Gustav Metzger: Historic Photographs


“Gustav Metzger: Historic Photographs” is the first solo museum exhibition in the United States of the influential eighty-five-year-old artist and activist Gustav Metzger.

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“Gustav Metzger: Historic Photographs,” 2011. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley

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For over fifty years, Metzger has worked across a variety of mediums to touch on issues of war, consumerism, and ecology. This exhibition presents the artist’s complete series of sculptural installations titled “Historic Photographs.” Begun in the mid-1990s, these works confront the viewer with some of the most powerful and tragic images of twentieth-century history, capturing events including the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City bombing, and environmental destruction in contemporary England.

Metzger conceived of the “Historic Photographs” as a radical response to the desensitization towards images of death and destruction in society and the loss of historical memory. He reconfigures each of these iconic photographs by enlarging, obscuring, or hiding them from view using simple but evocative materials. Instead of a momentary glance, the “Historic Photographs” require an engagement with photography that is intimate, tactile, and prolonged. They create powerful physical experiences that transmit the emotional and intellectual weight of history. Instead of creating memorials to the past, Metzger’s works are gestures of social activism with the expressed intention of rebuilding our understanding of and sensitivity towards historical trauma.

As a survivor of the Holocaust, Metzger has first-hand experience of displacement and destruction that shaped his subsequent outlook on the relationship between art and society. Initially trained as a painter, Metzger also published the Auto-Destructive Art Manifesto (1959), which called for the production of artwork with industrial materials and a limited lifespan that, in his words, “reenacts the obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected.” These ideas were most dramatically realized in London in 1961, when he sprayed sheets of nylon with hydrochloric acid, burning them to tatters. Since that time, Metzger has continuously viewed his role as an artist as one that seeks radical social and political change. His works have taken the form of ephemeral objects, participatory installations, or radical proposals for collective action including his art strike and his recent initiative Reduce Art Flights. The “Historic Photographs” are representative of Metzger’s career-long consideration of how an artwork can critique and transform the way we live in the world.

“Gustav Metzger: Historic Photographs” is curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Associate Director and Director of Exhibitions, with Gary Carrion-Murayari, Kraus Family Curator.

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“Gustav Metzger: Historic Photographs” is made possible by the generosity of the Leadership Council of the New Museum.

Additional support provided by the Robert Mapplethorpe Photography Fund.

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