Gustav Metzger is the most influential artist you’ve probably never heard of

Metzger created auto-destructive art to confront a society determined to destroy the planet. William Cook on an artist-cum-activist who was truly ahead of his time

Wednesday 28 July 2021 21:30
<p>Metzger practising for a public demonstration on the use of acid on nylon, 1960</p>

Metzger practising for a public demonstration on the use of acid on nylon, 1960

At Hauser & Wirth Somerset, a sleek art gallery in England’s West Country, a new exhibition has just opened by an artist you’ve probably never heard of – yet his influence has been immense. This man didn’t just shape the course of modern art – he was a pioneer of green politics, and a tireless campaigner against climate change.

A stateless refugee, he lost most of his family in the Holocaust. He arrived in England with nothing, he remained dirt poor throughout his life, and yet he inspired countless artists and activists. So how did Gustav Metzger become such an important figure, when hardly anyone outside the art world has ever seen his work, or even knows his name?

This elusive exhibition provides a few tantalising clues. The first room is a psychedelic light show, like something from a Sixties pop concert. The second room seems more conventional, until you take a closer look. The abstract paintings on the walls are striking, but it’s the tapestry in the centre of the room which really arrests the eye. It looks as if it’s been torn apart by wild beasts. On closer inspection, you realise it’s been sprayed with some sort of acid, which has eaten away at the material, creating a weird otherworldly pattern.

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