Gustav Metzger was born in Nuremberg in 1926 to Polish-Jewish parents and was evacuated to England as part of the Refugee Children Movement in 1939. He lived and worked in London until his death in 2017. For 60 years, Metzger had been a vehemently political artist and activist. In 1966 he initiated the “DIAS - Destruction in Art Symposium” in London, and invited artists from all over the world - among them the Vienna Actionists and the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai. The evanescence, the self-destruction in Metzger’s works was also targeted against the international art market, as a rejection of the monetary exploitation of art. An illustration of this position is his spectacular and momentous demand for the art strike in 1974.
Gustav Metzger’s drawings from the 1950s
In the contemporary art world Gustav Metzger is perceived as the creator of “self-destructive” and “auto-creative” art and as the author of numerous manifestos. He is also known as the initiator of an art strike that was supposed to draw attention to the precarious conditions in which artists work. That is to say, a man of concept who, not unlike Marcel Duchamp, albeit with different means and strategies, sought to sound out the possibilities and limits of the artistic in the post-traumatic age after WWII.
But who would have guessed that Gustav Metzger’s oeuvre also features drawings, that is, a comparatively conventional form of artistic expression? This has only become known rather recently. Many drawings and sketches, which would be attributed to the early 1950s, are neither dated nor signed. They were all found in the attic of a distant relative where they had been left lying, unnoticed for decades.
For the art public the emergence of these works may have come as a bit of a shock, since now Gustav Metzger can be seen in a new light, while for the artist himself it was but a natural stage in his development. During his training he attended David Bomberg’s drawing class for a long time: “There we had to work after life and after nature. Sometimes we drew St. Paul’s cathedral.”
This quasi-academic background at least left some traces in these drawings created until 1959 right before his first manifesto was published. With their clear structure, sometimes appearing vertical and then again diagonal, these works resemble architectural drawings. Again and again Metzger would note how fascinating he found it that a huge building like the Shard Building in London could emerge from a small sketch on a paper napkin. Looking at his drawings one gets the impression that the tissue of abstract lines and the hatchings thrown onto the sheet in shades of red and violet chalk, seen as if through a gauze veil, might reveal figurations - less clearly recognizable formations than hallucinatory chimera. These are visions of possible architecture captured in colors and forms that could be joined together in fascinating constellations as weakly outlined future potential, their allusive effects becoming deployed when seeing many of them at a time.
In Gustav Metzger’s drawings tradition and abstract-expressionist present merge in a sort of dessin automatique. What we witness here is the immediate transfer of perception and concrete materialization on paper. Metzger’s imperative, clearly aimed at the destruction of the artwork, does not seem to come to bear. The drawings occupy a third space between auto-destruction and auto-creation and are certainly not autobut rather only the creative product of the artist’s hand. With the formal turbulence and the emotional agitation that pervades his sheets he seems to be in line with an observation made by Clement Greenberg on American abstract artists at about the same time: “The chromaticity, the vertical, the concentric, the fusion of forms all that does not exist for its own sake but first and foremost for the emotional sake. If these works fail in expressing and conveying feelings, they fail altogether.”
(Thomas Miessgang, 2018)