Gustav Metzger: Bad News Bearer


Gustav Metzger’s first solo show in New York is a modest affair. You climb down an iron staircase at e-flux to a basement room where a couple dozen stacks of newspapers resemble a scruffy take on the Minimalist cube. Against one wall is a small table holding disheveled newspapers and pairs of scissors. Above that is a printout that reads, “Please browse through the newspapers on the table, cut out articles that fall under the categories ‘Credit Crunch,’ ‘Extinction,’ and ‘The Way We Live Now,’ and place them on the wall.” A long, black magnetic board on another wall is filled with newspaper clippings.

The other work in the show is a black-and-white photograph—a blurry reproduction, actually, printed on white vinyl—that dominates a wall in the upstairs office. Taken at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the Temple Mount massacre in November 1990, the image was originally published in an Italian newspaper and shows two armed soldiers standing over people—corpses, wounded, or captured, it’s hard to tell—lined up on the ground. In the foreground, a man who’s raised himself up slightly gazes toward the camera.

The work in the office is from Metzger’s Historic Photographs series, which will be shown at the New Museum next month, the artist’s first solo show in a U.S. museum. I only point this out—two first-New-York-solo shows in the space of a month—because Metzger is 86 years old and just had a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London that covered the last 50 years of his career. But the e-flux show, despite its diminutive size, is a good introduction to the artist’s ethos, in which objects—and, to some extent, exhibitions—are secondary to activism, engagement, and participation.

Art has not been Metzger’s only or primary concern. He was born in 1926 in Nuremberg to Polish-Jewish parents, and shipped out of Nazi Germany in 1939 on one of the Kindertransport trains that sent about 10,000 children to Great Britain; his parents were killed in the Nazi camps. In 1944, when he was living on a commune, he decided to become an artist rather than a revolutionary. But his revolutionary leanings were never eradicated; instead, they became integral to his art making.

Metzger trained as a painter in the ’40s and ’50s. Then, in 1959, he published the “Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto,” which called for artworks to be produced with industrial materials and have a limited life span. Cardboard boxes were fixed to the walls of a gallery. Canvases and nylon sheets were burned with hydrochloric acid, reducing them to shreds. Metzger described auto-destructive art as “a desperate last-minute subversive political weapon” used by artists in response to the technological buildup of the world’s military powers.

Metzger co-organized the “Destruction in Art Symposium” in London in 1966 and declared an Art Strike from 1977 to 1980. He’s worked with the U.K.-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—but also created perception-bending works like the Liquid Crystal Environment, in which psychedelic images were projected, in some instances, onto rock bands like Cream, the Who, and the Move. More recently, he initiated Reduce Art Flights (RAF), a campaign to get art-world jet-setters to diminish their use of airplanes.

What’s also interesting about his career, however, is that it spans a half-century in which becoming an artist instead of a revolutionary wasn’t so straightforward. Where politically engaged American artists from the ’30s, like Ad Reinhardt, could claim art and politics as separate activities, ’60s artists like Donald Judd started getting called out, often by other artists, for being in collusion with wealthy and powerful individuals and institutions.

In this light, Metzger’s debut at e-flux feels like another chapter in the discussion of art, commerce, and politics, since e-flux itself represents the most recent wave of “progressive,” politically engaged artist entrepreneurship. Anton Vidokle, who founded e-flux, describes it as an “independent, self-financed artist-run project.” But e-flux is also synonymous in the art world with an endless stream of e-mails—sometimes four or five a day, targeted to an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people—advertising exhibitions, art fairs, biennials, and other events.

In another context, Vidokle would be called a promoter or an agent; here, paid publicity is described as “creating new conditions for production and circulation” in forms that are “less alienating than existing models.” (A hilarious exchange between Vidokle and a Swedish journalist is online at Dossier, where the writer asks, “How big is e-flux in economical terms? What is the approximate yearly turnover?” Vidokle: “Are you kidding me?” Q: “No. I’m from Sweden, a country where all information like that is public.”)

But I digress—or, actually, I don’t digress, since Metzger was involved with Fluxus—although, interestingly, he was often excluded from Fluxus events because he wanted to include political content. E-flux obviously cribs from Fluxus: linguistically, for starters. But also because George Maciunas, a founding member of Fluxus, was an early New York–based artist-entrepreneur. Maciunas took over buildings in Soho in the ’60s, registering them with the city as agricultural co-ops and turning them into artist-occupied Fluxhouses, a move that would eventually transform Downtown Manhattan. Members of Orchard, an early Lower East Side artist-run initiative, have cited Maciunas as a progenitor of the LES art-gentrification phenomenon, of which e-flux is a part.

Meanwhile, back in the e-flux basement, you can mine local newspapers and contribute to the current conversation on credit, extinction, and the way we live now. Within the first week, people had put up articles about Ai Weiwei, the Chinese activist-dissident artist being held by the Chinese government—interestingly, within this context, for “economic crimes”; an obituary of Hedda Sterne, the only woman included in The Irascibles, a famous photograph of Abstract Expressionist painters published in 1950 in Life; and an article about U by Kotex Tween, a new sanitary pad marketed for girls eight to 12 years old.

The project will shift and change over time, obviously. Events will become news, and on the magnetic board in the basement, a collective creative response will be generated. Then, perhaps you’ll get an e-flux e-mail like one I received recently for an upcoming symposium in Madrid where “immaterial producers” (that is, artists and critics) will consider new modes of “performing citizenship”—and you might be inclined to read that through a consciousness newly calibrated by Metzger’s work, as well.