Agitator, In Absentia: This Time, Gustav Metzger Lets His Art Do the Talking

Kill the Cars (1996) by Gustav Metzger.

Given Gustav Metzger’s age and international stature, it’s hard to believe that the 85-year-old artist and activist is only now having his first major U.S. exhibition, at the New Museum through July 3, and that it comes on the heels of his first solo presentation this side of the Atlantic, also on the Lower East Side, in the basement gallery of e-flux until July 30.

Whether you’re moved by the elder statesman’s sociopolitical meditations or find them “blunt, heavy-handed and trite,” as Ken Johnson did in the New York Times’s scathing review, Mr. Metzger was a pivotal art-world figure in the 1960’s and has had a burst of activity in the late autumn of his life. But when you consider the intensely political and ephemeral nature of his installations, that Mr. Metzger operates completely outside the confines of the art market, and that he doesn’t travel by plane or even use a computer or telephone, it isn’t really all that surprising that we haven’t seen him here yet.

The artist’s relative obscurity and economy of means intrigued Massimiliano Gioni, associate director of the New Museum, who curated the exhibition and liked the idea of showing “incredibly simple but resonant work somehow done with nothing in a city where everything is super-produced.” Mr. Metzger’s modest, almost frail demeanor belies the breadth and ambition of his output. Born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1926 to Jewish parents from Poland, he was evacuated to England on a 1939 Kindertransport; his mother and father perished. This formative trauma has defined his life and art, inextricably linked in pursuit of radical social change.

Although the Holocaust is treated directly in much of his work, Mr. Metzger’s call to arms across five decades has encompassed avant-garde campaigns against the nuclear and space races, environmental pollution, mass consumption and the commodification of art. As he put it somewhat hyperbolically in 1961, before accepting a jail sentence for civil disobedience: “The situation is now more barbarous than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment.”

Artistically, Mr. Metzger first articulated this philosophy in 1959, with his manifesto of what he called Auto-destructive art, in which he proposed primarily public works with lifespans of only a few moments to no more than 20 years. The concept was embodied in his 1961 Acid Nylon painting, which Mr. Metzger demonstrated on London’s Southbank, donning protective clothing and a gas mask as he sprayed hydrochloric acid onto three large colored sheets of nylon stretched over a metal frame, causing the “canvases” to disintegrate. Liquid Crystal Environment, conceived in 1965-66, put forth a more redemptive theory of so-called Auto-creative art, with heated crystals in glass slide frames transforming into kaleidoscopic spectral projections.

The New Museum focuses on more recent—and tangible—art objects, bringing together for the first time in its entirety the 12 sculptural installations from Mr. Metzger’s “Historic Photographs” series, begun in 1990. Featuring iconic images of tragedy from the 20th century that are blown up but then obscured or outright concealed with various materials including fabric, fluorescent lights, bricks and metal, these constructions invite viewers to physically and emotionally engage with catastrophe.

The entry point simulates the experience of the first image encountered, The Ramp at Auschwitz, Summer, 1944, depositing visitors upon weathered wooden planks as they exit the elevators to immediately confront a selection of Hungarian Jews freshly arrived at the death camp. To Crawl Into—Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938 lures viewers underneath a sheet to assume the prostrate position of Jews forced to scrub the pavement in the covered image on the ground.

Agitator, In Absentia: This Time, Gustav Metzger Lets His Art Do the Talking