At the heart of Gustav Metzger's best-known work rests a seeming contradiction: The truest work of creation contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Working with acids and liquid crystals, Metzger often made his art to fall apart, break down or disappear entirely — and in doing so, better reflect the crumbling world around it.
Metzger, the inventor of "auto-destructive art," died Wednesday in London at the age of 90. But long before his final days, he regularly confronted the implications of death in both his art and ecological activism.
"Gustav always maintained that an artist is not so much a creator as a destroyer; that the artist's role is not to add something to the world of objects but to make fewer things," Hans Ulrich Obrist, Metzger's friend and curator of the Serpentine Gallery, writes for The Guardian.
The roots of Metzger's artistic inclinations lay partly in the tragedy of his youth. Born to Jewish parents in Germany shortly before the rise of Adolf Hitler, Metzger and his brother emigrated to the U.K. in 1939 as refugees in the kindertransport program. His parents — and much of the rest of his family — disappeared in the Holocaust by 1943.
Though he began his career as a painter, he turned to more destructive forms in 1959 partly as a means of registering stark dissent. "When I saw the Nazis march, I saw machine-like people and the power of the Nazi state," he told The Guardian in 2012. "Auto-destructive art is to do with rejecting power" — and in the process, creating new perspectives.
Take one of his most famous works, for instance: After stretching a sheet of nylon in a frame, he sprayed acid onto this blank surface, allowing the corrosive chemicals to eat away at a material other artists might have adorned with paint.
"The important thing about burning a hole in that sheet," he said in 2012, "was that it opened up a new view across the Thames of St Paul's cathedral [in London]. Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes."
So it went with much of Metzger's work. From decomposing liquid crystals, he created grand psychedelic tableaux of shifting colors; from discarded newspapers, he arranged a series of images as complex as they were vulnerable to fading.
And, as the Post notes, from a bag of garbage he created a museum installation — which, in turn, was taken again for just another bag of garbage. "One evening," the paper says, "a janitor tossed it out with the trash."
For Metzger, the aesthetic was never far from the political, and the one was just about as likely to get him in trouble as the other. The Guardian reports that during his 1966 Destruction in Art Symposium, which also featured a young Yoko Ono, Metzger was fined 100 pounds for obscenity in one of the exhibits.
"Hermann Nitsch's 21st Action, the crucifixion of an eviscerated lamb with film of a man's penis being manipulated by strings was stopped by the police," the British paper recalls.
The police were just as receptive to some of his activism, as he was also jailed for his protests against nuclear weapons five years earlier.
But one notable rock star saw things differently.
"He had a profound effect on me," Pete Townshend of The Who told the Guardian in 1998, according to the Post. Townshend explained:
"I took it as an excuse to smash my new Rickenbacker [guitar] that I had just [hocked] myself to the eyebrows to buy. 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."
Still it seems Metzger, a Marxist, saw this art as more than an excuse. He saw it as a challenge leveled at a culture of consumerism that was always prepared to turn his artwork into a marketable object.
As he told London's Tate museum in 2008, his work was meant less as an object than an undiluted glimpse of society — both its beauties and its horrors.
"This is the world," he said. "Look at it, and deal with it."
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.