Monday, May 30, 2011

Metzger's "Historic Photographs" at the New Museum: At Age 85 Artists' Hero Finally Gets a U.S. Museum Show

London-based Gustav Metzger — he’s influenced artists as farflung as Paul McCarthy and Santiago Sierra but may be best known here as the one whose work was mistaken for rubbish at the Tate — at age 85 is finally getting his first U.S. museum show.

It appears it’s just too late — or perhaps Metzger’s the victim of bad curatorial choices — judging from what the New Museum presents as “Historic Photographs.”    It’s appropriation art –  with photos taken by others — of the worst kind.

 The exhibition is a series of installations featuring images of environmental degradation and traumatic 20th-century events — children fleeing napalm in Vietnam, a roundup of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, Israeli soldiers standing over Palestinians.

Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, first version 1995, recreated 2011.  Photo taken 1943 with rubble added 2011
Metzger has blown up the photos, and sometimes obscured them and sometimes hidden them entirely.  The intent, according to the artist, is to make us experience familiar images anew, even physically — to break through what he perceives as emotional “numbness” caused by media saturation.

The series, conceived in 1990, had its first two pieces shown in 1995.  Its number has expanded over the years, as have its venues.  The New Museum is showing twelve, the most complete display yet.   As an environmental protest, neither Metzger nor his work flies, so whenever the series is shown it is rebuilt locally.  Everything at the New Museum was made in New York.

The series has been banging around in one version or another for some time.   The concept’s age shows, or maybe it’s just that the artist, once considered ahead of his time, has now fallen behind.

Radical Politics and Techniques

Way back when, Metzger was known for challenging the art world and the public with radical politics and techniques.

In 1959 he issued a manifesto calling for “auto-destructive” art — art that would have a short life because the work would contain the seeds of its own destruction or be destroyed by its creator.  It would use industrial materials to create a public art for an industrial society.

Destruction became his theme as well as his technique for attacking capitalism, nuclear weapons, pollution, and dealers and collectors who, in his words, “manipulate modern art for profit.”

Gustav Metzger
It had its origins in his own experience as a child who grew up in Nazi Germany.  He escaped to England as part of the Children’s Transport.  His parents were killed.  “Those twelve years (in Germany) totally dominate my life, and will do to the last moment of my life,” he told the Guardian in 2009.  For a 1962 show he described himself as an “escaped Jew.”

On the London streets in the 1960s, he painted large sheets of nylon with hydrochloric acid, which destroyed his “canvas” while creating beautiful patterns on it.  (See video here.)  He wore a gas mask, suggesting nuclear catastrophe and Nazi gas chambers.

In 1966 he organized the Destruction in Art Symposium, drawing artists worldwide.  Yoko Ono had audience members cut away her clothes until she was naked.  An Australian artist slaughtered an animal.  Metzger was charged by the police with putting on an “indecent exhibition.”

In the 60s he inspired Pete Townsend to smash his guitars on stage, experimented with scientific processes, and used liquid crystals to create light installations (photo here).  He’s been credited with inventing the psychedelic light show.

“Disgusting Bastards”

He took on environmental destruction in the 1970s, before other artists were even thinking about it.  For Project Stockholm, for example, conceived for a U.N. conference, Metzger proposed lining up 120 idling cars around a transparent cube that would collect their exhaust fumes.  In the second part of the project, the cars would blow up the cube.

In 1974 he called for a three-year art strike, saying artists should spend their time studying rather than colluding with rich collectors and institutions.  When artists didn’t join him, he is reported to have called them “disgusting bastards.”

Kill the Cars, first version 1966, recreated 2011. A beat-up car in front of a photo of a beat-up car accompanied by an audio intoning, "Kill the cars."

Metzger himself produced no art from 1977 to 1980 and pretty much disappeared.  He moved to Frankfurt.  He studied in the Netherlands.

In 1994 he returned to London and was recognized as something of an artist-hero by a new generation of artists and by influential curators, including Hans Ulrich Obrist, who in 2009 organized a 50-year retrospective of Metzger’s work at London’s Serpentine Gallery.

"Historic Photographs"

Since his return, Metzger has been working on, among other things, “Historic Photographs.”

The exhibit, with its photos of violence and trauma, presents themes Metzger’s obsessed with and also returns to his own childhood trauma.

Half the installations feature photos from Nazi Germany, beginning with the 12- by 20-foot photo of Jews arriving at Auschwitz that confronts you from about three feet away as the elevator doors open on the fourth floor.  That photo rests on the floor, which for the photo’s width is covered with wood planks.  To the left, at right angles to the photo, are vertical bars that appear to be aluminum (view looking left from elevator, below).

It’s a far cry from the brash experimentation of his earlier career.

The first problem is the literalism:  wood planks = boxcars that took the Jews to the camps, the bars = the prison that was Auschwitz that also imprisons the viewer, a forced “you are there.”

Second, everything about this art is tired.  Big works in small spaces to overwhelm the viewer have been around for a long time. Enlarging photos to make 20th-century horrors present are a commonplace at, for example, history museums.

And disembarking at Auschwitz as a you-are-there, inescapable event has been an installation at D.C.’s Holocaust Museum for, oh, about 20 years.  There it’s Disneyfied — you walk through an actual boxcar seeing only a mural-sized photo at the end of it — but still, the concept is obvious, trite.

“I get it, I’ve seen it” infects this show.  A pollution piece called “Kill the Cars” is an actual beat-up car, its windows smashed, in front of a photo of a beat-up car.  A roundup in the Warsaw Ghetto is accompanied by a pile of broken bricks — the rubble of a destroyed ghetto (top).

With two installations, Metzger invites the viewer to become physically involved with the photos.  One you can see only by walking behind a curtain that hangs in front of it, the other only by crawling under a heavy yellow blanket.

Try experiencing art when you’re boxing with a bunch of cloth — not possible and somewhat ridiculous.

Anschluss, first version 1996, recreated 2011.  A viewer experiences a photo while boxing with a blanket.

Sometimes the photos here are hidden from view entirely, placed behind a piece of steel, for example.  “The fundamental concern here has been to reveal by hiding,” Metzger told one of the curators.

That sounds nice, but I wonder how history can be revealed if the facts are hidden, or how we can experience photos anew if they aren’t there to be seen.

The photographs when visible are searing.  They don’t benefit from Metzger’s help.

Kudos to the New Museum for introducing Metzger to a broader New York audience.  Next time, let’s see work that lives up to his reputation, if there is any.

“Historic Photographs,” New Museum, 235 Bowery, through July 3.

Photo of Metzger from Wikipedia.  Other photos:  Laura Gilbert

Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert.