Published  28/07/2014

Gustav Metzger: interview

Gustav Metzger: interview

“When I was young I wanted art that would lift off, that would levitate, gyrate, bring together different – perhaps contradictory  – aspects of my being. The search for – the need to encapsulate varying kinds of contradictory elements, the urgency of stopping sharp – extinct – twist and: razor-sharp endpoint. After the experience, we expand, reconnect with a normality which is not the same as it was. But normality once changed is not the same.” [Untitled, handwritten note by Gustav Metzger, p.2 exh. cat.]

Gustav Metzger: Lift Off!
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
24 May – 31 August 2014


Although Metzger (born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1926) is better known for his Auto-Destructive Art, he was simultaneously developing its counterpart, Auto-Creative Art, in the same lecture demonstrations and manifestos that took place from 1959. The current exhibition of his works at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, focuses on the lesser-known Auto-Creative works, contextualising these against film and archive footage. It is a significant homecoming for the artist who studied at the Cambridge School of Art in 1945.

Studio International was lucky enough to meet Metzger in his London Fields studio. After a brief chat about the magazine, with Metzger recalling his two contributions from March and October 1969, we turn to talk about his work, his motivations, and his scientifically driven techniques.

Anna McNay: In a manifesto from 1959, you described Auto-Destructive Art as “primarily a form of public art for industrial societies”. In what way is it public art rather than gallery art?

GM: First of all, because the works I had in mind when preparing this manifesto, and all my other manifestos, were always large-scale, they could have a direct impact on the population – more than you would have in private art galleries. My initial interest in art was sculpture, and sculpture very largely consists of public art. So, from the beginning, before even writing the first manifesto, I would say my chief concern was in the creation of large-scale, public works.

AMc:In the case of your Auto-Creative and Auto-Destructive works, do you still consider yourself to be the artist, or has the hand of the artist been absented?

GM: Oh, I see myself very much as the artist. Certainly. These works could never come about without my bringing them forward.

AMc:So your hand is very necessary?

GM: Yes, very necessary. It is often assumed that artists make work from models, and this is certainly the case with sculpture. With architecture, something can be designed from a very small model or a sketch – and that sketch might have been made during a lunch or coffee break. The tallest building in western Europe, the so-called Shard, maybe began life as a sketch on a serviette, and now it’s very big. Here, I will bring in a quote of mine, and I think it’s from the lecture [I gave] in 1965 at the Architectural Association: “The artist works like the architect.” That explains my approach. This was a very important lecture, which, after it was given, was printed, I think by students. There were 300 copies, and when they had gone, I organised a second edition of 1,000 copies. In this lecture, I attempted and, I think, succeeded, in summing up what it’s all about: Auto-Destructive Art, Auto-Creative Art, the essence of it all. I speak of the relationship to architecture and, among other things, how the architect gets a fee relative to the cost of the building. I suggest the artist should be treated in a similar way – given an income that is agreed on in principle by society. In one breath, I do away with the endless struggle of the artist who never gets paid, or, if he does get paid, receives a pitiful sum.

AMc:But then, surely, the artist would only work on commission, if he had to be paid in a similar way to an architect?

GM: Not necessarily only. The artist could still do private work for him or herself. I think, when you read the text and when you look at other works, other statements of mine, you’ll find that I’m very liberal in my concern that everything is done reasonably and fairly. I think it’s totally unfair to expect, as society does, the individual artist to sustain himself in daily life and to create something. This is no existence. If art is created in a vacuum, it usually stays in a vacuum, and so artists accumulate work and don’t make enough money to survive. For me, art was, from the beginning, not just something I wanted to do, but something that had to be an ongoing social transaction between the artist, the architect and whoever, to create a beautiful whole.

AMc:Is that what you meant when you spoke of the need to create a new artistic sensibility?

GM: Yes. I concerned myself with the overall, entire focus of an idea from conception to realisation. And that’s exactly why I didn’t succeed – because nobody else thought like that. The people who give out commissions don’t think like that.

AMc:You believe you didn’t succeed?

GM: I didn’t succeed! There is only a single work of mine that’s bigger than this table in a collection, and that’s a sketch made specifically for an exhibition in Germany a few years ago.

AMc: But you’ve certainly succeeded more than many artists.

GM: Only in terms of acceptance, and that, again, is only in the past 10 years. Until then, I had an enormous struggle even just to get my ideas in print.

AMc: What is your opinion of artists who have become large commercial successes, such as Damien Hirst, for example?

GM: I have to judge individual works. His most impressive work was the one with the flies. This was a major statement summing up an enormous amount of facets of art in his time. But the other exhibitions, for example the exhibition he had very recently at White Cube, where he brings in religious motifs, I thought it was laughable. And so I wouldn’t like to judge this artist on his overall work. Some of it is brilliant; some of it is just laughable.

AMc: Your work has always had a political side. You’ve said before: “The artist acts in a political framework, whether he knows it or not.”

GM: I certainly intended there to be political statements made through my art and for there to be a fusion between the segments that are largely poetical and those dealing with other matters.

AMc: When you started making these works in the 60s, you were dealing a lot with communism and capitalism. Have your ideas and works evolved as politics have changed, or do you think the underlying issues and statements have remained the same?

GM: Certainly my stand against capitalism as a principal problem of society, that hasn’t changed at all. I’m as opposed to capitalism as ever – even more so. I see capitalism as at least as dangerous as ever, if not more dangerous than ever. People thought that, after the big crash some time ago, capitalism was finished, but I said no, it would just recuperate and get even stronger, and this is what is happening.

AMc: Your art then was also rebelling against the galleries and the establishment.

GM: It still does.

AMc: The situation has surely got worse?

GM: In as far as there are more galleries than ever, and the power of galleries is greater than ever, and the endless kaleidoscope of fairgrounds, fairs, etc – one fair succeeding another, almost back to back. That wasn’t there when I started criticising the galleries. And I’m still very much opposed to it, this endless need to bring out a new something to attract the attention of the curators, or the critics, or the owners of the galleries.

AMc: Presumably you’re not against galleries per se? Just the way they work? Or would you abolish galleries altogether?

GM: Actually, I shouldn’t even think of things like that because I’m in no position to abolish anything. It’s not practical for me to reflect on what I might do, because I can’t do it.

AMc: If you had the power for one day to do whatever you wanted …

GM: Well, I wouldn’t concentrate on galleries because there is so much else of far greater significance. So much else could benefit: for example, the NHS. When you look at the headlines, it’s a grim picture. So I would be concerned with health. The simplest beginning would be to change children’s diets, to take away what we know to be so damaging, and to simply not give it to them. That would be a quick and cheap start.

AMc: Another thing you spoke of back in the 60s was a need to lower the tempo of life. Again, the opposite has happened, hasn’t it? Everything seems to have sped up.

GM: Yes, with computers and electronics and an entire range of technical and artistic possibilities – it’s not all bad. Artists are benefiting from the developments – like myself, with liquid crystal. It didn’t exist as a practical, day-to-day material, and now it’s available – to me, at least. It seems that no one else wants to use liquid crystal, which astonishes me because it’s so beautiful.

AMc: Tell me a little more about liquid crystal, how you came across it and how you work with it.

GM: I came across it in a shop in the West End of London, in one of those shops that sells large quantities of journals from around the world. There was one journal that, on its cover, had a picture, a full cover, of a liquid crystal slide from a microscope. I began to look for the material, which was very difficult to find, and I eventually found a way of projecting it from the slide on to a screen. That was the beginning.

AMc: Have you worked with it ever since?

GM: Yes, indeed. The latest development is a project in Mexico, where a small group of people, including myself, are working on plans to allow poor people access to liquid crystal. We are planning igloos, where people could go at the end of the day, over the weekend, in their spare time, and enjoy the colour phenomena. We hope this will be realised at some point in the future.

AMc: Presumably, you need some level of scientific knowledge to work with some of the materials you use?

GM: Yes, we have a colleague who is now an expert on liquid crystal.

AMc: So you’re not an artist working on your own? You have a team.

GM: Quite, yes. There is a small team who work on getting the information and the material together. We support each other.

AMc: But you must understand how it all works yourself, in order to have the ideas. Is your scientific knowledge all self-taught?

GM: Yes, it came together bit by bit. We found what we needed. It’s on quite a simple plane. It’s not creating magic. You just need the basics.

AMc: It looks like magic for the audience, who don’t understand how it works.

GM: Yes, I see your point.

AMc: Do you see art and science as separate disciplines, or do you see them as overlapping somehow?

GM: Yes, that would be one way of putting it: overlapping. Certainly the science we use with liquid crystal is very basic. But, on the other hand, if you haven’t got this basic information, which I didn’t have for about six months, life is very difficult, very frustrating. To come back to the point regarding why more people aren’t using liquid crystal, I think we also come back to the point that the artist, for a long time now, has been expected to be original, to bring forth something that has not been done before. Now to a lesser extent, but we still have that cloud of expectations. Someone isn’t an artist until he or she creates something that has not existed before. This has its good side and its unhappy side. And that’s one reason why other artists aren’t using liquid crystal. It’s assumed that I’ve done that, and, I hope, done it well. I think it’s right that artists are expected to push the boundaries.

AMc: Do you believe there are still new things to be discovered?

GM: Oh, indeed, a vast amount. And I look forward to enjoying them. But we are in this predicament whereby artists are expected, endlessly, to create new works. Artists do like a challenge; they like to feel they are being stretched. And that’s how Auto-Destructive Art and Auto-Creative Art came about, by, in this case, my need to go beyond that which exists. And I can tell you, in my case, it was a physical need: my body ached to go further into the unknown. It wasn’t just my mind. It was a total immersion in the capacity of the human to go beyond what exists. The artist needs to go into the unknown. It is an existential need.

AMc: Do you remember how you felt when you made your first piece of Auto-Creative Art?

GM: Great elation. It’s a terrific feeling when you break through something that you don’t quite understand.

AMc: You knew that you’d come upon something?

GM: Yes, something big.

AMc: You say in your manifesto: “When the disintegrative process is complete, the work is to be removed from the site and scrapped.” Do you fear that, in years to come, people might attempt to preserve the remains of your works for their value in being associated with the artist’s hand?

GM: Yes, there is that risk, no doubt, and that’s the reason why I’ve made it so clear that that is not what is required. Nobody benefits from such preservation, and so I was quite brutal in saying it’s got to be scrapped.

AMc: So you’ve set out your wishes …

GM: Yes, as clearly as I could.

AMc: And you just hope people respect them.

GM: Yes, I think they will.

AMc: What about with the Auto-Creative Art?

GM: That can stay. Again, to come back to the Architectural Association lecture, there it is stated very clearly that Auto-Creative Art does not have the ideology of Auto-Destructive Art. Auto-Destructive Art is laden with ideology, with dos and don’ts, with hopes and despair. Auto-Creative Art opens up the possibility of art remaining very much as it is. It doesn’t say you have to destroy this, it just says you can use it. It has possibilities, in emotional terms, of joy and liberation. It operates on a different plane and its intentions are different. Auto-Destructive Art is a puritan manifestation of this world, which puts limitations on the kind of art that you can make with it.

AMc: But the two developed hand in hand?

GM: Well exactly, and that is the point. As I was working through the possibility, the potential of each, I tried to create the maximal freedom for each direction to, as it were, fulfil itself. It was a bit like sculpture: you take a bit off and it changes the picture. Then you go on chiselling until you are satisfied, and then it is done. Again, here, I’d like to remind you that I started as a sculptor. My first interest was only in sculpture. It never occurred to me that I might be painting one day. That came about, to a large extent, through my studies and my relationship with David Bomberg. When I came to his class, in the first instance, it was a drawing class, drawing from life, and occasionally drawing St Paul’s Cathedral. We would come together on a Saturday morning under his direction and draw St Paul’s. And so, the chiselling away of the theoretical basis took place before the publication of the first manifesto in 1959. It was a full-time job, a full-time activity. It soon became an obsession. It was also a race against time because it was obvious that, if I had a good idea, somebody else would have a good idea, and that’s exactly what happened. [The Swiss painter and sculptor] Jean Tinguely came upon a similar idea and worked feverishly in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art to get his ideas and his work together. And it was a race, which I won because my first manifesto was published in the Daily Express two days before Tinguely’s demonstration in New York. And I knew that. I knew the date. And I knew that he was being given a lot of support.

AMc: And you never worked with him?

GM: Unfortunately, no. I only met him one year before his death, in Basel. When I met him, he was on the point of travelling to Moscow for a big retrospective of his work, and, a year later, he died.

AMc: Do you admire his work?

GM: Certainly, he’s a very important artist. It’s just such a pity that we did not spend more time together. It’s my fault. When I met him, eventually, in Basel, he gave me four telephone numbers where I could reach him. But I didn’t use them.

AMc: Was part of the reason that you wrote the manifestos to get ahead in the race against time?

GM: As I’ve said, it was a physical need to get it all down, to get it out of me, to make something of a coherent whole. The knowledge and ideas were a constant inner pressure. There was a need to get it right. There were several manifestos and they came together into a whole.

AMc: Do you still maintain the same ideas today? Do you think that they’re just as important as they were then?

GM: Yes. They stood the test of time very well. But I’m not really so concerned now with art. My concern in recent times, and in the foreseeable future, is with the theme of extinction of the world. That, of course, also ties in with Auto-Destructive Art. At different times in my life I have felt the duty to speak out. One, of course, was with nuclear disarmament and the active participation in demonstrations and in the formulation of ideas in the Committee of 100 [a British anti-war group founded by Bertrand Russell in 1960]. These were obsessions. But always, over the past 10 years, it has been this theme, which, I’m sure you will agree, is becoming the real issue. So Auto-Destructive Art is connected, but it’s not a priority. This is an ongoing issue. Nobody knows what will happen, but it won’t go away. It’s a sad world we live in.

AMc: Are you fearful for the future?

GM: Oh, yes. Machines and weapons are destroying the world, and it seems nothing can stop them. We can only behave intelligently towards this overwhelming power, which, at the centre, is nature. But it’s hard to formulate a response. We are faced by what appears to be an insoluble task: the turning of entire civilisations towards supporting the overwhelming needs of the non-human forms of life on Earth. Such radical social changes have occurred in the past and, at times, have been accompanied by bloodshed. The Manhattan Project was a secret code name for the American plan to make the first nuclear bombs. Vast resources and huge sums were deployed. The race against extinction can be presented in comparable terms, but here all the aims are strictly peaceful.

Facing extinction is a race against time; species disappear as we take in these words. If we lose this race, then we have to face a future that is lost. The legal professions have a key role in turning society around. Laws and procedures need to be changed to keep pace with new developments. We need to construct a range of penalties for offences against nature. Animal rights and the protection of species and furtherance of their existence are so crucial to human survival.

AMc: Are you still creating new works? Is there any future project you hope to realise?

GM: I think any new works will inevitably be connected with this theme. I may surprise you, but I want to spend time painting: oil painting or tempera. Or pastel. It’s again just something that is somehow necessary. I hope to achieve something different: something helpful to me and, perhaps, to others. Whatever may happen in the future, we are alive now; we are fully alive. And the first need of life is to find out where one is. Finding out where we are is the most important task, and we need courage for that. And energy. And love. WH Auden’s line, “We must love one another or die”, is, I think, really the key. 

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