Gustav Metzger: 1926-2017

Published: 3 March 2017 at 10:26

Null Object by Gustav Metzger

Anglia Ruskin honorary and celebrated alumnus was pioneer of auto-destructive art

Gustav Metzger, artist, political activist and celebrated alumnus of Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University, has died at the age of 90.

Born in Nuremberg in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents, Metzger escaped Germany in 1939 - as part of the Kindertransport initiative to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis.  The young Metzger spent the war years in Britain, later attending the Cambridge School of Art, and in 1948 going back to mainland Europe to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Yet his experiences in pre-war Germany remained with him, shaping his creative direction for the rest of his life. 

In 1960, Metzger joined “The Committee of 100” – a high-profile peace movement whose members promoted the use of mass, non-violent resistance to spread their anti-war message. And it was around this time that he began experimenting with what later became known as ‘auto-destructive art’. By spraying acid onto nylon sheets, Metzger was able to create rapidly changing shapes and images, as the material dissolved to reveal the cityscape beyond.

Metzger’s auto-destructive art was inherently political, carrying anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist messages. It highlighted the perceived negative impact of technology on mankind, and demonstrated the self-destructive nature of human society.

In 1969, Metzger became editor of the London-based Computer Art Society's journal, Page, shifting the journal’s focus towards a critique of science and technology. 

In the 1970s, he became disillusioned with the art world, specifically with the exploitative nature of commercial galleries, and he famously held an art strike from 1977 to 1980, during which time he refused to produce, sell, exhibit or collaborate with “any part of the publicity machinery of the art world”.

After returning to work in 1980, Metzger continued to create and exhibit around the world. In 2009, the Serpentine Gallery in London featured the most extensive exhibition of his work in the UK.  

In 2012, Metzger’s collaborative project Null Object was shown at The Ruskin Gallery, in Anglia Ruskin University. In 2014, an exhibition of his work was held at Kettle’s Yard. Tate Britain recently devoted an entire room to his work, and Tate Modern is currently showing Liquid Crystal Environment.

Gustav Metzger was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Anglia Ruskin University in 2016, in recognition of a lifetime of thought-provoking and challenging work. In his acceptance speech, he spoke warmly of his time in Cambridge:

“Over the years Cambridge has remained a place of inspiration for me.

So I wish to thank Cambridge School of Art and Anglia Ruskin for honouring me with this award”.

Chris Owen, Head of Cambridge School of Art, said:

“Gustav Metzger was a great friend of Cambridge School of Art.  His work is an inspiration for students and artists around the World, but particularly those who work and study here, as they aspire to live up to his example - challenging received ideas and producing work of artistic quality”.