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Gustav Metzger has died aged 90

The man who developed the concept of auto-destructive art also worked with musicians such as Rhodri Davies and Annea Lockwood

The artist and political activist Gustav Metzger died on 1 March at his home in London. He was 90 years old. Metzger was born to Polish Jewish parents in Nuremberg, Gemany, in 1926, and in 1939 he moved to the UK with other Kindertransport refugee children fleeing Nazi Germany. Metzger studied art at Sir John Cass Institute in Aldgate East (1945–48) and later at Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (1948–49).

His childhood experiences, witnessing the rise of Nazism and becoming a refugee, influenced much of his work in later life, which explored society's will to destruct. A political activist as well as an artist, Metzger held lectures and symposiums, and took part in demonstrations, At one demo against nuclear weapons he was arrested for civil disobedience. Metzger first publicly noted his concept of auto-destructive art in his manifesto dated 4 November 1959. As quoted in Art Forum, Metzger had said: “When I saw the Nazis march, I saw machine-like people and the power of the Nazi state. Auto-destructive art is to do with rejecting power.” He worked with many media including sculpture, fine art and public demonstrative works, which on 22 June 1960 had him apply hydrochloric acid to white nylon sheets, a work later recreated in 2004 at London’s Tate Britain.

In his 2010 exhibition Blow Up: Exploding Sound And Noise (London–Brighton, 1959–69) curator David Toop included Metzger as part of a network of sculptors, musicians, poets and film makers in 1960s London that was united by a shared noise aesthetic in the shadow of nuclear weapons. “Metzger’s lecture to London’s Architectural Association in 1965,” noted Wire contributor David, “given at a time of utopian rhetoric about the future technological revolution, accurately predicted the dystopian consequences of environmental pollution, the psychological pressure of continuous noise and vibration, the anti-heroic trajectory of modern war. ‘To survive,’ he said, ‘capitalism must continue to expand production. It is boom or bust!’”

Metzger has worked with and/or influenced many artists and musicians. The Who’s Pete Townshend famously noted Metzger’s impact on his work, and Yoko Ono has also expressed admiration. Indeed in 1966 Metzger co-organised the Destruction In Art Symposium which featured Ono alongside Ivor Davies, Juan Hidalgo, John Latham, John Sharkey and others. Other composers and musicians who have worked with Metzger include composer Annea Lockwood and, in 2008, Rhodri Davies, who collaborated with him in a series of events called Self-Cancellation, in which artists performed a public exploration of the principles of self-cancellation in sound, featuring Benedict Drew, John Butcher and others. Intermedium Records released a compilation entitled A Tribute To Gustav Metzger in 2008. Compiled by Justin Hoffmann, it featured artists’ and musicians’ responses to Metzger's influences.