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An Artist Who Tore Down The Old to Build The New

For years, I would encounter Gustav Metzger in public talks and at galleries, often away from the beaten track. He was always there, always watching and listening. At first I found him a bit intimidating. More recently, I would see him, looking slightly frail and small and in a certain disarray, struggling with bags of documents and other papers, as he went to and from where he lived in London’s East End.

His activities included the accumulation of thousands of newspapers and other ephemera, and he could appear a little eccentric and vulnerable. But impressions can be deceptive. Everything Metzger did had purpose, even his inveterate walks in the city he had known since the second world war.

From the 90s onward, appearances in large exhibitions – where Metzger showed, on one occasion, the congealed liquid slides he had once used for light shows with Cream and the Who in the 60s – located him among younger artists who regarded him as a sort of errant father figure.

For Metzger, who arrived in England on the Kindertransport in 1939, it was David Bomberg (whose background was also Polish-Jewish) who was a kind of father figure. Metzger studied with the painter for years at Borough Polytechnic – working in his influential life class alongside Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff – before choosing a different path.

A few years ago, he showed the sad wreckage of his early life drawings and paintings, the tattered remnants of his early paintings. They had the status of evidence. However, he continued to believe in the power and importance of art to a degree that might seem idealistic. Persuaded by the curators to take part in an exhibition Art Into Society, Society Into Art at London’s ICA in 1974, he produced a manifesto calling on artists to stop producing art between 1977 and 1980, in the first art strike.

Metzger was a paradox. He could, he thought, have been successful had he not been so political – he once gave a lecture on Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, a work he found beautiful, while at the same time complaining about the lack of ethics in the art world.

A small, intense and somewhat prickly man with twinkling eyes, his cantankerousness was at once political and personal. He had numerous arguments and fallings-out, not only with Bomberg but also with Lord Goodman(who supported him for a number of years), with Joseph Beuys and with John Latham. The disputes were ideological and artistic. Essentially a warm, kindly man, he could be recalcitrant, and would follow ideas to what seemed extreme conclusions.

His art made connections – in one work, between Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee’s watercolour The Angel of History, and Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann. He made works using archive newspaper articles on mad cow disease (prefiguring Roger Hiorns’ work on the BSE crisis) and, like Eric Hobsbawm andWG Sebald, worked against forgetting what had led to, and happened, in the Holocaust.

Art for Metzger could be painting or a drop of water sizzling on a hot plate; a piece of metal floating on the Thames, a display of 10,000 newspapers, a stack of refrigerators or 120 cars, or a group of inverted dead trees, their roots aloft. His lectures, manifestos and films all attested to his beliefs. It turned out he was right on many points. I shall miss his constant, agitating, difficult presence.

His auto-destructive art was an anti-capitalist gesture against global corporate power and domination, rather than simply a formal gambit. Metzger didn’t want to destroy art. Artists, he believed, had a responsibility to help society and to prevent future wars. “Can art do it instead of just politics?” he asked. “Art can do it. Art must do it. And I must be one of the artists who do it.”