 1960s you were asked to participate in the ‘Festival of Misfits’, but your work was rejected for its conspicuous political import that was in discordance with the more conceptually driven philosophical outlook of the other artists presented. What was your relationship with the Fluxus group?

GM: We need to speak of specific people. It wasn’t in use, the term was never used in London to my knowledge, to my understanding. It was a very recent phenomenon in Germany and only in Germany at the time, in Autumn 1962. The two individuals among the five or six people in London who rejected were Daniel Spoerri and Robert Filliou, organizers of the whole event, and they rejected my plan. If I had contributed in a normal sense what I wanted to, then Fluxus would have been far more political than it turned out to be.

IWC: Have your overtly politicized works ever caused a problem for the legal system?

GM: No, it’s never been effected. With the Committee of 100 I was arrested several times and that was the only time I ever experienced social restriction in my freedom of speech or action. To come back to DIAS, there was a restriction in response to the Nitsch.

IWC: I am going to mention how important the Destruction In Art Symposium was in bringing together a great number of international artists concerned with destruction in the 1960s, but much has been written on this event already, so I am not going to go into too much detail about it in my dissertation. I have been reading Kristine Stiles’s detailed essays on the Destruction In Art Symposium though which are very informative, are you familiar with her work?

GM: Yes, I know her. She wrote a four volumed dissertation on DIAS, a major achievement.

IWC: Do you see the dialect of destruction being utilized by younger generations of artists to express similar concerns to those articulated in your work?

GM: I flick through The Guardian Guide and The Times Art exhibition listings and repeatedly I come across titles of exhibitions or titles of articles that make me think about destruction, the destruction of art, the destruction in art. What is happening is happening on a wide scale. Not just destruction but the ephemeral and transience that are all connected and have become an extraordinarily wide phenomenon that can’t be tracked anymore. And if this is happening in this country, it is quite legitimate that it’s happening worldwide. And that accounts a great deal for the renewed interest in my work; the treatment I have now is very different to the treatment I received before, so that would be a very good reason wouldn’t it?

IWC: What was the public reception of your work like in the 1960s and 70s?

GM: It was practically nil.

IWC: Did people simply ignore your concerns and agitating in the 1960s and 70s?

GM: Yes, they certainly did and they succeeded in doing so for a very long time.

IWC: Do you think that this ignorance was conscious disregard, or that people were simply unaware of the matters you were confronting?

GM: Both. People were aware, people were writing, talking and agitating at the same time. As the opposite of people blindly consuming, blindly ignoring what was happening in nature and towards nature.

IWC: Do you believe there is still the potential for artists’ to undermine the capitalist market system?

GM: Yes. I am in favour of great change. Capitalism, in my view, is the most idiotic and destructive way of conducting ourselves as members of society. It’s as simple as that. I have no doubt that the largest part of any response as a person and practicing figure is the wide recognition that society is idiotic and destructive. You can see this being reflected in thousands of interviews and thousands of words concerned with this issue. In the past ten years or so, there has been a snowball effect. It’s unstoppable, and as far as the art world is concerned, I am a central figure in this critique. It is happening.

IWC: In the late 1970s you proposed an art strike and refrained from producing any work for three years in a bid to subvert the gallery system. Do you think that there is a potential for ‘Years Without Art’ to undermine the gallery system even today?

GM: This is a very difficult question. A few years ago I said to friends, or whoever was listening, that it is no longer possible to fight the commercial system because it has become so big and so worldwide. The other answer I would give would be that in fact there have been so many changes in the activity of artists that are inherently against the capitalist commercialized art system, and again if you go through the titles and articles of exhibitions it will reflect this. It’s happening, the ‘Years Without Art’ are happening. And the intensive study, and you are an example of that, of this stance and the opposition to being integrated in the commercial system are now dominating the art and the cultural scene, in the wider sense. So you could argue that, in so far as the “Years Without Art”, they are happening. There is no need to return to the initial concepts presented in the 1970s and 80s. The second resurrection of ‘Years Without Art’ was by Stewart Home and groups in England and America.

IWC: What are your feelings towards the relatively recent reappraisal of your work?

GM: This is inevitable, not unstoppable. It’s just a social instance, like a wave, where it is inevitable that constructions by artists are appreciated and paid for by social ways. The interactions by people, by art historians and by other artists, by critics. This is unstoppable but not necessarily all bad.

Gustav Metzger

IWC: Do you intend on making future Auto-destructive works, or are you now primarily concerned with the Historic Photographs series?

GM: I am always interested in adding images to Historic Photographs. It is not closed. The possibilities of Auto-Destructive art are continuing. Certainly I do not intend myself to make acid on nylon paintings, I am too old, but the Hayward Gallery reconstruction is something that can continue even after my death. People can carry on making reconstructions of my work; I would find that legitimate. But there are also major public Auto-destructive monuments, these are still works that I would like to realize and complete. I have not given up on ideas of works that are auto-destructive and, given the opportunities, ie. the money, the space, I would like them to be realized.

IWC: Would this include unrealized works such as ‘Five Screens With Computer’ proposed in 1965?

GM: Yes. This is my key aim. If I had the chance, that would be the first one I would go for. It would be much easier to be realized now than in the early 1960s.

IWC: And what about your Auto-creative work such as the Liquid Crystal Light Projections?

GM: It is something of immense concern to me and I intend to go on making them. They are continuously reconstructed for exhibitions and with improvements.


Gustav Metzger’s Crystal Light Installation 

IWC: Throughout the many presentations and reconstructions of you Auto-destructive and Auto-creative projects, their context and message has changed slightly, adapting to contemporaneous concerns. However, would you agree that the key messages contained within you work have remained consistent?

GM: There’s no escaping that. The world is changing. The world is changing for the worse. We have not mentioned one of my key concerns which is extinction. Extinction has been defined as the most serious challenge to the future of the planet and I agree with this. People do not recognise the transience of life on Earth. Some scientists have talked about the elimination of species to such an extent that it would mean the end of life on earth within fifty years. So, as far as I am concerned the fight against extinction is the most important fight we can take.

IWC: I have recently read ‘Earth to Galaxies’ in the National Art Library collection, in which you talk about this transience of life, as well as the inevitability of extinction, and this inevitability as being so minute and meaningless in the larger scale of the universe and all its galaxies. Linking this with the critique of civilization’s drive for preservation and permanence, how does this correspond to the fight against extinction?

GM: Ah I see what you are saying. For me this is a very important text. I am trying there to accept what is happening. But what is also happening as human beings and as society, we have the freedom to operate, how we spend the time and money and energy. And this is the essence of the human being, this element of choice. And it is the need to address this which is most important and which is possible. And what is happening is that extinction in our time, and in the fifty years projected by some experts, in as far as this extinction is to the largest extent man made, it must be possible to reverse this seemingly inevitable mass extinction, mass destruction. And everything that we have learned from the past shows that humanity can turn around directions again and again, that is what we need to do now in relation to extinction. It is precisely the human capacity to decide on fundamental change, it is this capacity which is now demanded by individuals and the world as a whole.

Gustav Metzger

IWC: What would your advice be to young artists concerned with art’s engagement in the social system, who share similar concerns for the environment?

GM: To engage in the social and use as much initiative as possible to change the system. And use the imaginative capacity of art to, if you like, ‘preach’ the need for the reversal of destruction, or else it is not happening, yes. A sharp reversal. Certainly artists should and can contribute to that reversal. And it is precisely because we fit in so well in this schema of endless destruction which is the cosmos, which is the universe, it is precisely that we are different to that, that we should challenge the inevitability; precisely because we are inherently destructive, we must break out of us going the same way.

IWC: Do you still remain firmly against the gallery system?

GM: Certainly. That is a necessity. Participation in the gallery system is not an option. To exist responsibly, the gallery system is not available, in my opinion. And every withdrawal from the gallery system should at least strengthen the possible development of alternative futures for artists; and there I go back to the ‘Years Without Art’ argument, as an attempt to break up the gallery system.

IWC: With the tremendous, and somewhat inevitable, expansion of art’s freedom in a democratic society, such as its proficiency to shock, do you think that this has resulted in its increased distance from the practicalities of the social system?

GM: Very interesting question and a very important one. And I think you are referring to the YBA phenomenon and others. And I think the answer is yes, and I think it is a very positive way of looking at the situation in the arts. The artists have played the clown to a large extent and it is a symptom of artists’ breakdown. It’s a very important issue you’ve raised and needs to be discussed. It’s a very important one that we will come back to another day. Artist’s used to escape from reality; make the public laugh and cry simultaneously and you’ve got a good chance of selling. Jay Jopling, the gallery director, brings that subject up.

IWC: So, would you say that bound to art’s freedom in society is its increasing cultural marginalization and therefore limited role as an effector or conductor of social change?

GM: You’ve put your finger on it. You must write that down. Often you’re answers are in the question.

IWC: There are widespread local initiatives and collaborations taking place away from the glare and publicity of the art world. Do you think that these are an important development for art and its role in society?

GM: These are positive collaborations. In the case of extinction that is required. This can’t go on. Art must generate interest and generate responsibility.

IWC: Have you ever sold a work of art to this date?

GM: Yes, I have been sent two or three photographs from a lady who says her husband bought one of my works from the 1950s, I can’t see it or recognise it very well in the photographs. I certainly did sell another work around the 1950s, some small paintings maybe. And in recent times I have recently sold works to public collections. I see this as a perfectly legitimate way of subverting the system, others may not and I accept that situation.

David Metzger

IWC: But these were for public institutions for public viewing?

GM: Yes, works being sold within the public domain.

IWC: What do you think the reasons were for the organisers of the Serpentine exhibition choosing to do a survey of your work in 2009?

GM: I am certain there is a multitude of reasons in background interest. A wide appreciation in what I have done and what I do, and a public response to my work. I don’t think there was a single motive or analysis in my invitation. The show travelled to several venues and quite recently I have received a letter from the Serpentine that confirmed they were right in putting on a survey due to a widespread international response to my work. A formal letter signed by people at the Serpentine. The Serpentine was part of an unfolding resurgence in interest. It was brilliantly done.

IWC: Have you been invited to prepare and exhibit works for forthcoming exhibitions in the near future?

GM: Yes. I have been invited to exhibit Historic Photographs in the New Museum in New York, the details are all on their website. It will be the first time I have exhibited in New York. And my work is being included in the 13th Documenta, also in New York, in June next year. I am not permitted to tell you what exactly will be exhibited, it won’t be auto-destructive, but it will be released in the next few months I’m sure.

Metzger was born in 1926 to a Polish Jewish family living in Nuremberg, where he witnessed the cultivation and expression of Nazi power in numerous anti-semitic street rallies. Metzger was brought over to England in the Kindertransports in 1939, shortly before losing his family in concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is with this experience of man’s destructive capabilities that led Metzger to a concentrated formulation of what destruction is and what it might be in relation to art. Synthesising analogies of personal experience and a resistance to the status quo, Metzger saw destruction as the vital force necessary for exposing and communicating the destructive tendencies of twentieth century society. Metzger’s Auto-destructive artworks are civil monuments capable of self-destruction, in a ‘total unity of idea, site, form, colour, method and timing of the disintegrative process’, with a lifetime varying from a few moments to twenty years. Metzger’s work seems to speak to us now, arguably more than it did in the 1970s, and not only can he be seen to form a key component in the 1960s and 70s avant-garde cultural scene, but has become a resonating figure in contemporary art. 

India Windsor-Clive is an artist and writer based in London



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